Permaculture Activist  [Printer-friendly version]
February 24, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991
Cuba lost 50% of its oil imports and the belt-tightening began.
Cubans lost an average of 30 pounds. Single-occupant cars became a
relic from the past. But in the process, Cubans also gained better
education, mass transportation, and sustainable agriculture.
Petroleum scarcity drove their economy to organic farming, urban
agriculture, mass transit, and a reinvigorated health care system
whose preventive, locally-based approach conserves scarce resources.]

By Megan Quinn

Havana, Cuba -- At the Organiponico de Alamar, a neighborhood
agriculture project, a workers' collective runs a large urban farm, a
produce market and a restaurant. Hand tools and human labor replace
oil-driven machinery. Worm cultivation and composting create
productive soil. Drip irrigation conserves water, and the diverse,
multi-hued produce provides the community with a rainbow of healthy

In other Havana neighborhoods, lacking enough land for such large
projects, residents have installed raised garden beds on parking lots
and planted vegetable gardens on their patios and rooftops. Since the
early 1990s, an urban agriculture movement has swept through Cuba,
putting this capital city of 2.2 million on a path toward

A small group of Australians assisted in this grass-roots effort,
coming to this Caribbean island nation in 1993 to teach permaculture,
a system based on sustainable agriculture which uses far less energy.
This need to bring agriculture into the city began with the fall of
the Soviet Union and the loss of more than 50 percent of Cuba's oil
imports, much of its food and 85 percent of its trade economy.
Transportation halted, people went hungry and the average Cuban lost
30 pounds.

"In reality, when this all began, it was a necessity. People had to
start cultivating vegetables wherever they could," a tour guide told a
documentary crew filming in Cuba in 2004 to record how Cuba survived
on far less oil than usual.

The crew included the staff of The Community Solution, a non-profit
organization in Yellow Springs, Ohio which teaches about peak oil --
the time when oil production world-wide will reach an all-time high
and head into an irreversible decline. Some oil analysts believe this
may happen within this decade, making Cuba a role model to follow. "We
wanted to see if we could capture what it is in the Cuban people and
the Cuban culture that allowed them to go through this very difficult
time," said Pat Murphy, The Community Solution's executive director.
"Cuba has a lot to show the world in how to deal with energy

Scarce petroleum supplies have not only transformed Cuba's
agriculture. The nation has also moved toward small-scale renewable
energy and developed an energy-saving mass transit system, while
maintaining its government-provided health care system whose
preventive, locally-based approach to medicine conserves scarce

The era in Cuba following the Soviet collapse is known to Cubans as
the Special Period. Cuba lost 80 percent of its export market and its
imports fell by 80 percent. The Gross Domestic Product dropped by more
than one third.

"Try to image an airplane suddenly losing its engines. It was really a
crash," Jorge Mario, a Cuban economist, told the documentary crew. A
crash that put Cuba into a state of shock. There were frequent
blackouts in its oil-fed electric power grid, up to 16 hours per day.
The average daily caloric intake in Cuba dropped by a third. According
to a report on Cuba from Oxfam, an international development and
relief agency, "In the cities, buses stopped running, generators
stopped producing electricity, factories became silent as graveyards.
Obtaining enough food for the day became the primary activity for
many, if not most, Cubans."

In part due to the continuing US embargo, but also because of the loss
of a foreign market, Cuba couldn't obtain enough imported food.
Furthermore, without a substitute for fossil-fuel based large-scale
farming, agricultural production dropped drastically.

So Cubans started to grow local organic produce out of necessity,
developed bio-pesticides and bio-fertilizers as petrochemical
substitutes, and incorporated more fruits and vegetables into their
diets. Since they couldn't fuel their aging cars, 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 or changes or
problems can trigger many of these things which are basically
adaptive. We are adapting."

A New Agricultural Revolution

Cubans are also replacing petroleum-fed machinery with oxen, and their
urban agriculture reduces food transportation distances. Today an
estimated 50 percent of Havana's vegetables come from inside the city,
while in other Cuban towns and cities urban gardens produce from 80
percent to more than 100 percent of what they need.

In turning to gardening, individuals and neighborhood organizations
took the initiative by identifying idle land in the city, cleaning it
up, and planting.

When the Australian permaculturists came to Cuba they set up the first
permaculture demonstration project with a $26,000 grant from the Cuban

Out of this grew the Foundation for Nature and Humanity's urban
permaculture demonstration project and center in Havana. "With this
demonstration, neighbors began to see the possibilities of what they
can do on their rooftops and their patios," said Carmen Lopez,
director of the urban permaculture center, as she stood on the
center's rooftop amongst grape vines, potted plants, and compost bins
made from tires.

