Cuba Field School Week 1

Technically speaking I arrived in Havana, Cuba early Monday morning around 2 am. For the airport we travelled to INCA on a bus that legit had metal seats and looked like it was about to fall apart. INCA is the National Agriculture Institute that is located just outside of San Jose de las Laias in the Mayabeque province. The room’s house 4 people with bunk beds and you get your own bathroom to share with those 4 people. Although the beds are a bit uncomfortable the grounds are beautiful.

For our first class we talked about INCA and a little bit about the history of agriculture. INCA was founded in 1970 and since then has been a major factor in developing Cuba’s agriculture to what it is today. One interesting comment that was mentioned today about education and what people study was that not everyone can just study international relations at university you have to be aligned with the socialist government and be approved for study.

Another interesting aspect of Cuba’s agriculture that I noticed was the 3 categories that the agriculture industry strives to operate through which is social, economic and environment. I found this comment interesting as with the European Union is talking about not importing products from countries without sustainability certificates and it puts into perspective the balancing act that exists between the social, environmental and economic aspects of farming. These three categories are what the EU are proposing needs to be meet in order to acquire the sustainability certificate.

In terms of my personal farming experience I thought it was interesting to compare the sustainable agroecosystem management techniques with what happens on my farm in terms of treating the entire farm as a whole system that produces more than it individual components. This is similar to crop rotation effects as you sometimes grow a crop that will benefit the soil and future crops but yields less than that other crop you could have planted.

I found it interesting to learn about the different strategic areas of research that are studied here at INCA. Most of them make sense as areas of study to myself and I would hope that in most aspects everyone is studying to understand those strategic areas. Going along with the research side of things of that I found interesting was the collaboration with women. As much as we would like to say women are apart of agriculture in Ontario the majority of people involved with agriculture and with the high management positions are men.

On day 2 the morning was spent learning about the history of Cuba starting with Christopher Columbus’s arrival up to the revolution. I found it interesting to hear about history instead of reading about it in a textbook or watching a documentary about it from a Canadian or American perspective of even from a European perspective we got to hear from a Cuban perspective, which is different, than what most textbooks perspective would probably be. It is also interesting to compare the farming practices that are occurring today to the farming practices of the indigenous populations of Cuba. Some of the current day practices are similar which is interesting to think about how far Cuba went away from those practices and then eventually came back to them.

I found it interesting as well that when we talked about the indigenous people and their way of life it was interesting to see how peaceful a society they were as the geographic distribution between groups was significant enough that there was little interaction. It wasn’t until the Spanish invasion that violence became part of an everyday occurrence in their lives and the Spanish mostly initiated it. It is known that Cuba has never indicated an armed fight with the US unless during the revolution but that can be thought of as defending themselves as the Americans came into a fight that wasn’t theirs to begin with.

In the afternoon we went to Old Havana to the Revolution Museum, which is housed in what used to be the presidential palace. I loved the architecture of the building and the tour that we received even if it was a little long. It was interesting that they had and were restoring different parts of the palace and that they thought it was important to uncover the bullet holes of the revolutionary attack on the palace. I thought is cool that we were able to see the bullet holes and how perfectly round and big they were.

After the museum tour we walked around Old Havana a little bit and we got to see La Florita bar and restaurant that Hemingway visited and there is sculpture of his bust in the bar. We had some free time to look at some different shops and relax a little bit.

Day 3 started out at INCA’s experimental farm and we rode on a tractor and wagon to get there, which is definitely not allowed anymore in Ontario, even in the country. At the farm there are a variety of different crops from potatoes, which is probably the biggest crop that is grown to corn, yucca, different tree fruits and vegetables. It was interesting to see how the agriculture practices had to adapt after the US put the embargo into effect on Cuba. We learned that for a while it was difficult and although it still is they are managing to over come it. The experimental farm was helped when Venezuela put money forth to get the energy from the mountains and set up the irrigation systems so that the crops can grow and not have as much stress to deal with during the growing season.

It was interesting how openly we were told about the how much the workers get paid and how the profit of the farm is divided. Fifty percent of the profit from the farm goes to INCA and the fifty percent goes to the workers. The workers also get a bonus from the government of anywhere between 1000 – 5000 pesos which is given every three months. The amount of the bonus is based on who has worked the most and been productive and the farmers decide this. Everything on the farm is chemical free and ecological and there are not many machinery that can be used in the field. For the fertilizer that is put onto the land they compost the manure from the cattle and use that compost as the fertilizer. For the farm the seeds are imported from Canada, Holland and Poland because of the high quality and disease free aspect, which is good due to the chemical free aspect of this farm.

