Alia Karim

Research and reflections on Cuban agriculture

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February 10th: Camagüey

“It’s like you get it in your blood, you like it” (Camilo Mendosa speaking about Cuban agricultural lands)

“Agroecology is like the lungs of humanity…and makes sustainability possible” 

This was the best day ever, hahaha. I got on top of a Cuban water buffalo, helped roast a pig, ate starfruit and guava straight from the land, and spoke to a wonderful, wonderful Cuban family. We were absolutely spoiled by them and I’m so grateful for their kindness.

Camillo Mendosa

Camilo Mendosa

Ron told us a fascinating urban project happening in the city—apparently 6 hospitals in Camagüey have gardens that are state enterprises. These are similar to Canadian community gardens—there are people (referencias) who have plots. They have an outreach member who teaches others for free (it’s a funded position), so he teaches people to grow in their backyards which they will sell to social projects in the immediate area. As well, the local government keeps records of these small gardens for research purposes and to offer resources. What an amazing level of cooperation and ingenuity in this kind of urban agriculture.

We visited a farm called “El Renacer” (“The Rebirth”) led by Andres Perez, an electrical engineer and farmer. Here are my notes:
– small, private producer who inherited land from his grandparents
– however, his family has been active on the farm for only the last 5 years
– divided his total land into 3 smaller farms
– today they are a national example
P1110306Raúl Castro declared their farm to be a prime example of urban agriculture
– the land used to be filled with a dense, nasty weed called maribu that pinches the skin but they cleared it with machetes and grazing with goats
– animals: chickens, hens, pigs, cattle, rabbits, and water buffalo (not common for Cuba)
– they have a special species of cattle that naturally produces 10L of milk/day
– all of their meat is sold to the state and then distributed
– use sugarcane, king grass, and their own compost tea for forage
– they emphasize renewable energy (e.g. they have wind and are working on biogas)
– they have a windmill using materials from the neighbourhood
– there are currently plans to build these wind mills at the national level
– it’s important to note that this family has basically worked for 4 years straight—no breaks

– their second farm is 2 years old, headed by Camilo Mendosa
– Camilo used to work in food services but he says that he’s always been draw to the countryside
– they have 60 varieties of fruit trees: 400 mango trees, 1000 papaya trees, 20 cashew trees, passion fruit, newly planted mango, apple and avocado
– they rely on polycultures of trees


In the farm’s field of ornamental flowers

they have more plans to do intercropping of pineapple, bananas, coffee and mango
– they’re planning a specific design to grow tall mango trees and then coffee and pineapple
between which grow well in the shade (also I saw where little piglets like to hang out!)
– their farm is doing so well, they received solar panels, and an irrigation system from the government 
– their waste from the pigs is going toward a biogas system
– they use organic hormones on plants (a combination of phosphorus and fortified humic acid)
– they implement guava culture with grafting
transplant different varieties—often, this makes the roots of seedlings grow faster
– there are plants that stimulate growth of roots (e.g. aloe vera)
– they cut trees and wet them with compost tea too
– Camilo has a specific method of composting: use residuals from harvests, manures, layered with guava cuttings, then grass
– they also use pieces of tubes to oxygenate the pile
– the pile generates its own heat, but it becomes too cold Camilo will mix it to get the
decomposition activated
Another example of intercropping (using 600 plantain and 10 000 yucca plants between them)
– Camilo stresses agriculture without chemicals since it attracts more pollinators (good for the bees!)
– They also have medicinal plants
—Camilo explained that they have a plant called “cat claw” which they believe has been effective in treating their neighbour’s cancer as he has lived years longer than expected after using the plant
– They’ve taught agroecology to kids

IMG_1869They also gave a presentation called “La Nueva Esperanza”:
– Use animal traction for field work
– Their biological pest controls include “traps” using bright colours and honey (actually to attract certain insects) and techniques in intercropping
– They want to maintain biological balance on the farms
– They distribute their traps evenly so the whole area is diversified
– Overall, they have 58 species of fruit
– Can produce up to 150 tons of their own organic fertilizer in one year
– They produce fruits that otherwise have low propagation in the province

This was such a great example of cooperation amongst this family and their neighbours. I feel bad most of the time because they absolutely spoiled us with food—constantly giving fruits and other produce from their land. It took 5 hours to roast the pig we ate!! I also offered to roast the pig for about half an hour, during which time I had a nice conversation in Spanish with a man named Ricardo—we talked about our families, particularly his children. I’ll never forget his kind face.


