Cuba’s agroecology movement: Sustainable peasant agriculture and food sovereignty

Also see The Food Sovereignty Movement in Venezuela

If you love Cuba so much…

By Raj Patel

Want to know what a sustainable climate-change-proof agricultural system might look like?  Here’s an example from Cuba, in an academic paper written by my friend, comrade and former boss, Peter Rosset, together with folk from Cuba’s peasant agriculture movement. The article’s free to download (for now), but the key parts from the abstract are:

“Our key findings are (i) the spread of agroecology was rapid and successful largely due to the social process methodology and social movement dynamics, (ii) farming practices evolved over time and contributed to significantly increased relative and absolute production by the peasant sector, and (iii) those practices resulted in additional benefits including resilience to climate change.”

Admittedly, there’s a bit more jargon here than I’d like, but the short of it is that there wasn’t a governmental grand plan to make sustainable agriculture flourish so much as a network of peasants communicating, sharing, and innovating. Most important, agroecology is successful in Cuba because peasants know how to organise.

This is a finding that’s important outside Cuba but, here’s the surprise, also important within – the Cuban government is still a refuge for Green Revolutionaries, for civil servants wedded to the same ideas of top-down, technocratic twentieth century agriculture celebrated by Big Agriculture outside Cuba. The punchline to Peter’s article is this: if the Cuban ministry of agriculture loves Cuba so much – especially in a time of greater climate uncertainty – it ought to support, not hinder, the demands of its most productive, sustainable and resilient peasants.

* * *

The Campesino-to-Campesino agroecology movement of ANAP in Cuba: social process methodology in the construction of sustainable peasant agriculture and food sovereignty

[This article first appeared in the Journal of Peasant Studies, volume 38, issue 1, January 2011, pages 161-191. It is posted here for fair-use non-commerical educational purposes. Click HERE for a PDF version of the article.]

By Peter Michael Rosset, Braulio Machn Sosa, Adiln Mara Roque Jaime and Dana Roco vila Lozano

[Peter Michael Rosset is a member of the technical support team of La Vía Campesina. He is also a researcher at the Center for the Study of Rural Change in Mexico (CECCAM), an associate of the Center for the Study of the Americas (CENSA) in Berkeley, California, a visiting research scientist of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and co-coordinator of the Land Research Action Network (www.landaction.org). Braulio Machín Sosa was a technical cadre of the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP) in Sancti Spíritus province in Cuba. He has since been named national coordinator of the Movimiento Agroecológico de Campesino a Campesino (MACAC) of ANAP. Adilén María Roque Jaime is professor of agroecology at the “Niceto Pérez” National Farmer Training School of ANAP in Cuba. Dana Rocío Ávila Lozano is a militant of the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) of Brazil, and is professor at the “Paulo Freire” Latin American University Institute of Agroecology (IALA-Vía Campesina) in Barinas, Venezuela. IALA is an international university for the sons and daughters of peasants and indigenous people, created jointly by La Via Campesina and the government of Venezuela.]

Agroecology has played a key role in helping Cuba survive the crisis caused by the collapse of the socialist bloc in Europe and the tightening of the US trade embargo. Cuban peasants have been able to boost food production without scarce and expensive imported agricultural chemicals by first substituting more ecological inputs for the no longer available imports, and then by making a transition to more agroecologically integrated and diverse farming systems. This was possible not so much because appropriate alternatives were made available, but rather because of the Campesino-a-Campesino (CAC) social process methodology that the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP) used to build a grassroots agroecology movement.

This paper was produced in a ‘self-study’ process spearheaded by ANAP and La Via Campesina, the international agrarian movement of which ANAP is a member. In it we document and analyze the history of the Campesino-to-Campesino Agroecology Movement (MACAC), and the significantly increased contribution of peasants to national food production in Cuba that was brought about, at least in part, due to this movement. Our key findings are (i) the spread of agroecology was rapid and successful largely due to the social process methodology and social movement dynamics, (ii) farming practices evolved over time and contributed to significantly increased relative and absolute production by the peasant sector, and (iii) those practices resulted in additional benefits including resilience to climate change.

