A Taste of Urban Agriculture in Havana
Tara McGee and Jen Pukonen are two young Canadian women working on urban agriculture projects in Cuba. They share some of their experiences with us here. February, 2002
Web site: Lifecycles
Tara McGee's "Progress of the Garden" Update April, 2002
Poco a Poco
Learning by growing in Havana, Cuba
By: Tara McGee
So much has grown since my last report - it is incredible! The soil did finally arrive, but, as most things go here, much later than the agreed upon date. This, however, did not stop the "Jefe de la Mierda", as he so eloquently titled himself on our first meeting, from seeking out a reward of rum from this extranjera. He was sorely disappointed when I refused (seeing as he was five days late and had already been properly paid!) He left saying that his true pleasure was not to be found in a bottle of rum but rather, in serving his customers.
During the time that we were waiting for the soil to arrive Alberto and I began to build the garden. We started by building seven circles - six surrounding one in the center that will be a fountain - and four corner beds to complete a square. Needless to say, this required intense measurements and my rusty math skills. Once all the measuring and hemming and hawing were finished, Alberto began to pick axe the circles. With the help of two of my traveling Canadian buddies, we dug the infertile soil and rocks out of the beds and started to install rocks along the sides of the circles. It was incredibly exciting to see my design take shape - for me, as well as everyone else on the farm who came to check on the progress regularly. It was a very long process but finally the canteros were ready for the soil. This involved long wheelbarrow journeys as the "Jefe de la Mierda" had deposited a huge pile of "mierda" (which actually was finished compost) at the other end of the farm (much to my discontent and adding somewhat to my refusal to sweeten the deal with some rum!).
The Canadian muchachas and I spent countless days wheel barrowing back and forth with rocks and soil to complete the beds while Alberto pick axed the soil. When we three women started wheeling these heavy materials through the farm we got many offers from the machista men to do it for us. We sometimes obliged, however, the majority of time these men had other things to do and from whatever vantage point they held they would gawk at us as we wheeled the materials back and forth. It was almost as though we were performing miracles - they just could not believe (and neither could the women) that women could or would deign to do such heavy work. Unfortunately, these two strong women left before we started planting so they could not witness the life that we planted in the beds.
Planting and the Seed Hunt
The next step was planting. I was very worried we would have nothing to plant. We had previously planted a few seeds in these huge Styrofoam seedling trays which were placed in a shallow pond of water. However, many of the seeds did not sprout. This method is employed in many organoponicos and indeed at our farm (though sometimes the trays are placed in the shade) usually with great success. They are then moved into greenhouses where they are grown big enough to plant. Seeing as our seeds did not work out, I wondered where we could find posturas or seedlings to plant in our waiting beds.
The president of the organization had assured me that he would find us seedlings (that was in December and here we were at the beginning of February and still nada). I deduced after waiting for a month that although he had great intentions, he was a very busy man who was living according to Cuba time and I did not believe that finding me plants was something he would get around to in the near future. We did not have any money to purchase these plants, and buying them is difficult even if you do have money. It is hard to find places that sell what you are looking for and it takes a lot of running around the city, talking to people, and trying not to be had (especially if you are a white girl with funny shoes and clothes and a bad Spanish accent - then you are sure to be had or at least forced to pay in dollars instead of pesos). So with almost no resources I felt worried that all we would be growing in our garden was weeds.
I needn't have worried. Alberto, who I have determined is some type of wizard, was undaunted and he produced oregano (which is a type that has enormous succulent leaves), basil, celery, chives, red onions, chrysanthemums, spinach (the bulbs of which he had hidden in typical Alberto style under leaves in an obscure place where no one would ever have found them), cilantro, parsley, sunflowers, and cordoban. I produced ca-na santa, a spinach-like vine, rosemary and eggplant from my travels to other farms. We were off!!
The problem of finding seeds and plants was not the only problem that confronted us. We were also stumped as to creating an irrigation system. In the rest of the farm they have very fancy pumps that attach to a variety of different types of irrigation systems including drip irrigation, micro-irrigation and sprinkler systems for the larger fields. I wanted to demonstrate an irrigation system that could easily be employed at home or in smaller gardens. I wanted it to be free, to minimize effort, to reuse garbage and to be applicable in peoples' homes.