In the afternoon we heard more about the history here in Cuba from the Revolution to today. It was interesting to expand from yesterday’s lecture on the history and to hear about the personal stories of Bertoli. Hearing about how the educational training of being able to read and write was more important in the revolution army than fighting as he became the teacher for reading and writing instead of learning to fight. Bertoli’s comment about how a socialist society cannot be born within a bourgeois system made you stop and think and realize that he is right and it cannot be completely switched.

The final note that I will make about the way in which Bertoli spoke about the Americans and the way it seems most of our speakers talk about the Americans is with a distrust and despise that I can see continuing still for years to come.

 

 

Day 4 was our discussion about agroecology in detail. It was interesting to expand on the knowledge from my second year course a couple years ago that was about agroecology. Today was a lot of review of that class but also was a reminder as I had taken that class almost a year ago. Some of the important concepts that I feel are worth mentioning are about the space ad timing importance of planting crops and choosing the correct crops to be planted. Everyone involved with agriculture knows that the soil is a key component of crop growth but it was interesting to hear that importance of soil emphasized again today.

Biodiversity and diversification of crops was key on the Costa Rica trip and was talked about almost everyday. Comparing both tropical agriculture systems to that of the systems back home you really put into perspective how monoculture our crops are even if we don’t plant 100’s of acres in a row of the same crop rather smaller acres of fields in the same crop it is still monocropped.

Another interesting point that was mentioned was the importance of biomass and retention of crop residue, which has become an issue in the states and a little bit of Canada. People want to remove biomass and crop residues for biofuel production and there are areas where this is being done. Personally I think this is a horrible idea even if you are not taking all of the biomass off the field. There are areas that have already been cleared that could grow biofuel crops that are also considered marginal land. However, this marginal land could also be used for animal grazing and so there is a large debate over the production of biofuel crops.

There are two other concepts that I found important about Leyva’s talk today. The first was that a key component of agroecology is that it can be subsistence farming that feeds the farm family and possibly the surrounding communities. Although this doesn’t have to be the case in all countries this is key for Cuba. The second important point is that agroecology can systems are more resilient and this is good due to climate change and the increases extreme weather events.

Other interesting topics to note are the 7 principles of agroecology which are on farm recycling, managing organic matter, minimizing loss due to the sun, diversification of crops, time and space requirements, maximizing the synergy of the system and finally increasing or sustaining yield. The two laws of ecology are also important to note which are the law of production competition and the law of facilitation.

Overall today was very informative as it was a refresher from a previous agroecology class as well as some new concepts mixed in.

Day 5 – our Friday of the first week in Cuba! We visited Ernesto’s farm that is basically just across the road from INCA. He showed us all around his 3 hectares and talked about the different crops that he grows on the farm which include yucca, corn, beans, bananas, coffee, lemon, coconut, squash, cacao and avocado. Only some of the crops that he grows are under contract to the coop. The rest of his crops are either for self-consumption of for private sale although he doesn’t do a lot of private sale. The bananas, corn, yucca and beans are grown for the coop contract and the rest of the crops are only grown for private consumption. Ernesto sells some of the beans as a private sale because the coop doesn’t come every three days to pick the beans up and he would have too much to feed his family.

I loved visiting the farm to see the integrated crops. The crops that were integrated were corn and beans, corn and squash, bananas and coffee and a little bit of cacao and coffee. The bananas and coffee integration doesn’t work as well due to the bananas not providing enough shade for the coffee but it does all right. Ernesto isn’t sure that it was such a good idea to plant cacao and coffee as there might be too much shade for the coffee plants. The beans, corn and squash seem to do all right in an intercropped system.

Also on the farm are chickens, pigs, bunnies and bees. The chicken is used for eggs and meat, the pig is used for meat, the bunnies are also used for meat and the bees are used for their pollen, honey and wax which all have medicinal properties. The bees are a local race and are very docile and you can open the lid of the box and they just stay where they are. The bees also do not have any stingers, which is great in my opinion.

One future change that Ernesto is planning is to take out a majority of the bananas and plant and heirloom variety of lemon that survives droughts much better than any other crop. It’s leaves were still lush green compared to the plants around it that had wilting, dying and no leaves present. Due to the drought Ernesto also had a problem with coffee leaf beetle and he said that if he could have used a little bit of chemical on each tree that he could have avoided that problem as the insecticide lasts six months. I’m not sure if unfortunately is the correct word to use but Ernesto can’t use chemicals as coffee is not part of his coop contract and so he can’t buy the chemical that he needs.

For me it was interesting to compare the diversity of crops and integration of crops that grow well together to my system back home that does use a diversity of crops but they are all planted as a monoculture crop. I also compared today’s farm with the integrated farm in Costa Rica that we visited that was quite literally planted in a forest. I would have to say that the integrated farm was quite unique and I’m not sure you could find that anywhere else.

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed week 1 of the trip learning about the history and different aspect of agroecosystems from a Cuban perspective.

 

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