Biogas at the farm

In the late afternoon I wandered around Camaguey and found this bumpin’ street party around some local restaurants.

can tell that music is important in Cuban culture (I can hear it as I type this). There were so many different kinds of people that seemed to be really enjoying it. There are always some questionable ones though—as I walked back a man hugged me, kissed me on the cheek (I couldn’t quite get out of his grasp) and then offered me alcohol. But it was okay, his friends were there too, having a hearty laugh at us, and I got away pretty quickly.

At the hotel, I had two interesting conversations with some young Cubans. At the end of my meal I met the jazz band (“Muracajazz”) of the hotel restaurant. We talked about school, our jobs and our families (some of them are music students, one is a music teacher, and others are working elsewhere). I asked if they like playing music for tourists, if they find it repetitive at all. One said that he does this for 2 reasons: the love of music, and extra money. I had no idea that the hotel didn’t pay them—they only made money from tips. I could tell they did it for the love of music—I noticed their expressions while playing and that they experimented with some pieces. They explained that they formed the band simply through being good friends and wanting to play music. Later, we had a beer and chatted some more. I was quite amused because one of them, Eric, was too shy to speak to me, but he asked for my e-mail so we could talk later. I hope to see them again.


Eric and I after his band’s performance

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February 9th: Camagüey

Camillo Cienfuegos

Camillo Cienfuegos

Camagüey is where my newfound friend, Fernando Funes was born. It has about 300,000 inhabitants—much bigger than the other cities I’ve been to thus far, and quite a mix of lower income neighbourhoods and streets with quite nice infrastructure. Here we had lunch at a gorgeous restaurant. The meal was quite simple—rice, yucca, cabbage, and black beans on top—but it was by far the most delicious meal I’ve had here. It all complemented each other so nicely.


Fruits and vegetables are now often sold directly in the street

We visited an organopónico that specializes in ornamental plants, fruits, and special woods. It is actually a part of Fernando’s organization ACTAF that employs about 5 people. This organopónico is like others—very efficient because they really focus on environmental protection—they implement vermi compost using organic waste from a nearby market, grafting, and my favourite thing is that they educate people who buy plants from them—they tell their customers where the plant came from! They also have great biodiversity—50 varieties of ornamental plants; woods that are being preserved because they’re otherwise becoming extinct; 18 types of avocado (18!!!).

In the city we visited the Museo Provincial Ignacio Agramonte y Loynaz that was established in 1955. This museum had a modest but diverse body of Cuban paintings and installations. I was so impressed!! Some of the artists include: Eduardo Laplante, Armando García Menocal, Tomás Goul, and Wifredo Oscar de la C. Lam y Castilla. I was excited to see revolutionary art—one painting by Antonia Eiriz (“El Jurado”, 1995) was influenced by German expressionism, as seen in her use of dark colour and abstract shapes which also defied the image of women as frail and soft (so needless to say, I like her work). The images in her paintings looked like the figure in “The Scream”.

Farmers' markets reopened in 1994

Farmers’ markets reopened in 1994

Another painting I really admired was by Agustín Guadalupe Bejarano Cabellero (“Los Ritos del Silencio”, 1964). This painting basically depicted what he considered to be important moments in Cuban history—a rural worker, sugar factories and objects inherited from the Soviet Union. He also included many ‘ordinary’ objects that he considered to be art—this is an important statement because he was trying to show that you can find beauty in what are considered to be ‘ugly’, ‘ordinary objects. He also used a technique I’ve never really seen before—he added plaster to the canvas and led it dry, during which it made cracks—this was to symbolize human decay.

