A Cuba Testimony

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Growing up, I was taught to live by and hold high the Quaker testimonies of Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, and Service. But I also always felt the influence of another important testimony – Environmental Caretaking. While this testimony may fall under several of the traditional Quaker testimonies listed above, it also holds a power strong enough to stand on its own. It is important that we as humans – and we as Quakers – live up to these principles and standards. What this means for me in terms of Environmental Caretaking is this: When we begin to see the environment as that Eternal Source sustaining all, we must in turn learn to understand it, and to give back and support the Earth to the best of our abilities.

A particular passage by Margaret Fell addresses my leading to work within the sector of environmental caretaking: “[The Light] will rip you up, and lay you open, and make all manifest which lodges in you; the secret subtlety of the enemy of our souls, this eternal searcher and trier will make manifest. Therefore all to this come, and by this be searched, and judged, and led and guided. For to this you must stand or fall.” In these words, Fell declares that our most important work is never easy, no matter how full of Light it is and no matter how much it is needed. The Light gives you two options – either to stay with it and go with it, or to fall back into activities that are less deep or personally truthful.

A few months ago, I was able to participate through my university in a study abroad seminar in Cuba on sustainable, small-scale organic farming and cooperatives. Though my initial interests in this trip lay in experiencing Cuban culture firsthand, getting a chance to practice Spanish and live within a different community, I also felt a drive to learn more about how I might become a better caretaker and advocate for sustainable methods. After a month of travel and conversations among a variety of people in Cuba, I have started to see how the island’s rich history (which in many ways mirrors the history of the United States) has led to the current flow of life there. Among other things, Cuba offers much to learn in the ways of Simplicity, Equality, and Conservation for Friends in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Oxen and Cuban farmland - photo by Rebekah PercyPlantation farming has been a large part of Cuba’s history. Even after slavery became illegal, large-scale farming continued to be prevalent in Cuba (as it has been throughout the globe). Cuba and other countries have suffered greatly from the resulting deforestation, and from the flattening and contamination of thousands of acres of soil, a result of pesticide-dependent monocropping. Between the 1940s and 50s, Cuba’s agricultural system paralleled California’s in terms of the type of inputs that were available and put to use, and in terms of the quantity of yielded product.

After the United States initiated the Embargo Act in 1960, which blocked all Cuban trade with the U.S. and its allies, the Soviet Union became Cuba’s main trading partner. As Cuba’s population doubled from 1950 to 1970, more than 50% of food (alongside other products such as chemical fertilizers and fossil-fuel dependent machinery) was imported from the Soviet Union. The lifestyle of the average Cuban was not much affected by the embargo, and many were relieved that Cuba was finally starting to be perceived as an independent and united country, operating under a government that seemed to have the people’s best interests in mind.

Following the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the loss of resources previously available from abroad meant that Cuba had to scramble to find other options in every sector of production. Most importantly, the country had to develop new options in the area of food production. Fidel Castro named the following years the “Special Period” in an attempt to lighten the mood. The early 1990s were marked by power outages, malnutrition, and unemployment in Cuba. There was a lot of doubt in the Socialist Party, and those who were able to leave the country did. This national crisis demanded that the whole economic system of food, labor, and goods be reorganized to focus on the new goals of conservation and domestic production.

In its efforts to become politically independent, Cuba recognized that its first step was to become economically independent. Over the past two decades, Cuba has been forced to confront several traditional production systems that have proven to be wasteful and toxic. Cuba has risen successfully to this challenge and has become extremely efficient in its uses of energy and in enforcing new, sustainable models. While currently considered a “third world country,” Cuba is actually one the leading nations in the development of sustainable food production and in inexpensive biotechnology.