Introduction

Recent years have seen increased interest in agroecology among peasant organizations and rural social movements around the world. In the case of the rural peoples’ organizations that belong to La Va Campesina (LVC), this is due to a convergence of factors. On the one hand, participation by national organizations in a global social movement has largely politicized the question of how land is farmed. This is especially because LVC views the contemporary period as characterized by an historic clash between two models of farming: peasant agriculture versus agribusiness (Rosset 2006, Martnez-Torres and Rosset 2010), where reproducing the agribusiness model on one’s own land — by using purchased chemicals, commercial seeds, heavy machinery, etc. — will also reproduce the forces of exclusion and the destruction of nature that define the larger conflict. There is an increasing search for alternatives by the grassroots membership of LVC member organizations, partly in response to the dramatic fluctuations of prices of petroleum-based inputs over recent years, putting these inputs largely beyond the reach of many peasant farmers (Schill 2008).

The past three to five years have seen virtually every organization in LVC around the world attempt to strengthen, initiate, or begin to plan its own program for promoting, to varying extents, the transition to agroecological farming among their members.1 Although Holt-Gimnez (2009, 2010) has argued that agroecology has in practice been largely the provenance of community-based organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) rather than national peasant organizations and social movements, this, while once partially true, may now begin to change. Over the past three years LVC has given a key role to its “International Working Group on Sustainable Peasant Agriculture”. Among other tasks, this Working Group (with a female and a male representative from each of the nine regions in which LVC divides the globe), under the leadership of the National Small Farmers Association of Cuba (ANAP) and the National Union of Peasant Associations of Mozambique (UNAC), is charged with strengthening and thickening internal social networks (Fox 1996) for the exchange of experiences and support for the agroecology work of the member organizations. This includes identifying the most advanced positive experiences of agroecology, and studying, analyzing and documenting them (sistematizacin in Spanish) so that lessons drawn can be shared with organizations in other countries.

One of the first tasks carried out by the LVC Working Group was to document the experience of the Campesino-a-Campesino Agroecology Movement in Cuba (MACAC), based on the general feeling that it was the most illustrative case of “sustainable peasant agriculture” and of farmer-to-farmer extension methodology. The analysis reported in this paper (and in Machn Sosa et al.2010) is the result of this internal work. LVC and ANAP jointly designated a national-international team to study the Cuban case, consisting of a male and a female representative from ANAP in Cuba, and a male and a female representative from LVC outside of Cuba. The idea behind such a composition of the team was to have gender balance, and to produce a report that would be useful inside ANAP and Cuba and in other countries. The main objective was to carry out an evaluation of the Cuban experience and identify possible new steps for the future of ANAP’s work and that of peasant organizations in LVC in other countries who are planning and/or carrying out their own work with agroecology. The authors of the current paper were the members of the team that carried out this study. We traveled the length and breadth of Cuba two times during 2008 and 2009, visiting cooperatives and individual peasant families in 13 of the 14 provinces. We visited dozens of farms and held exchanges and workshops with farmers to collectively reconstruct the history of the agroecology movement, its achievements, weaknesses and challenges. We also met with ANAP leadership from the cooperative and municipal to the provincial and national levels, as well as government officials, policy makers, researchers and others who have direct relations with, or are experts on, the agroecology movement. Finally we reviewed virtually all the internal files and documents of MACAC, complementing our access to national level agricultural data, and to cooperative level data from Sancti Spritus province. This paper is the outcome of this self-study process.

The remainder of the paper is organized as follows: the next section is a brief review of the fundamental principles and logic of agroecology, followed by a more macro, historical overview of the development of Cuban agriculture on the eve of the revolution and onwards. This is followed by a brief review of the contrasting approaches of conventional and farmer-to-farmer extension work, before tracing the history of MACAC in Cuba — its beginning as a project or program within ANAP and its transformation into a national movement — along with the evolution of agroecological farming techniques in Cuban agriculture. Finally, we turn to the presentation and analysis of lessons, challenges, impacts and achievements of MACAC (including data on increases in peasant food production output), followed by a short concluding reflection.

Click HERE for a PDF version of the article

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