Cubans in Cuba

















Cuban soils face degradation and await greater farmers’ productivity

Ivet Gonzalez IPS

Few people know Carlos Manuel Borrero by name. Even in his own neighbourhood, at the San Miguel del Padron municipality, on the periphery of the Cuban capital, they call him the “Rubber Man” because his planting beds are made of old tires.

La Melisa, his farm, offers a challenging landscape with its almost two thousand vehicle tires that cover most of its 4.28 hectares located over a slope and stone and sand quarry that Borrero and his wife, Dunia Rivas, manage in keeping with a sustainable mode of agriculture that helps them improve the low productivity of their soil. Because of this and other problems the couple, established there for 17 years, started experimenting with recycling and alternative ecological techniques for the past 2 years. They managed to make their small production of fruits, vegetables and herbs profitable, and, as they argue, the innovations led to an increase of 70 % of their production.  “This is a highly degraded soil on top of a slope” Borrero explains discussing soil degradation as the main environmental challenge of the land he owns in San Miguel, one of 15 municipalities surrounding Havana.  It is also a challenge for all Cuba and its 11.2 million inhabitants as low productivity of foodstuff affects everybody; Cuban production covers less than 30 % of people’s total needs in this crucial area.

Borrero uses most of the tires to make high beds for planting --three tires on top of each other filled with soil where to grow cabbage and tarragon. Other tires are piled in an area were nothing is growing yet; they are being treated weekly to protect them from becoming contaminated while they await being re-used. Borrero and Diaz represent a small segment of Cuban farmers concerned with soil conservation and engaged in sustainable agriculture. Most farmers are still unaware of the importance and value of caring for the soil and favoring sustainable agricultural methods.

Living with soil degradation
Cuba, with a total surface of almost 110 000 square kilometers (or 10. 9 million hectares), has about 57% of the land (or 6.22 million hectares) dedicated to agriculture.  According to the Cuban Land Institute (IS, Instituto de Suelos) of total Cuban agricultural land almost 77% faces some challenge to productivity (erosion 43%, compactness 14%, lack of organic matter 70%, salinity 14%, low humidity retention 37%, low fertility 45%, stones 12% and inefficient drainage 40%).

In Cuba more than 30% of agricultural lands is in the hands of state businesses and farms; 45% is worked by agricultural coops and 24% belong to small farmers such as Borrero and Diaz here in La Melissa.  The National Program for the Improvement and Conservation of Soils (Ministry of Agriculture) has since 2001 improved, and continues to improve soils one way or another, but there is still much to do. In 2012, there were 737 000 hectares of agricultural surface registered and receiving some type of improvement, this number grew to 932 000 hectares in 2016 (as reported by the National Office of Statistics and Information) but such environmental advance represents benefits for 15% of the agricultural land and more than 22% of the cultivated land of the country, but much remains to be done.

Borrero explains that, In his intensive farm and within its beds “there is natural soil from this area which I constantly improve enriching it with organic matter from waste or leftovers from my own produce.”  Now the tires with crops cover about 0.7 hectares of his total farmland, but Borrero hopes to take more space with a peculiar design that will fill with soil only the top tire while long bands of rubber in the center serve to filter water and lead to improved use of this resource.

Women are also present
Using creative forms, the tires decorate the garden of a humble family where Rivas had the idea of using tires as flower pots to save water. Then Rivas asked Borrero for help making larger beds with tires for planting, substituting this way less durable barriers they used (such as plastic bottles) to make terraces and cultivate crops, the idea emerged.

“There were problems with water, we did not have good beds and we worked really hard but our work did not paid well…so I started to think” she remembered. They humanized their work too using higher beds so they did not have to bend so much when planting and caring for their crops.
The couple has not met other farmers recycling tires like they do but they know many farmers in their community work at improving their land asking specialists for proper evaluations so they also qualify for monies from state funding for the environmental work they do.

Supporting Farmers
In the urban surrounding areas of Havana, Egidio Paez, president of the NGO Cuban Association of Technicians in Agriculture and Forestry (ACTAF in Spanish) which brings together more than 2600 technicians, explained that more than 90% of producers are committed to some form of work to improve the soil.  ACTAF focus is on increasing knowledge favoring ecological agriculture. It has more than 25 000 members in Cuba.  According to Paez the first challenge in managing soil is lack of knowledge, which is followed by lack of interest so their work is increasing interest on ecological practices. ACTAF provides support to farmers responsible for producing 15 tons of vegetables from 35 000 hectares of land that surround Havana.

We need more time and we have to work harder to improve our soils, Paez argues, soil is the most valuable resource of any country according to UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Producers know how to improve soils…We have shortcomings and changes in our practices to make and we need to follow up with producers and there are also challenges connected to bad practices that are entrenched in conventional agriculture.  At the same time that we are teaching, however, we need to make drastic decisions ensuring state regulations are at the level of scientific advances and in keeping with decisions made to transform Cuban agriculture.

We have to nourish the soil with organic matter, as recommended by the Cuban Institute of Land, we can use leftovers from the crops, organic fertilizers, compost and worm humus; we have to reduce farming, make contention walls and live barriers (with plants), and we have to include areas of woods and forests, all these are among the best practices for healthy soils.  Since 2010, the Cuban Institute of Land, is installing demonstrating places to show in practice how to manage the soil, water and woods and forests in a variety of ecosystems in the Cuba. There were 34 such sites in 2016, including 845 farms, which benefited more than 12 thousand hectares of land.  For the first time in 2017 the Agency of the Environment in Cuba offered a prize and a certification of areas started in sustainable soil and land management, this is a good way to encourage farmers towards conservation.

(Translated from Spanish by Nora Fernandez)


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