I remembered a method I had seen at the permaculture course I had attended at the Compost Education Centre in Victoria, B.C. We had visited a garden where the gardener had submerged plastic plant pots in the soil close to the plants he wanted to water. He then poured the water into these containers and the water would seep out as needed by the soil going directly to the roots. I checked up a bit with some permaculture friends I have in Canada and was informed that using plastic pop bottles cut in half, nozzle stuck into the dirt, was a viable option. Luckily, the family I lived with loved to party and drink water and pop, so I had a virtual gold mine in my own garbage bin. I started rescuing tons of used pop bottles from the garbage and set about creating the irrigation system.
The only problem with my fabulous idea was mosquitoes. Mosquitoes are no laughing matter here in Havana. In fact, there are armies - with uniforms to boot - of people employed to rid Cuba of the dreaded Dengue Fever. These people patrol the streets with huge machines that look a lot like leaf blowers. They knock on every door in the neighbourhood until they are let in. The inhabitants are thus required to drop everything they are doing and to vacate the premises. The warriors will then enter the house and spray every inch with a terrible white chemical that smells horrible and that no one can identify - not even the fumigation warriors who brave the terrible white fumes without even a gas mask. Everyone hangs out on the street for an hour or so and then returns to their homes opening up windows and breathing in the unidentifiable fumes (some people have postulated DDT, others say it is a chemical very specific to the mosquito, but the reality is that no one knows). When I would return to my house after this process I become light-headed and dizzy and often get a headache - can't be good.
Now this "guerra contra las mosquitos" is not restricted to fumigating houses. There is also a plane that regularly flies over the city spraying for mosquitoes with yet another unidentifiable chemical (including all of the "organic" farms). There are also inspectors who inspect every inch of the city for standing water that can be found in such offending objects as open bottles, egg shells, plastic bags, poles without lids, old car engines, anything that can hold water. All of these items are viewed as evil Dengue repository's which can result in stiff fines for the perpetrators of such nasty deeds. Therefore, my little watering system had to be altered. I could not let the water slowly drain out of the small mouth at the top of the bottle. No, I had to add extra holes. The result being that the water I poured in to the bottles quickly dissipated, compacting the soil beneath - not good.
Luckily, one day an irrigation system specialist happened to walk by our garden. We got to talking and she told me she uses glass or plastic bottles in their entirety, fills them up with water, flips them over and shoves the mouth of the bottle into the dirt. She said it works well and solves the problem of standing water and mosquitos. Glass bottles are even easier to come by, so now our plants are happily sucking back what looks like a fiesta in the garden; rum, pop and beer bottles feed our plants and I figure, as they are Cuban plants, that they probably appreciate the libations. Also I am not being part of the Dengue problem, which, although I know I just joked about their fanaticism regarding mosquitos, really is a big problem - there is a type of Dengue that kills here and I do want to do my part to protect the people who live here as well as myself.
Once the circular beds were complete, Alberto and I went to work on building the more traditional canteros. These are straight, rectangular, raised beds that are used in most organoponicos. I did not want to have to go through the whole rigmarole of digging out the bad soil and deepening the beds as this had taken days with the round beds. I thought it would be quicker and would require less energy to create no-dig beds. I found some Cuban permaculture literature that described how to create these beds and I set about collecting whatever we had on the farm to do so. I explained my ideas to Alberto, who, being a traditionalist and quite set in his ways, looked at me as if I had pigs flying out of my ears. I was sure that he thought it was a cockamamie idea but I decided to forge ahead regardless of the fact that I was not granted his support.
One day I showed up at the farm early in the morning in a dollar taxi with three bike boxes in tow, ready to build a no-dig garden. I set about collecting dried leaves for the base, and then I cut the boxes to size, laid them down and watered them. I covered them with manure and then the closest thing I could find to dried straw. The final touch was 15 cm of soil and organic material topped with leaves. Tada! Alberto was not impressed. Some of the leaves blew off and it looked like a compost/garbage pile to his eyes. To mine it looked grand. It was the only cantero whose soil reached the top of the sides we had installed. It was the only cantero that looked somewhat natural. After a few days, Alberto seemed to be more used to the idea, especially after I showed him how moist the soil was despite the heat and how no weeds had come up. Because we were running out of soil, we decided to do another bed the same way - this time we did it together.
All this peace and harmony was dandy until we finally planted one of the beds with tomato seedlings. We nestled the little plants into the soil and tucked them in amongst the leaves. The next day we returned to find that the dreaded "grillo" or cricket had come out of hiding at night and chopped down two of our beautiful plants. (This was Alberto's interpretation of what had happened. I now wonder if it may have been slugs. If anyone has any ideas, I would be interested to hear about them). Seems like the little devils, whatever they were, had been hiding under my precious leaves along with all the glorious moisture and weed-free soil, just waiting to pounce. Alberto later told me with a great deal of respect, that we would have to remove the offending leaves. He did not even have a hint of I-told-you-so in his voice. I was very grateful for that so I removed the leaves without complaint, thinking it was better to let the tomatoes live than my nuevo technique.
