Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Seeds of change in Cuban farming

Seeds of change in Cuban farming
By Michael Voss
BBC News, Camaguey

It could be a scene straight out of the Wild West: a homesteader
struggling to tame a wilderness and turn it into productive farmland to
provide a living for himself and his family.

But this struggle of man against the land is happening in the central
province of Camaguey in Cuba.

Jorge Alcides has no electricity in the simple wooden home he built for
his pregnant wife and two children.

He milks his three dairy cows by hand, sitting on a handmade stool. He
and his son plough the fields using oxen. But he is not complaining.

" If you don't work the land you should lose it and let someone else
take over "
Jorge Alcides

"I'm really happy, it's different when you work for yourself rather than
being paid a wage," he said.

Communist Cuba is undergoing one of the largest land redistributions
since Fidel Castro's revolution in 1959; only this time it is leasing
state-owned farmland to the private sector.

In a bid to boost production and reduce costly imports, President Raul
Castro is offering small plots of unproductive state land to family
farmers and private co-operatives.

Around 1.7 million hectares (4.2 million acres) are up for grabs. So far
about 86,000 applications for land have been approved, with tens of
thousands more Cubans hoping to participate.

Back-breaking work

Last year, Mr Alcides received an extra 13 hectares of land, with a
promise of more if he makes it work.

The catch was that all of it was covered in a thick, impenetrable shrub
called "marabu".

It is like a bramble on steroids - a nightmare to get rid of. The weed
can grow up to 4m (13 feet), has deep roots and is so dense that once it
takes hold nothing else can grow.

Mr Alcides is part of a private co-operative which gives him access to a
1960s Soviet-built tractor with a locally built rotary cutter attached.

It's still back-breaking work. After the shrub is cut, it must be burned
and its roots dug out.

The fields had been part of a state-run collective farm which had been
allowed to go to waste.

"If you don't work the land you should lose it and let someone else take
over," Mr Alcides said.

He has managed to clear about three-quarters of the plot and so far this
year he has produced some 10 tonnes of meat, fruit and vegetables.

Private markets

The Renato Guitart Co-operative is a collection of individual
smallholders: 187 private farmers who have joined together for
investment and to share equipment such as tractors.

It has grown by almost a third over the past year and now covers about
520 hectares (1,300 acres) in the green fertile plains of Camaguey.

Mostly this is cattle country, dominated by large state-run farms. But
the co-operative produces a wide range of fruit and vegetables, along
with meat and dairy.

Agustin Perez, a member of the co-operative, is working hard to meet the
demand for fresh lettuce.

His grandfather first worked this land, concentrating on salad crops
such lettuce, cucumbers, radishes and onions.

In the past private farmers were tolerated; now Mr Perez believes they
are being actively encouraged.

It is not just about extra land. Another key reform is that private
farmers are now legally allowed to take on hired labour.

"There has been an enormous difference in the last two years. The
authorities are paying a lot more attention to us. Now we earn more
money because we are selling more food," he said.

Mr Perez is able to sell everything he grows to privately run farmers'

Early every morning, stall holders arrive to collect whatever is freshly
picked .Some come on horse and carts, others on converted bicycles with

Other members of the co-operative though, like pig farmer Jorge Viera,
still have to sell to the state and rely on inefficient state transport.

Mr Viera recently cleared almost 30 hectares of marabu and has planted
maize and root crops to use as animal feed. He hopes to boost meat
production by 20% this year.

"We sell our basic quota to the state at a not very good price," he
explained, "but for anything above the quota the state pays a much
higher price."

Food imports

Agricultural reform was at the heart of the Cuban revolution. Shortly
after taking power in 1959, Fidel Castro nationalised the large estates
and sugar plantations, many of them US-owned.

Small-scale family farmers were allowed to keep their land but
increasingly the island turned towards huge Soviet-style state-run
collective farms.

It has not worked.

Last year, Cuba spent $2.4bn (£1.5bn) on food imports, much of which
could have been produced on the island.

The large state farms have proved highly inefficient, and allowed as
much as half of the land to become overrun with weeds like marabu.

Today, about a third of Cuba's farmland is in the hands of small-scale
private farmers and co-operatives, yet they produce about two-thirds of
the food.

Handing over unproductive land is only part of the equation. Farmers
still need access to tools, seeds, fertilisers and other necessities.

It is starting to happen but is often bureaucratic and unwieldy.

In Camaguey, part of what the state pays private farmers for their
produce is in the form of accumulated credits or bonus points. These can
then be exchanged for goods at newly created special farm shops.

According to the local small farmers' association, average earnings have
risen to around $200 a month, roughly 10 times the national average.
Some are making significantly more.

Incentives, like the profit motive and productivity-related pay, are
reappearing after half a century of an idealistic experiment in
egalitarian socialism.

It is too early to tell whether these reforms will be far-reaching
enough to make a dramatic impact on food shortages.

But if private farmers are seen to be successfully boosting production
and earning a better living, then President Raul Castro is likely to
face increasing pressure to push through similar free-market reforms to
the rest of the economy as well.

Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2009/09/30 12:21:16 GMT

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