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.
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.