Friday, September 30, 2011

Farming and Landholding in Cuba

Farming and Landholding in Cuba
September 29, 2011

An interview with officials of the Ministry of Agriculture (MINAGRI)
Fernando Ravsberg

HAVANA TIMES, Sept. 29 – The Ministry of Agriculture (MINAGRI) occupies
an enormous building near Havana's Revolution Square, the island's
center of power. It has 1.2 million employees across the country, a
third of whom are officials not directly connected with production.

Despite such a figure, its directors complained about the lack of
personnel necessary to advance the current land reform effort, an
essential area of the process of transformation being undertaken in the

The change is evident. "The cooperative and (individual) campesino
sectors (private) already exceed 50 percent of most productions,"
MINAGRI Vice Minister Ramon Frometa told us. In addition, he maintains
that this percentage will increase over the next few years with the
transfer of additional land.

Frometa, and Pedro Olivera, who is in charge of distributing properties
nationally, agreed to be interviewed by BBC Mundo. Frometa's first
words were, "Well…here I am behind the defendant's table."

And in a certain way he was right. Most of the campesinos with which
we've spoken accuse MINAGRI of constantly generating new rules and
regulations that have become the principal obstacles for the development
of Cuban agriculture.

Q: Why do farmers have that perception?

A: Each one would like to do what they please, but that's not possible.
It's necessary to be governed by laws and state institutions. In any
case, I believe that there's still a lot we have to do.

Q: Your office gives them land and then prevents the farmers from
building housing on it. Do you expect them to live in Havana and
commute to the fields every morning?

A: I believe it's necessary to provide them with facilities (for
construction), and the solution should come with the new law on the
transfer of land. Those are the things we have to improve.

Q: It took eight months to realize that the farm implements (plows,
seeders, cultivators, etc.) being sold to campesinos were too expensive,
even though an average of only seven were being purchased monthly across
the entire country. Your solutions seem a little slow.

A: At first we thought the sales would be greater. Though it was
considered slow, our decision was to do things right and not make
mistakes. When we commit an error, agricultural production is curbed,
and when that happens everybody says we're not part of the solution but
part of the problem.

Q: I know guajiros (small farmers) who have been offered tractors
donated from overseas but your office prohibits the entry of these into
the country. How do you justify that with the lack of equipment in Cuba?

A: The country has an import policy that must be respected. Also, to
import items (from the United States) we have to do it through third
countries because of the blockade. It's not possible for us to allow
anybody to import whatever they want. That wouldn't be consistent with
our own discipline.

Q: The guajiros blame MINAGRI for having organized a redistribution
system that ends up with crops rotting in the fields.

A: Since last year we've only contracted for 22 products for the basic
family food basket of rationed articles – the rest aren't regulated.
Therefore campesinos are free to deliver these directly to markets. I
admit that last year there were a lot of problems with the tomato crop.
There were errors in the system, that can't be denied. We were
responsible for all that.

For his part, Pedro Olivera (MINAGRI's director of the National Center
of Land Control) explained the advances and difficulties faced in the
process transferring land, an effort that began in 2008.

Q: How has the transfer of land been going?

A: We've received 176,000 applications and we've approved 146,000.
More than 1,131,000 hectares (2.8 million acres) are now in production,
79 percent of those Ok'd. Moreover, 30 percent of the new campesinos
are under 35.

Q: Campesinos complain that MINAGRI drags its feet in turning over land.

A: The law establishes the maximum time of 108 days and we have more
than 2,000 cases that we're behind on. Our problem is the lack of
specialized personnel in addition to negligence and feet dragging.

Q: What improvements can guajiros expect?

A: A change in the terms of usufruct (eliminating the 10-year
limitation), solving the housing issue, and giving families the
opportunity to work the land. All of that will encourage people to
invest in agriculture.

Q: State farms hide land so that it's not distributed. What is MINAGRI
doing about that?

A: Certainly we've had business managers who have hidden land. Those
are unhealthy attitudes. We started with 1.2 million hectares of idle
land (from the state farms), and now we're reaching 1.8 million. That
gives a sense of how some people haven't internalized the importance of
what we're doing.

Q: How can agriculture advance if you provide land but don't sell
tractors and tools?

A: That all depends on the country's economic conditions. We decided
to reduce the price of supplies, which will of course always be
insufficient. Our producers are going to continue working under very
limited conditions.

Q: Doesn't it work out cheaper to provide supplies and fertilizers than
to continue importing food?

Of course, but that involves gradual growth. We started up three years
ago, and we never imagined that 146,000 people would be working the
land. It exceeded all expectations. But the lack of supplies will
continue marking and burdening the process.

Q: What's the greatest challenge that you face?

A: The first great battle is to transfer idle lands (from state farms)
where that hasn't been done. It's necessary for these potentially
productive areas to be a part of this redistribution process. Some even
possess irrigation infrastructure, meaning that investments would be
much smaller.

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