Since then the movement has been spreading rapidly across Havana's
barrios. So far Lopez' urban permaculture center has trained more than
400 people in the neighborhood in permaculture and distributes a
monthly publication, "El Permacultor." "Not only has the community
learned about permaculture," according to Lopez, "we have also learned
about the community, helping people wherever there is need." One
permaculture student, Nelson Aguila, an engineer-turned-farmer, raises
food for the neighborhood on his integrated rooftop farm. On just a
few hundred square feet he has rabbits and hens and many large pots of
plants. Running free on the floor are gerbils, which eat the waste
from the rabbits, and become an important protein source themselves.
"Things are changing," Sanchez said. "It's a local economy. In other
places people don't know their neighbors. They don't know their names.
People don't say 'hello' to each other. Not here." Since going from
petrochemical intensive agricultural production to organic farming and
gardening, Cuba now uses 21 times less pesticide than before the
Special Period. They have accomplished this with their large-scale
production of bio-pesticides and bio-fertilizers, exporting some of it
to other Latin American countries.

Though the transition to organic production and animal traction was
necessary, the Cubans are now seeing the advantages. "One of the good
parts of the crisis was to go back to the oxen," said Miguel Coyula, a
community development specialist, "Not only do they save fuel, they do
not compact the soil the way the tractor does, and the legs of the
oxen churn the earth."

"The Cuban agricultural, conventional, 'Green Revolution' system never
was able to feed the people," Sanchez said. "It had high yields, but
was oriented to plantation agriculture. We exported citrus, tobacco,
sugar cane and we imported the basic things. So the system, even in
the good times, never fulfilled people's basic needs." Drawing on his
permaculture knowledge, Sanchez said, "You have to follow the natural
cycles, so you hire nature to work for you, not work against nature.
To work against nature, you have to waste huge amounts of energy."

Energy Solutions

Because most of Cuba's electricity had been generated from imported
oil, the shortages affected nearly everyone on the island. Scheduled
rolling blackouts several days per week lasted for many years. Without
refrigerators, food would spoil. Without electric fans, the heat was
almost unbearable in a country that regularly has temperatures in the
80s and 90s.

The solutions to Cuba's energy problems were not easy. Without money,
it couldn't invest in nuclear power and new conventional fossil fuel
plants or even large-scale wind and solar energy systems. Instead, the
country focused on reducing energy consumption and implementing small-
scale renewable energy projects.

Ecosol Solar and Cuba Solar are two renewable energy organizations
leading the way. They help develop markets for renewable energy, sell
and install systems, perform research, publish newsletters, and do
energy efficiency studies for large users.

Ecosol Solar has installed 1.2 megawatts of solar photovoltaic in both
small household systems (200 watt capacity) and large systems (15-50
kilowatt capacity). In the United States 1.2 megawatts would provide
electricity to about 1000 homes, but can supply power to significantly
more houses in Cuba where appliances are few, conservation is the
custom, and the homes are much smaller.

About 60 percent of Ecosol Solar's installations go to social programs
to power homes, schools, medicals facilities, and community centers in
rural Cuba. It recently installed solar photovoltaic panels to
electrify 2,364 primary schools throughout rural Cuba where it was not
cost effective to take the grid. In addition, it is developing compact
model solar water heaters that can be assembled in the field, water
pumps powered by PV panels, and solar dryers.

A visit to "Los Tumbos," a solar-powered community in the rural hills
southwest of Havana demonstrates the positive impact that these
strategies can have. Once without electricity, each household now has
a small solar panel that powers a radio and a lamp. Larger systems
provide electricity to the school, hospital, and community room, where
residents gather to watch the evening news program called the "Round
Table." Besides keeping the residents informed, the television room
has the added benefit of bringing the community together.

"The sun was enough to maintain life on earth for millions of years,"
said Bruno Beres, a director of Cuba Solar. "Only when we [humans]
arrived and changed the way we use energy was the sun not enough. So
the problem is with our society, not with the world of energy."

Transportation -- A System of Ride Sharing

Cubans also faced the problem of providing transportation on a reduced
energy diet. Solutions came from ingenious Cubans, who often quote the
phrase, "Necessity is the mother of invention." With little money or
fuel, Cuba now moves masses of people during rush hour in Havana. In
an inventive approach, virtually every form of vehicle, large and
small, was used to build this mass transit system. Commuters ride in
hand-made wheelbarrows, buses, other motorized transport and animal-
powered vehicles.

One special Havana transit vehicle, nicknamed a "camel," is a very
large metal semi-trailer, pulled by a standard semi-truck tractor,
which holds 300 passengers. Bicycles and motorized two-passenger
rickshaws are also prevalent in Havana, while horse drawn carts and
large old panel trucks are used in the smaller towns.