Modern Cuban farming practices are models of simplicity. In developing new approaches to sustainable agriculture, both the Cuban government and grassroots organizations have lent their support, sharing the common objective of simplifying food production and distribution. One initiative began with a collaboration between the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Sugar to gather all male cattle in good condition in order to breed more draft animals for farm work. Many farms now use the multi-plow, a device pulled by two oxen. This process eliminates exhaust fumes and noise pollution from fossil fuel engines. It also reduces soil compaction and soil erosion because the multi-plow integrates crop residue back into the soil. Additionally, draft animals can work under a greater variety of weather conditions than machinery can. As a farmer in the Villa Clara province explained, “Before we could only fit two planting cycles into the rainy season. For more than a month each year, we couldn’t prepare the land because the tractors got stuck in the mud. But an ox doesn’t have that problem. You plow the day after it rains, or even while it’s raining if you want.” Since 1990, the number of oxen has doubled in Cuba.

While organic methods and technology may be expensive to initiate, Cuba has proven that following these preventative practices and a full-system approach to farming really pay off in the end. Farmers now incorporate compost, bio fertilizers, bio pest control, polycropping, intercropping, and often animal labor into the daily management of their land. Such sustainable measures are prime examples of how one might live with simplicity.

One farm we visited, named Finca Marta, converted cattle waste into biofuel, which helped to generate electricity on the farm and heat the house, with excess biofuel used as compost. This farm was both beautiful and productive, with no wasted space; everything beneficial was put into play. The oxen, for example, had several jobs: to prepare the soil, power the electricity, and contribute nutrients to the soil. The farmers at Finca Marta also recognized the importance of using what was there to begin with. When they first took over the land, there were already several established beehives.  Living fences were set up to separate growing areas. The flowers from these fences fed the bees, and later, the dead plant matter was turned into compost. Finca Marta built up a honey market, and now sells to visitors and nearby restaurants, their main clientele. After visiting the farm, classmates and I discussed ways that these principles of resourcefulness might be applied on an individual level, to help a person make the best use of their natural abilities and personality. Ideally, a person will continuously seek to use all of their skills, which then adds depth and effectiveness to their life and work.

The Cuban revolution now lives on as a national commitment to self-sustainability as a form of independence. To me, this seems like the ideal definition of twenty-first century patriotism. In being creative with space and fully using the resources available, small farmers everywhere may advance and gain great successes as they have in Cuba. Furthermore, when this mindset is applied on a more personal level, the Quaker testimony of simplicity may come to be a worldwide phenomenon.

In looking to Cuba as an example of equality, it is important to consider the split between Afro-Cubans and Euro-Cubans. Many black Cubans are descendants of slaves, and divisions between races do linger. However, there are deep strides being taken in working towards a more equal society through the promotion of equal opportunity.

Another example of bringing people together was demonstrated through the Ministry of Agriculture’s decision to reintroduce oxen-drawn multi-plows throughout the country. Those who were skilled in working with oxen (mainly poor rural farmers) were recruited to serve as the ministry’s ambassadors. These elderly farmers were called upon during the Special Period to help restore this practice through teaching. The re-introduction of draft animals to the farm scene offered a chance to involve a large part of the community in intergenerational projects, with elders imparting traditional knowledge to the younger population.

In 2007, president Raul Castro declared food production to be a top state priority. He emphasized the need for decentralization and the productive use of all available land. Even in 2016, few nations would deem food production to be a top state priority, since few deem the lives of average citizens to be that important. Typically, nations tend to deem some citizens to be more important than others.

Cuba’s regionalized system of small-scale food production is intended to excite and motivate all citizens to work towards healthier lifestyles and to push the collective towards a more sustainable economy. When Soviet imports disappeared in the 1990s, Cuba’s nearly 400-year-old industrial-scale monocropping system collapsed. In this time of desperation, urban gardens quickly began to crop up as viable options for providing needed nourishment.

Cuban cityscape - Photo by Rebekah PercyWith 75% of Cuba’s residents living in urban areas, growing fresh food in cities continues to meet peoples’ needs practically and efficiently. Cuban organipónicos (urban organic gardens) run as cooperatives and are farmed year-round with a high crop rotation, which means high productivity. Organipónicos provide 60-80% of all the fresh vegetables that urban Cubans buy to supplement the monthly rations. There are now more than 10,000 organipónicos throughout Cuba, each with its own standards and each a unique reflection of its city.