Abel told us about the Cuban education system:
– Education is free from primary school to university
– Usually, kids start going to school at 4 or 5
– Primary school classes don’t have more than 20 students, which is important for the children because it’s easier for them to focus with smaller numbers; but when they enter secondary school/university the class sizes increase.
– The kids receive lunches until secondary school, but sometimes it’s not of high quality so they also bring their own food
Student loans do not exist in Cuba—something we should tell the Canadian government…!

We ended the day by getting lost in Camaguey while trying to get to our apartment. Later, we passed by a city square that had a least a thousand or so people all enjoying a free concert. Then we saw some Cuban music performances at a house of artists. I met one of the singers and Fernando’s 80-year-old brother—so awesome that they still go out and enjoy Cuban music on weekends.

Fernando outside the home of his birthplace

Fernando outside the home of his birthplace


Amazing detail in this painting–symbolizing decay


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February 8th: Sancti Spiritus

Sancti Spiritus means “holy city” which was a name given to the city by Spanish colonizers. It is mostly an urbanized area and we stayed at the heart of the city, by a city square full of bustle (at any time of day). The city will turn 500 years old next year.

I had an important discussion with our interpreter, Abel. At breakfast, we talked about families because I really admired the family we met yesterday for establishing their farm to feed and educate the family. I asked Abel if he has family and he said no. He explained that he was a young adult during the “Special Period” (he was 22-years-old in 1994). At that time, no one wanted to have children—he didn’t think about the future at all; everyone focused on the present. He said that there were food riots on the street. Cubans even tried to emigrate to the US and elsewhere via raft but many were unsuccessful and drowned.

Abel showing me plantation

Abel showing me plantation

It got me thinking about how different my life is right now
(being the same age as Abel had been during the “Special Period”). He even said that students dropped out of university because it was just too hard for them—many had to work. Fortunately, for him, his father worked as a musician and received pretty good tips, so it wasn’t as hard for his family during the early 90’s. Still, it was hard for everyone. I’m surprised that Abel shared this with me because many Cubans feel stigma and refuse to speak about the economic crisis.

I asked Abel about José Martí—a Cuban revolutionary leader, who I had studied a little bit before I came to Cuba. José was born in La Habana who was the first member of the revolutionary party. His body of work is incredible—he wrote essays, plays, poetry and more. He wrote and spoke so much that, in Cuban culture, it’s common to be called a José if you speak a lot. He died at only 42 years old fighting against the Spanish rule (Cuba achieved independence from their Spanish colonizers in 1902). Abel explained that had he lived maybe 5 years longer he may have received the Nobel Prize. Many Cubans have been influenced by him—until now I’ve already seen tons of monuments and slogans by José. Abel also said that José was not a socialist or communist but a humanist—I’m still not sure about the implications of this word. But, quite simply, to be humanist means that one believes in humanity. This was a theoretical concept also advocated by Fidel during the 1959 Revolution.

Our first visit was the Antonio Nunes Jimenez Foundation for Nature and Humanity. This organization was founded by locals interested in environmental protection, and they host many students from abroad who come to Sancti Spiritus to learn permaculture.


Antonio Nunes Jimenez Foundation for Nature and Humanity

Today’s focus was on permacultural gardens. What we saw was absolutely unbelievable—basically all the sites were gardens converted from dumping sites. It was due to local leaders who wanted to covert the land. Of course, since the “Special Period” many abandoned lands and dumping sites have been allowed to be converted because they are held “in usufruct”. This means that the Cuban government gives people access to the land (for free) and they can keep it so long as it is used productively. This process has not always been easy however. One gardener explained that her land was going to be converted to be a military base but she was so desperate to save it that she sent a letter to Raúl Castro—he accepted her inquiry and said she could keep the land. Makes me wonder if that would ever happen in Canada…

The first permacultural site we went to was 334 square metres—it immediately caught my eye because the family who owned it had a rooftop garden. Again, this site was converted from a dumping ground. It was the most innovative use of outdoor space I think I’ve ever seen—they use rainwater harvesting, vertical agriculture (growing seedlings in tall, narrow plots), intercropping, solar drying, vermi composting, and the garden acts as an educational space for visiting students and younger children (they call it “circles of interest). Since they are limited for water they’re even digging a well (BY HAND)—they have 4m down to go.


