Ecological self-sufficiency best way forward for Cuba
Cuba is on the brink of a major economic transition. Now is the critical moment to set a plan of action for an alternative agriculture. Agronomist Fernando Funes from the Cuban Association of Organic Agriculture (ACAO) believes his country should continue along the road towards ecological self-sufficiency. Funes, who is currently attending the international Dairy Farming course at the IAC, presented his arguments on October 26th
A mistake that Cuba has made in the past is to allow itself to depend too heavily on external inputs for its food security. So concludes Fernando Funes, whose country has been hampered by a severe economic and food security crisis since 1990 when its main trading partner, the Soviet Union, dissolved. This loss came on top of the already existing trade embargo imposed since the 1960s by Cuba's powerful neighbour the United States
Between 1989 and 1993, Cuba's foreign purchasing power was reduced by almost 80%. As a result, fewer agricultural inputs could be obtained, and productivity levels for its main agricultural products (except grains) declined by 21-60% between 1989 and 1994. Losses in petrol imports have also forced the country to reduce tractors to one third of the amount in 1990, and to triple the use of oxen teams
With the Soviet collapse, the Cuban government was forced to make drastic changes in its agricultural policy. Its new strategy became one of self-sufficiency through the use of ecological methods of production. To offset the loss of chemical inputs, over 200 reproduction centres were set up to develop biological controls against agricultural pests. By 1995, agricultural land treated with biological controls had increased more than six-fold, from 77,262 to 516,895 ha. Techniques such as crop rotation and polyculture, as well as legumes and biofertilisers are now being applied on a commercial scale, replacing chemical fertilisers in some parts of Cuba. Extensive strategies the use of the biological nitrogen-fixing Azobacter rhizobium together with other inoculants in all legume seed packages sold, something unheard of in the rest of the world
The scale of the Cuban ecological agriculture alternative is unusual, according to PhD student Julia Wright, who is analysing the ecological movement in Cuba for her research at the WAU. Being internationally isolated has compelled Cuba to make inroads on ecological agriculture in a way not seen elsewhere, she explains. These developments are gaining a lot of international attention, particularly from research institutes such as the California-based Food First, as well as international universities and other organisations. Since the establishment of ACAO six years ago, international ecological conferences have been held biannually in Cuba. The first three conferences attracted over 300 participants from abroad, in addition to 550 national delegates
ACAO is also an unusual agriculture network, Wright finds, because it has targeted researchers right from the start to work together with farmers. Funes has been involved with ACAO since its inception, and now sits on the seven-member executive board, in charge of international relations as well as documentation. The network includes over 900 members and its aims include redesigning Cuban agriculture on a more sustainable basis, to create an ecological certification system, and to raise awareness among the population to the possibilities and advantages of ecological agriculture
The ACAO, along with other Cuban institutes, has been conducting experiments on 17 farms over the last three years, to investigate the possibilities of integrating crop and livestock systems as promoted by ecological agriculture. The results have been very favourable with biodiversity of products increasing by 90-fold, a rise in total productivity levels with crop production more than doubling, as well as a third reduction in labour in the first three years. In an integrated dairy system, production was even brought back to pre-crisis levels. Funes hopes to continue this research to investigate trends over a longer term for a PhD in Wageningen
For Funes, these developments are a race against time. There are many reasons to believe that Cuba is now on the brink of a major economic transition. A recent vote by the United Nations showed a record level of support from 92% of its members to end the trade embargo against Cuba. If ACAO can prove the benefits of a self-sufficient ecological model before international markets open up again, then support will already be in place for choosing an alternative path instead of going back to the old model of external input-dependent conventional production, Funes maintains
Airing minority voice of Wageningen
Foreign residents of Wageningen can have their say on English radio thanks to Nigerian Ben Onwuka, who approached the local radio station a year ago: I found a real need for representation of the many non Dutch-speaking people living here. Onwuka proposed his ideas to the radio station's board, which led to his show Voice of the Minority airing fortnightly. Although he came to Holland thirty years ago and can now speak Dutch, Onwuka still keenly remembers the feeling of being an outsider because of language barriers: I hope that the ideas from my show will help foreigners feel more comfortable here.
For each show, different international people are interviewed about their perspectives on living in Holland, interspersed with their musical selections. People tend to have a lot to say about living in Holland and how it differs from their own countries, Onwuka finds. Sometimes Onwuka interviews more than one person at a time. Dutch people returning from abroad have been interviewed together with a national from the same country. Another interview resulted in a lively discussion between a person with a negative view on Dutch culture along with a Dutch person
Next airing: Sunday November 15th (11:00-12:00), on 107.7 FM Radio Rijnstad. Ideas: call Ben Onwuka at 411595
National parks tourism a hotbed of conflicts
Leisure & Tourism MSc student Pramod Tandukar, just back from a six-week research session in a Canadian national park, is enthusiastic about a recent development there: the Round Table system of stakeholder cooperation. There are so many conflicting interests in national parks which demand an effective process for making decisions. In the Riding Mountain National Park, a four-year Round Table has been able to accommodate twenty different stakeholders, ranging from tourist cabin-owners, to hunters and indigenous land claims activists. It's a system of give and take, and I was impressed that all these people could come together and agree on decisions, Tandukar remarked. This is not always easy, however, as he also heard that some stakeholders in a neighbouring park had put a halt to their Round Table, because of disagreements
Tandukar now plans to go back to his home in Nepal and try to integrate the Round Table system into a national park there. It will of course be different in Nepal. Most parks are centrally controlled with very little involvement of the people in its decision-making. But I think we will also be able to use this stakeholder approach eventually.