Old Car Tires Can be Useful
One day I arrived at the farm greeted by a great plume of black smoke. "What the heck is that?" I asked myself. Turns out it was a tire on fire. La guerra contra las mosquitos strikes again! Seems old car tires are a great place for water to hide and mosquitoes to breed. Well I was irate because the thick, horrible smoke was being blown directly into my huerto where I was working with Alberto and my regular helpers from the nearby psychiatric hospital. They were there for their daily horticultural therapy session which is meant to be a soothing time to socialize outside the hospital, commune with nature and participate in some physical exercise. The smoke was not helping any!
I calmly suggested to the fire starter that the next time he's got a tire to kill that he roll it on up my way. Thus began the small parking lot that lines my garden filled with flowers, aloe and anise. The mental patients were all too happy to provide me with two tires, I found one in the street surely bound for cremation, and someone gifted me another. Every time an old tire shows up Alberto and I look at each other and giggle recalling the day I donned my extra tank top over my nose and mouth and ranted and raved in broken Spanish about the destruction of the ozone layer, respiratory illness, cancer and the like. It has become a bit of a joke and I think those old boys will keep rolling in. At least no one burns tires anymore and to me the scent of flowers and dirt is much nicer than the scent of burning rubber.
The Problem with Vegetables
The plants have grown a lot and it has been really fun watching the little radishes and carrots come up. It has also been nice knowing exactly the progress of every bed and rushing in every morning to check in on our healthy plants. I have loved watching a virtual garbage dump be turned into a beautiful garden. As the garden has grown and my Spanish has improved, people have started migrating to the huerto to hang out before and after lunch. We all sit around discussing fishing, the garden's progress, the difference between Cuba and Canada, American pop music and other random topics.
One day I was sitting around with two of the men (I am the only woman who works in the field) and they were complaining that at lunch there would be no vegetables. Now this is a very strange comment for a Cuban to make. Cuban food consists mainly of rice and beans, pork, chicken or fish, white bread and a root vegetable such as malanga or yuca. Many of the Cubans I met did not consider vegetables or fruit an important part of their diet. The vegetables that are most often consumed consist of tomatoes, cucumber, cabbage and lettuce. These vegetables are generally eaten separately with a bit of salt and vinegar. There is not a culture of eating fruits and vegetables and furthermore, these foods are expensive and are considered secondary to real eating for many Cubans.
This is ironic because of the extent of urban agriculture that exists in the city. These farms generally do not have a huge diversity of vegetables and fruits and generally produce the produce I have mentioned as well as onions, garlic, papaya, and green peppers and an assortment of herbs that are used medicinally or as condiments. There is a need to educate about the different varieties of vegetables that are available and to grow them. There is also a need to educate about preparing vegetarian or just vegetable dishes. Many people do not even know how to prepare vegetables and are intimidated to do so. There is one incredible project in Havana that is producing videos, doing workshops, going on TV, and publishing books about using, cooking and preserving a wide variety of vegetables and fruit. I attended one workshop where one of these videos was shown. The workshop was aimed at school cooks who want to learn to prepare vegetables for the children they serve. The entire workshop was essentially an introduction to vegetables (i.e. "This is parsley, you can eat it. This is bok choy, it is also a vegetable that you can eat" etc.) I thought that the facilitator was being condescending but then I looked around the room and people were taking notes! People are interested but just do not have either the money, the education or the variety of vegetables available to them.
All this being said, when I heard my fellow companero complaining that there were no vegetables for lunch I wordlessly rushed off to my garden to pluck some yummy spinach from the plants that were growing really well - after all that is one of the purposes of my garden - to be used at lunchtime. I returned and passed around the spinach to all willing participants. Everyone looked at the spinach with disdain and asked what the heck it was. When I told them it was spinach they all asked, "Like Popeye?" Some people declined with a look of disgust on their faces even if they claimed to have never tried it before and some hearty souls took the plunge. We were all sitting around the table and after telling them all it was okay to eat it as is, some of them dug in. Everyone was uncharacteristically quiet processing this new food. Suddenly, the man sitting next to me took a piece of the spinach between in his fingers, brought it up to his mouth and before chomping away he let out a loud, "Naaaaayy" like a horse. Everyone erupted in laughter, as this was what everyone had been thinking, and the spinach silence was broken. When Alberto found out that I had picked and shared some spinach before he deemed it time, he was irate. He told me now people would come begging for spinach. He was right but I didn't care because I thought that it was a major breakthrough to introduce so many people to a new food. Indeed, we even started having problems with stealing after Alberto cracked down and said we would not hand out spinach until it was fully grown. I suggested that maybe it was those pesky grillos again - he looked at me sideways and said, "Yes, if that grillos name is Felipe!"
