Cuba is a special case. Many are now familiar with the fact that the end of the Cold War ushered in a period of extreme deprivation in Cuba, when its strong economic ties with the Soviet Bloc and Easter Europe were cut almost overnight. This is what Cubans call “The Special Period”. But as Nelson (a rabbit “rancher” that I met at his home in Havana) put it, “In Cuba, it’s always a special period.” Cubans could begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel by about 1999, but there have been two recessions since then, and of course the US economic embargo against the island continues to this day.
What this means in terms of urban agriculture is that Cuba, out of necessity, made tremendous leaps and bounds in the 90s, and they have continued to refine and improve their urban farming infrastructure since then. In some Cuban cities, up to 80% of the fruits and vegetables consumed in the city are grown in the city. In Havana this is closer to 50%, which is still very impressive for a city of more than 2 million people.
The reason this is particularly relevant for us in the “developed world” is that the story of Cuba is not like that of many developing countries in Africa and Asia and even elsewhere in Latin America. Until the end of the Cold War, Cuba was very much a developed country with a highly educated population. Then they went through what some observers have called an artificial peak-oil collapse. The Cuban people responded with creativity and intelligence to this unprecedented new challenge. In addition to urban agriculture, they’ve found countless other ways to be more self-sufficient and use less energy. It’s not surprising, then, that a 2006 World Wildlife Fundy study found that Cuba is the only country on the planet that can be considered sustainable.
What is becoming more and more clear is that we in the devoloped world are not living sustainably, and that therefore, inevitably, we will eventually have our own special period. Many people say that going to Cuba is like taking a time machine to the past. In some ways this is true – vintage cars from the 50s are still everywhere. But after my visit, I’m inclined to argue that Cuba is indeed a time machine, but not to the past: instead, it’s a glimpse into a future where we in the developed world are producing more of our food and living more sustainably. Cuba is therefore invaluable for us to learn from as we chart our own course to become more sustainable in preparation for the challenges that await us. Even those vintage cars are an example of reusing and recycling. On the outside they’re pure 1950s America – Ford, Chevrolet, Dodge – but on the inside they’re mostly running on repurposed Japanese and Soviet engines. Nobody in Cuba gets a new car when their two year lease is up.
I interviewed Roberto Perez Rivero for the film while I was in Cuba. In the last few years he has travelled extensively to give presentations about the Cuban story as well as to teach permaculture workshops in Latin America, Asia, Australia, Canada, and the US. He had a lot of great things to say that gave me new insights into what I’ve seen around the world in the last several months, and his perspective will definitely inform the film as it takes shape during post-production.
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