Cuba looks to suburban farms to boost food output
Tuesday, 09 February 2010

CAMAGUEY, Cuba, (Reuters) – Cuba has launched an  ambitious project to ring urban areas with thousands of small  farms in a bid to reverse the country’s long agricultural  decline and ease its chronic economic woes.


The five-year plan calls for growing fruits and vegetables  and raising livestock in 4-mile-wide (6.5 kilometer) rings  around 150 of Cuba’s cities and towns, with the exception of  the capital Havana.


The island’s Communist authorities hope suburban farming  will make food cheaper and more abundant, cut transportation  costs, be less reliant on machinery and encourage urban  dwellers to leave bureaucratic jobs for more productive labor.


But the government will continue to hold a monopoly on most  aspects of food production and distribution, including its  control of most of the land in the Communist-run nation.


The pilot program for the project is being conducted in the  central city of Camaguey, which the Cuban agriculture ministry  has said eventually will have 1,400 small farms covering 52,000  hectares (128,490 acres), just minutes outside the town.


The farms, mostly in private hands but also including some  cooperatives and state-owned enterprises, must grow everything  organically, and the ministry expects they will produce 75  percent of the food for the city of 320,000 people, with big  state-owned farms providing the rest.


On a recent day, dozens of people were hard at work plowing  fields, hoeing earth, posting protective covering for crops and  putting up fencing as the sun came up.


“This land they gave to us, the private farmers. I have  four hectares (10 acres) and now they have leased me eight (20  acres) more,” one of the farmers, Camilo Mendoza, told  Reuters.


“Look, on this side and the other side are other plots, and  over there another. Here they have given quite a bit of land  and support to private farmers,” he said.


The project is modeled after the hundreds of urban gardens  developed by then-Defense Minister Raul Castro during the deep  economic depression of the 1990s that followed the collapse of  Communism in eastern Europe.


He proclaimed at the time that beans were more important  than cannons, marking a strategic shift towards a more domestic  focused agenda by Cuban leaders after decades of active support  for liberation movements and leftist guerrillas overseas.


The suburban project dovetails with other steps introduced  by President Raul Castro since he took over the day-to-day  leadership from his ailing elder brother Fidel Castro in 2008.


These have included the leasing of fallow state lands to  100,000 mostly private farmers, raising prices for farm  products and allowing farmers to sell part of their crops  directly to the people instead of to the state.


On the other side of Camaguey and a few miles up Cuba’s  central highway, Armando, the head of a cattle cooperative,  said his group was persuaded to join the plan by the offer of  land to raise garden and root vegetables and the chance for  direct sales to the public.


Stands have been set up every mile or so along the city’s  ring road for the sales, but Armando said they are taking their  products to the customers.


“They assigned us a district where we can sell our produce.  We are using a mobile system, a bicycle cart, and sell out  every day,” he said.


“In December we produced around five tonnes. The root  vegetables we had to sell to the state, but we were free to  sell the garden vegetables directly,” he said.


The changes are tweaks to Cuba’s centralized socialism, not  a major step away from it, keeping with Raul Castro’s vow to  protect the system put in place after his brother took power in  the 1959 Cuban revolution.


He has balked at more sweeping, market-oriented changes  that many expected when he took power and without which many  economists say Cuba will not significantly increase  agricultural output.


Cubans have seen many past government efforts to transform  the country’s agriculture fail, so the farmers at Camaguey said  they were taking a wait-and-see attitude on this latest one.


“For sure there will be more food around here if you come  back in a few years,” Camilio Mendoza said about his  expectations.


“More than that, I can’t say.”

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