Survival and the Environment
As I conclude my project down here I have been reflecting on all that I have experienced. It is the struggle for everyday survival and the Cubans' ability to do this and remain positive and fun that has struck me the hardest. The urban organic farms that exist in Havana are here not for purposes of idealism but for the purpose of survival. Urban agriculture commenced in Havana in the early 90s when it became apparent after the fall of the Soviet Union that it would be hard to survive without it. When the Soviet Union collapsed Cuba lost its main source of foreign currency, its primary trading partner, and gas. This time was called the "Special Period in Peacetime" and it was a time of many shortages. Transportation of food from rural to urban areas became a problem with the shortage and inconsistencies in fuel supplies. Chemicals previously used in agriculture became unavailable because Cuba no longer had the currency to buy them. With the shortage of food that resulted from these other shortages people had to improvise. One such improvisation was the application of urban organic agriculture and urban gardening projects. Cuba applied chemicals to their crops prior to the "Special Period". Learning to farm organically and applying these practices is a relatively new practice. It is not a practice born of idealism and the desire for clean foods. Instead, it is a practice born of necessity - the desire to survive. The government has done a really good job of promoting organic agriculture through social propaganda. The result has been that farmers who always farmed with chemicals have told me how much better organic farming is for health and the environment. People are now proud to farm organically. The necessity to create food without a huge international trading partners' support has led to many urban farms, permaculture sites, NGO's dedicated to the environment and education, extensive research into biological controls and many other positive initiatives focused on improving organic agricultural techniques. Many Third World countries are blamed by First World countries for not caring about their environment and instead focusing mainly on survival at the cost of the environment. Although Havana is very polluted in terms of exhaust fumes, fumigation and garbage, it seems ironic that a big part of Cuba's survival is dependent on conserving soils, preventing erosion, conserving water, using high intensity organic agriculture practices and researching organic techniques and all of this happens in the city. On the highways billboards are not dedicated to advertising goods but to advertising better management of soils and waterways. Survival, in Cuba, is equated, in part, to improving the environment by farming organically.
I often wonder what would happen if chemicals were available. Would people revert back? I think that certainly some would. I know of an "organic" farmer who uses chemicals to rid his garden of crickets and slugs. He applies the chemicals locally and only a small amount, but there is nothing organic about that. However, the creation of food is primary and if a garden pest is eating this food and the only way that a farmer knows to rid the garden of this pest is to use chemicals, they will. In Canada, we have the luxury of insisting that our organic food pass many tests to insure it is clean. In Cuba, having food is all that is needed to pass the test. If our organic food crops die out in Canada, no one will be short on food. We would not have clean, non-genetically modified foods, but we would be able to survive until the next season. I have taken for granted the fact that currently international trade feeds us in Canada. Without the security of having the rest of the world in our supermarkets we would certainly suffer. In Canada we eat off the labour, land, and often the oppression of other people in far off countries. Imagine if this system collapsed. We would not know what to do because we have lost our ability to be self-sufficient in terms of foods and goods. I wonder, then, with rising gas prices, unhappy international relations leading to wars, people rising up in other countries and demanding their land back, if what has happened in Cuba could ever happen in Canada. I wonder if Canada were in the same position Cubans found themselves in seven years ago if we would be able to survive as heartily as they have. I am concerned that we have lost the knowledge to do so, that our survival is based on other peoples' suffering, and I am increasingly concerned that we are losing the seeds to large multinationals like Monsanto who are homogenizing, patenting and hoarding them. I feel that international trade is a perilous safety net to cling to for Canadians as well as for the people we are marginalizing in other countries. It is for these reasons that I am sufficiently inspired to keep building gardens, to keep learning how to grow, to learn to save seeds, to maintain some measure of self or community sufficiency in my life. I will do these things in an attempt to minimize international oppressions and to have the knowledge of how to begin to feed my community in the event of an emergency such as that which struck Cuba.