Amazing permaculture design!

Canadians have interned there to learn permaculture design—they call it “tire heaven” because many of their designs have been used with tires. They’ve rescued 200 tires that would otherwise have been burned. It was absolutely incredible!! I’m baffled that they cut they cut the tire themselves—only with a knife. The designs from tires and used bottles are truly incredible and show the about of ingenuity in these gardens. The organopónico has a number of permacultural principles, including the goal to create more effective resource flows. We travelled up a rather unreliable ladder to the rooftop which did not disappoint—it has beautiful plants, a solar drying system, and an incredible view.

The second organopónico:
When they started they didn’t have a clear idea of permaculture; thus, they built their knowledge through relationships
– Ricardo received training through certificate program in the area
– Wanted unique design—to have combinations of different species
– “(Translated) It’s been a unique experience…It has allowed us to know all the potential”
– What they termed an urban family based system
– Another permaculture design using old bottles and tires
– Intensive work—many worked in hard rains—they had 800mm rain one year
– Constructed a well, bee hive, use greywater, burlap sacks to collect organic matter for fungi
– They plan to do more work with tire terraces to prevent erosion, want to make mulch pathways
– They have seed exchanges through ANJF and other permaculture sites in Sancti Spiritus which they consider to be like a family


Orelvis by the pond

Next we saw “El Ranchón” which was one of the first organopónicos in the country
. Like many others, it was started by a group of elderly members of the community—they told us that they used so many chemicals they knew them by smell; thus they are from the older generation of industrial farmers. Here, they haven’t appled chemicals in 15 years! One producer, Ismar, admitted that he didn’t this this scale of organic gardening was possible. Some notes:

– Founded in 1994 (worst years of the economic crisis) and have used permaculture since 2000
– Many are engineers in vegetable health
– They use mulch pathways—the mulch breaks down and is spread into the soil
– Special focus on soil health
– They’ve created niches for animals which invites them to graze and act as biological controls
– They produce 86% of their own seeds for the garden!
– Different sources of water: rainwater harvesting, wells and piping
– Permaculture is not about using more resources but the quality of design
– It’s hard work to maintain—they often start at 6:30 am and work throughout the day, taking some breaks in the afternoon to sell produce

Used bottles for their permaculture design

Used bottles for their permaculture design

That night we went to a Casa de la Trova, an outdoor music club with a house band that broadcasts on Cuban radio (it was top notch!). I was totally embarrassed because Fernando made me dance with the son that worked in an organopónico earlier that day. I still remember him—he had very beautiful blue-green eyes. The band was incredible—it was so nice to listen to live music and to be outside, right under the stars.

City life in Sancti Spiritus

City life in Sancti Spiritus

Later that night, I walked around Sancti Spiritus with Orelvis. He showed me his university where he is close to finishing his engineering degree. It takes him 15 minutes to bike to school. He said he was ashamed of his university—that it was just an ugly white block, but I thought it was quite beautiful and I really admired their mural of the Cuban flag. Orelvis had a sense of humor. He spent a while trying to convince me that we sleep about 8 hours a day, so that’s 1/3 of our lives; therefore, I should stay awake that night because we spend too much of our lives sleeping, hahaha. We hung out in at the city square where the hustle and bustle continued on..

