Alia Karim

Research and reflections on Cuban agriculture

February 8th: Sancti Spiritus

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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.

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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.

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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

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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..

Author: aliakarim2013

Master of Environmental Studies candidate at Dalhousie University ('14).

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