On Aug. 16, the William & Mary Washington Office hosted a brown-bag policy forum with keynote speaker Roberto Pérez Riverom (at left), a Cuban permaculturist and environmental educator.
The event was sponsored by Nature’s Friends, Groundwork Anacostia River—DC, Blackbelt Justice Center, and the Citizen Advisory Board of Bread for the City.
According to World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report in 2007, Cuba is the only sustainable country in the world. Sustainable development in the report is defined as “improving the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of supporting ecosystems.” The brown-bag event shed some light on how Cuba became and remained a sustainable country.
Rivero provided some background information on himself, explaining how he became involved in permaculture. In the late '90s, he was working toward a degree in biology when some Australian scientists arrived and introduced the idea of permaculture. Permaculture is essentially agriculture that works with nature, using as few chemicals as possible, requiring little energy, and rescuing the best traditional agricultural practices. Rivero was intrigued, and joined forces with the Australians, and has since been a committed permaculturist and environmental educator.
As such, he stresses the importance of biodiversity, telling the audience jokingly, don’t think of biodiversity as “lions in Africa,” but think of biodiversity in your own backyard and protect species that are endemic to your place of residence. Rivero also encourages environmental activists to not simply oppose things such as big business and deforestation, but to also come up with an alternative to these harmful practices.
Before Cuba became a sustainable country, the land ownership in the country was much as you might imagine: 10 percent of the population owned 80 percent of the arable land. It was difficult for Cubans to find employment, as there was much cheap labor imported from Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Then the Agrarian Reform Law of 1959 was passed, and it reduced the maximum size of privately owned land to 160 acres. In 1960, the second Agrarian Reform Law further reduced the maximum size of privately owned land to 84 acres. At this point, a lot of land was still in the hands of individual farmers, but about 10 percent of the land became cooperatives, where farmers could share equipment and cut costs. However, much of the land was in the hands of big companies, many of which were foreign multinationals.
In spite of all this, a quarter of the total arable land continued to be farmed following traditional farming practices. Over time, the government realized that it couldn’t afford chemicals and equipment, and it gave its land to the people. Now, 80 percent of the land is in the hands of the people and only 20 percent is controlled by multinational corporations. The government gave the land to the people for their lifetime. This was an important decision, because farmers will use land differently if they only have it for two years, compared to if they have it for the rest of their lives. The farmers must be long-term thinkers, and must use the land very wisely so as not to exhaust it, and to leave it behind for their family.
The triumph of traditional farming
Rivero responded to claims that Cuba imports a lot of food and is therefore a “fake” sustainable country. In fact, the imported food, known as a “ration cart” — when Cubans get some wheat, rice, sugar, black beans and pasta — is only about 30 percent of a Cuban diet. Cuba really can’t afford to import a lot of food.
An interesting aspect of sustainable organic farming in Cuba is that Cubans cannot afford to get their farms certified as organic, even though they are. What has happened, though, is that companies that want to import Cuban food, such as Canada, will pay the certification fee.
Cuba’s success is showing that traditional farming works and the soil gives back. Cubans are also healthier now than they have been, eating more vegetables and using green medicine.
Rivero spoke of the differences between traditional farmers and academic farmers. The traditional farmers have empirical knowledge that has been accumulated throughout generations, what he refers to this as the “collective construction of knowledge.” He told a funny story about academic farmers saying “What are you doing?! Those banana trees need to be two meters apart!” And the traditional farmers responding, “No, you can plant three banana trees in those two meters! The two meters is only for a tractor to get through!” The most sustainable agriculture happens when traditional farming methods are merged with the best scientific knowledge. All of Cuba is like a huge classroom, where many generations are mixed together, all working the land and trying different techniques.
Rivero also mentioned the role of culture in agriculture. If your culture is made of values that are respectful to nature and encourage sharing, you will have a different system of agriculture than if your culture values making money and purchasing commodities above all else.
All in all, when thinking of permaculture, it is important to realize how it affects you. We should always leave space for nature; we do not need to be at war with it, we can work with it. Permaculture is part of a greater theme, our concept of human interactions. We need to learn how to cherish each other and nature, and one way we can do that is through sustainable, permanent agriculture: permaculture.
For further consideration: look into the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth
, adopted by the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, in Bolivia. It has been submitted to the United Nations for consideration.
Here's what some of the other panelists at the conference are doing for the environment and social justice:
Tracy McCurty is the director of Blackbelt Justice Center and Policy Advisor to Rural Coalition. She is a social justice attorney who realizes the importance of land ownership and agriculture as means of self-growth, sustainability, food diversity, and cultural diversity.
T. Garrett Graddy is a professor in agroecology at American University and Visiting Scholar in Environmental Politics and Policy in Cuba. She was struck by the idea that Cuba, a country previously associated with slavery, multinational corporations, and monoculture is now an outlier in the hemisphere as the only sustainable country, and views Cuba as an agro-ecological role model.
Savannah Williams is a steward of South of the Ferry and a cultural anthropologist. She reflected on the role that her family gardens and 4H club played in making her an advocate for sustainable farming and sharing land and resources with others.
M. Dele is an adjunct professor in permaculture at the College of William & Mary and founder of Nature’s Friends Institute.
Rev. Dr. E. Gail Anderson Holness
is a pastor at Christ Our Redeemer AME Church, and interfaith leader, and author of "Lessons in Truth.