Latin lessons

Cuba turned its oil cri­sis in 1991 into an op­por­tu­nity to change the way the peo­ple sourced their food, a les­son which has not been for­got­ten.

Element - - Better Cities - By Tim Rainger

For most of us, es­pe­cially those of us who live in cities, the thought of life with­out oil and all the un­cer­tain­ties that go with it is enough to send us run­ning for the near­est pil­low un­der which to bury our heads. But anec­do­tal ev­i­dence in­di­cates that “peak oil” may al­ready have hap­pened, and the des­per­ate at­tempts at pro­duc­ing fuel from tar sands, and in­creas­ingly risky meth­ods like deep water drilling are the ev­i­dence of that truth.

Yet life with re­stricted pe­tro­leum sup­plies has been a re­al­ity in Cuba for many years and, sur­pris­ingly, the con­se­quences were nowhere near as bad as they might at first have seemed. For many Cubans the change from an oil-in­ten­sive econ­omy to one de­fined by lo­cal pro­duc­tion has meant bet­ter health, stronger com­mu­ni­ties and bet­ter life qual­ity.

When the So­viet Union col­lapsed in 1991 the coun­try lost more than 50 per cent of its (sub­sidised) oil imports, much of its im­ported food and around 80 per cent of its trade econ­omy. Ac­cord­ing to a re­port on Cuba from Ox­fam, “In the cities, buses stopped run­ning, gen­er­a­tors stopped pro­duc­ing elec­tric­ity, fac­to­ries be­came silent. Ob­tain­ing enough food for the day be­came the pri­mary ac­tiv­ity for many, if not most, Cubans.” Many Cubans be­gan to starve. This era is known to Cubans as the ‘Spe­cial Pe­riod’.

Out of ne­ces­sity, Cubans be­gan grow­ing lo­cal pro­duce, de­vel­oped bio-pes­ti­cides and bio-fer­tilis­ers as petro­chem­i­cal sub­sti­tutes, and in­cor­po­rated more fruits and veg­eta­bles into their di­ets. Cars be­came a lux­ury few could af­ford so they walked, biked, rode buses, and car­pooled. “There are in­fi­nite small so­lu­tions,” said Roberto Sanchez from the Cuban-based Foun­da­tion for Na­ture and Hu­man­ity. “Crises can trig­ger many of these things which are ba­si­cally adap­tive. We are adapt­ing.” Cuba very quickly be­came the first coun­try on the planet with a national pol­icy pro­mot­ing food sovereignty via agroe­col­ogy (i.e. feed­ing the pop­u­la­tion with lo­cally grown, or­ganic food).

This tran­si­tion saw crops raised us­ing a mix of com­post, ma­nure or worm cast­ing in place of ni­tro­gen-based fer­tilis­ers, and us­ing or­ganic pes­ti­cides rather than chem­i­cals. The next stage in­volved Cuban sci­en­tists iden­ti­fy­ing ben­e­fi­cial in­sects, fungi and bac­te­ria to com­bat pests. Cuba now uses 21 times less pes­ti­cide than be­fore the Spe­cial Pe­riod.

The big­gest chal­lenges were faced by ur­ban dwellers. Ha­vana is a city of nearly three mil­lion peo­ple, and the cri­sis re­sponse took on dif­fer­ent forms, rang­ing from pri­vate gar­dens to state-owned re­search gar­dens. Va­cant lots and spare land was im­me­di­ately pressed into ser­vice, and rooftop and bal­cony gar­dens be­came the norm. Joint com­mu­nal unal gar­dens are the most wide­spread. Sta­tis­tics are dif­fi­cult to ob­tain, n, but in 1995 it was es­ti­mated that there were 26,600 pop­u­lar gar­den n parcels in Ha­vana. na. To­day an es­ti­mated ated 50 per cent of Ha­vana’s veg­eta­bles ta­bles come from in­side e the city; while in other her Cuban towns and cities ur­ban gar­dens ens pro­duce from 80 per er cent to more than 100 per cent of what t they need.

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