What makes these cooperatives impressive as examples of equality are their principles of consensus, open membership, democratic control, economic participation, autonomy, education and training, cooperation with other coops, and their concern for both community and the environment. Many urban gardens and farms sell produce to local schools, maternity homes, elderly homes, and hospitals. The Socialist government provides subsidies for these transactions, which helps to eliminate food waste, lower transportation costs (through local distribution), and encourage the growth of urban farms.

The government and several sub-programs have further dedicated themselves to the conservation of energy. There are now several small systems dispersed throughout the country working to harness energy, instead of a single, gigantic grid structure. Cuba prioritizes knowledge and equal opportunity by granting energy rights to children in isolated areas. Rural schools are the sites of over 2,300 of the solar electric systems in Cuba, including about 50 schools with only one student each. In these places especially, renewable energy is a collectively valued experience, as these classrooms often serve as community centers when school is not in session. In 2006, the World Wildlife Federation declared that, “Cuba is the only country that combines high human development standards, as defined by high literacy and health indexes, with a low ecological footprint including electricity consumed and carbon dioxide emitted per capita.”

Though the majority of Cuba’s electricity currently comes from old oil-fired power plants that burn crude oil, the country is on a path toward energy independence through local, renewable energy sources, particularly ones related to biomass and bio power. Renewable energy sources generated 4% of the island’s electricity in 2009, and Cuba aims for 24% of its energy consumption to come from renewable sources by 2030.

Just as Cuban doctors are sent abroad to help fight outbreaks of disease, Cuban scientists and engineers are traveling throughout Latin America, sharing their experiences and innovations with other nations. Although Cuba makes up only 2% of the population of Latin America, it is home to 11% of the region’s scientists and doctors. Cuban scientists are working to demystify biotechnology – especially for poor countries – by showing that biotechnology on a cheap budget can operate just as well as dependence on a multi-million-dollar infrastructure built from foreign-made components.

Cuba has a lot to teach Friends about putting our faith into action, as it has repeatedly verified its immense power of resilience. Simplicity, Equality, and Ecological Caretaking are all exhibited through Cuba’s inventive use of scarce resources, community involvement in cooperatives, and practices of environmental sustainability. Although we may find these values demonstrated in other countries as well, Cuba is a special case. Both the nationalized economy and the community-based structure of its government help contribute to an overall sense of willpower and patriotism throughout the country. Instead of being another culture focused on the individual, Cuba strives to see the collective will of its people and to meet those needs.

Cuba has garnered the world’s attention through its initiatives in small-scale farming, its outstanding success in organizing grassroots initiatives, its application of organic and sustainable practices, and its overarching engagement of large Cuban institutions in community development. In 1999, the island nation was awarded Sweden’s Alternative Nobel Prize for Agriculture for the work it has done to promote the organic revolution.

What makes Cuba stand out from the world of conventional farming is not so much that their alternative farming movement is an exception to the mainstream system, but rather that it has expanded to become a crucial part of the whole country’s food supply. This movement illustrates the viable possibility of a national agricultural system based on the principles of Simplicity, Equality, and Environmental Caretaking.

Disparities in wealth are often driven by large-scale operations, where a handful of company owners rule the entire market. By re-organizing the world’s economic systems to support a higher percentage of small farmers and local energy producers, the majority of people would be more equal financially and better off. A more decentralized economy would focus less on pure capital accumulation; more work could be directed towards furthering human development and helping to alleviate the environmental errors of past generations.

Serious initiatives towards sustainability will require changes in mentality before the actual economic systems can be changed. By looking to Cuba’s agricultural system as a model for the Quaker testimonies of Simplicity, Equality, and Environmental Care, and by incorporating some of their techniques in our own communities, we may all come out ahead in our quest for sustainability and authentic living.  ~~~

Rebekah Percy is studying Political Science and Spanish at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. She is a member of La Jolla Friends Meeting (PYM) and is currently co-clerk of Pacific Yearly Meeting’s Young Adult Friends. Some of Rebekah’s other passions include salsa, bachata and zouk dancing, hiking, swimming and cooking.