Community gardens the in-thing in Havana

Back in the 1990s the Cuban economy was in deep trouble. The Soviet Union collapsed, as did its trade with Cuba. Cuba didn’t have much money to import food or buy fertilisers. The obvious answer was to expand local agriculture, using organic methods. People in Havana were encouraged to grow veges, and community gardens mushroomed. I saw several as I drove around Havana last week.

Last Thursday I visited Havana’s Alamar cooperative, where 170 members cultivate 11 hectares with dozens of varieties of vegetables, fruit and herbs.  The director, Miguel Salcines Lopez, told me they are constantly experimenting, such as with fungi to increase root spread. Interweaved with the veges are many types of flowers, calculated to confuse the insects and avoid the use of insecticides.  Among the free benefits coop members receive are breakfasts and lunches, no interest loans, plus a hairdressing and a nail polishing service!  I walked past a board listing amounts distributed to coop members that month. Long serving workers were getting a greater share of the cake as an incentive to stay on. Nearby was a classroom where local students were learning about urban agriculture.

Cuba is quite big on teaching people how to garden. Dotted around Havana are garden consultancy offices called CTAs, which also sell plants. My friend Jesus translated the mission statement on the wall of one as: “We are suporters of urban agriculture. We pay visits to your home. We have a staff of professionals able to resolve the problems of your plants and crops. Ask for our service!” Alongside was another poster reading: “Our green programme. It’s object is to reverse the silent disaster of deforrestation. It’s also to give the new generations a reforested city.”