Government officials in yellow garb pull over nearly empty government
vehicles and trucks on Havana's streets and fill them with people
needing a ride. Chevys from the 1950s cruise along with four people in
front and four more in back.

A donkey cart with a taxi license nailed to the frame also travels
Cuba's streets. Many trucks were converted to passenger transport by
welding steps to the back so riders could get on and off with ease.

Health Care and Education -- National Priorities

Even though Cuba is a poor country, with a per capita Gross Domestic
Product of only $3,000 per year (putting them in the bottom third of
all nations), life expectancy is the same as in the U.S., and infant
mortality is below that in the U.S. The literacy rate in Cuba is 97
percent, the same as in the U.S. Cuba's education system, as well as
its medical system is free.

When Cubans suffered through their version of a peak oil crisis, they
maintained their free medical system, one of the major factors that
helped them to survive. Cubans repeatedly emphasize how proud they are
of their system.

Before the Cuban Revolution in 1959, there was one doctor for every
2000 people. Now there is a doctor for every 167 people. Cuba also has
an international medical school and trains doctors to work in other
poor countries. Each year there are 20,000 Cuban doctors abroad doing
this kind of work.

With meat scarce and fresh local vegetables in abundance since 1995,
Cubans now eat a healthy, low-fat, nearly vegetarian, diet. They also
have a healthier outdoor lifestyle and walking and bicycling have
become much more common. "Before, Cubans didn't eat that many
vegetables. Rice and beans and pork meat was the basic diet," Sanchez
from the Foundation for Nature and Humanity said. "At some point
necessity taught them, and now they demand [vegetables]."

Doctors and nurses live in the community where they work and usually
above the clinic itself. In remote rural areas, three-story buildings
are constructed with the doctor's office on the bottom floor and two
apartments on the second and third floors, one for the doctor and one
for the nurse.

In the cities, the doctors and nurses always live in the neighborhoods
they serve. They know the families of their patients and try to treat
people in their homes. "Medicine is a vocation, not a job," exclaimed
a Havana doctor, demonstrating the motivation for her work. In Cuba 60
percent of the doctors are women.

Education is considered the most important social activity in Cuba.
Before the revolution, there was one teacher for every 3,000 people.
Today the ratio is one for every 42 people, with a teacher-student
ratio of 1 to 16. Cuba has a higher percentage of professionals than
most developing countries, and with 2 percent of the population of
Latin America, Cuba has 11 percent of all the scientists.

In an effort to halt migration from the countryside to the city during
the Special Period, higher education was spread out into the
provinces, expanding learning opportunities and strengthening rural
communities. Before the Special Period there were only three
institutions of higher learning in Cuba. Now there are 50 colleges and
universities throughout the country, seven in Havana.

The Power of Community

Throughout its travels, the documentary crew saw and experienced the
resourcefulness, determination, and optimism of the Cuban people,
often hearing the phrase "Si, se puede" or "Yes it can be done."
People spoke of the value of "resistir" or "resistance," showing their
determination to overcome obstacles. And they have lived under a U.S.
economic blockade since the early 1960s, viewed as the ultimate test
of the Cuban ability to resist.

There is much to learn from Cuba's response to the loss of cheap and
abundant oil. The staff of The Community Solution sees these lessons
as especially important for people in developing countries, who make
up 82 percent of the world's population and live more on life's edge.
But developed countries are also vulnerable to shortages in energy.
And with the coming onset of peak oil, all countries will have to
adapt to the reality of a lower energy world.

With this new reality, the Cuban government changed its 30-year motto
from "Socialism or Death" to "A Better World is Possible." Government
officials allowed private entrepreneurial farmers and neighborhood
organizations to use public land to grow and sell their produce. They
pushed decision-making down to the grassroots level and encouraged
initiatives in their neighborhoods. They created more provinces. They
encouraged migration back to the farms and rural areas and reorganized
their provinces to be in-line with agricultural needs.

From The Community Solution's viewpoint, Cuba did what it could to
survive, despite its ideology of a centralized economy. In the face of
peak oil and declining oil production, will America do what it takes
to survive, in spite of its ideology of individualism and consumerism?
Will Americans come together in community, as Cubans did, in the
spirit of sacrifice and mutual support?

"There is climate change, the price of oil, the crisis of energy,"
Beres from Cuba Solar said, listing off the challenges humanity faces.
"What we must know is that the world is changing and we must change
the way we see the world."


This article appeared in the special Peak Oil issue of Permaculture
Activist, Spring 2006. The author, Megan Quinn, is the outreach
director for The Community Solution, a program of Community Service
Inc., a nonprofit organization in Yellow Springs, Ohio. For
information about its soon-to-be-released documentary, "The Power of
Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil" visit its website, e-mail her
at, or call 937-767-2161.

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