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February 7th: Santa Clara to Sancti Spiritus


Lost in a sea of kids at the Che monument

We started off the day by visiting the Ernesto Che Guevara monument and tomb. It was a great site—huge sculptures of Che, the rebel army, and one monument of a letter from Che to Fidel. I think the reason why his tomb is in Santa Clara is, in part, because of the events in December 1958 that led to the capture of the city by revolutionaries under the command of Che. Che planned the dismantling of a train with soldiers from Batista’s army, which was key to securing the successful overthrow of the old government.

Monument dedicated to the rebel column that traveled through the Sierra Maestra

Monument dedicated to the rebel column that traveled through the Sierra Maestra

Fernando informed me that people from Argentina and Cuba come to pay their respects—it can be very emotional for them. It was fascinating to learn of Che’s commitment to Cuban people and close relationship to Fidel. There was a great photo of Fidel, Raul and Che in the museum. I was happy to learn that amongst people in revolutionary army was a female too, Haydée Tamara Bunke Bider (Tania). We often overlook the participation of women in the revolutionary movement. Outside, I met a huge group of schoolchildren who had “Che” inscribed on their school uniforms—that is how important this history is to the Cuban people, even today.

Next I saw my first organopónico
—“Patria” in Santa Clara. Organopónicos are intensive gardens, some even consider them to be farms, that used raised beds of soil to grow their vegetation. It was quite the sight to see these lovely gardens and backdrop of apartment buildings—such a nice contrast to urban life.

IMG_1096Organopónico “Patria”
– Created in 1995 and has over 23 plant types
– 6 members
– The lead gardener is 82 years old!
– Patria sells their produce to neighbourhood, including subsidized food to local schools
– Produce: lettuce, spinach, bok choy, garlic, peppers, tomatoes, herbs like rosemary and different kinds of basil
– They also use microjet irrigation and had screen canopy above the garden beds (when rain comes down it breaks down the water droplets so it’ll be easier on the plants, also makes the sunshine easier on the plants so they don’t dry out—a neat innovation!)
– Use intercropping techniques and mixed varieties
– They have a seed bank—mostly consisting of saved seeds in old rum bottles.

Seed banks using rum bottles

Seed banks using rum bottles–I agree with this logic

From there we briefly visited “Cinco Palmas”—an intensive family urban food garden led by an elderly couple (the Martinez’s) who decided to garden this abandoned land. What I loved about this urban garden is that they explained that they do it for their children—they want to make sure their children have food. It really touched me. They explained the ideals of José Martí and I even found books by Marx and Lenin in their foyer—something I’m not used to seeing.

In the afternoon, we visited “Natuarte”—a really cool botanic garden! It’s like a safe haven for artists and animals. The artists here have built almost everything—concrete and plaster walls for all the buildings, statues, animal fences, and paintings. They have many architecture students come and study there. A woman who was taking us through the tour explained that it was ambitious but now it’s blossomed into a great space, not just for artistry but also for sanctuary. Like Cinco Palmas, the land before it was used as a dumping ground, therefore it’s undergone huge changes led by people of the neighbourhood.

“La Vaillita”
– One of the most respected and advanced fruit farms in the country
– Produce: mango, pineapple, guava, macadamia, berries (even strawberries, and wine grapes which is not common for Cuban farms
– I asked how they obtain they seed and I learned that they receive seeds from all over the world
This farm is an educational centre as well, so people from around the world come to learn and also to exchange seed


This is probably the most biodiverse farm I’ve ever seen—they have over 250 varieties! They also experiment with seedlings and grafting. They’re main goals are seedlings and fruit, technology, agroecology, agricultural extension and training. It was truly impressive, especially considering it’s only owned by one family. Their farm also has vermicomposting (worms to break up compost) and beekeeping to help pollination. These ‘extra’ features on their farm express how capable a farm is of increasing biodiversity—they did not rely on expensive, ‘advanced’ technology. What I considered to be advanced was their level of thinking into these additional projects—I’ve really developed a high level of respect and awe for this level of agroecological intelligence.