Reflections of a Nine Year Old Farmer
One of my last days in my garden I was hanging out with three of my most devoted volunteers all ranging in age from seven to ten, and of course Alberto. Early that morning a cow had been born. Chica Loca, her sister Edith and their cousin Pinche were all talking about this phenomenon (in Spanish of course).
"Well, what are we going to call the new cow?" I asked.
"We're going to call her Tara," Chica Loca informed me. I laughed and asked, "Why Tara?"
"So that we can remember you," replied Chica Loca.
"Yeah, and because Tara and the cow kind of look the same," Edith piped up.
"No they don't!" Chica Loca came to my defense.
"Yes they do, they both have blue eyes," Edith defended her position, "The only difference between Tara and the cow, really, is that the cow can't speak English."
Alberto and I started killing ourselves laughing and Edith looked at us earnestly wondering what it was we were laughing at. It struck me then that I would miss my little crew of helpers, Alberto and all the characters on the farm as well as my garden. All of these lives have taught me more than I could ever describe about the world, people, and survival. Most of all they have watered me with their laughter and fertilized me with their generosity. All of this giving has helped me to grow. And it strikes me now that growing requires both giving and receiving. My plants give life to all those who eat them. But we give them life by caring for them. It is this giving with the knowledge that you cannot give without receiving that I will pack home with me.
Tara McGee's First Report From Cuba
Where do I begin? Every day is a story, another adventure, another lesson learned. One day could fill a novel, how do I explain? In my life here I climb a steep learning curve, which is both inspiring and exhausting the Cuban coffee helps with the latter part. That is where I will start. My first cup of coffee. In Canada, I never drink coffee. In Havana, Cuba, I cannot get enough. I roll out of bed in the morning after my counterpart Jen, the other LifeCycles intern who has accompanied me here. She brews us up a pot of coffee Cuban style strong and sugary and we share our morning boost. When I am dressed and packed up I leave my house to face the frightening traffic, potholes, diesel clouds and loud car horns. Every morning I feel like I am setting out down a ferocious concrete river on my bike. I need to be very aware of the flow of the cars and the possible potholes that are sometimes large enough to be called manholes. There are differing classes on this concrete river, some rapids easily crossed while others require much more skill. I need that morning coffee to be alert.
After an hour of thick heat and dodging obstacles I arrive at my work an oasis in this heavy city. I pass through the gates and everyone waves with a smile, "Hola! Como tu andas?" Kisses all around greetings Cuban style. I store my bike in a small office, chit chat, find my wide brimmed hat and gloves, take hold of my water bottle and march out into the field to start my day.
I am here on an internship called "Building Bridges". The organization that I work for in Victoria, B.C. is called "LifeCycles". This organization has many different projects that focus on building community in urban areas through organic food production and education on growing food organically. This international project's aim is to create a healthy and sustainable world through direct links with other countries, primarily in Latin America.
Here in Cuba I work for ACTAF (Associación Cubano de Técnicos Agrãcolas y Forestales) in Havana. ACTAF is a non-governmental organization deeply committed to ecological principles and this current runs as a foundation of their agricultural and forest management and training programs in Cuba. They are a national organization of 10,447 members, in 14 regions. I am currently working with them in Arroyo Naranjo, a municipality of Havana, at their central office, which is also a burgeoning organiponico and demonstration site. My role here is to create a garden which is approximately 20 meters by 10 meters, that will grow medicinal plants as well as plants that can be made into condiments and used by the cooks at the farm. It is very difficult to find herbs and spices here and many organiponicos have decided to start making their own to make them more accessible to the population.
Before starting this "huerto" or garden, I was first oriented to ACTAF‚s various projects and farms in Havana. These included huge organiponicos, small patio gardens where an astounding variety of fruits and vegetables were grown intensively, and many more inventive and inspiring urban agriculture creations. I also spent many hot days working on the farm in the greenhouse, or casa de cultiva, pruning tomatoes, and in the field working with the other campesinos planting lettuce or yucca. When the orientation was over I was eager to get my hands into some warm Cuban soil. So, I proposed to create a small container garden for the cooks where I would grow condiments. I am not sure if they misunderstood my proposal or just think in larger terms than me, but eventually I ended up with a huge area behind the kitchen that was filled with garbage and logs. They presented me with this area, which appeared very shabby, and told me that it would heretofore be known as "Huerto Tara"! I do not have a lot of experience creating gardens but I am great at dreaming and am very determined. Therefore, I set about hauling out the garbage and creating a design. Once the garbage was taken out and the design created I hit a blank wall. Now what? I did not know where to get soil, seeds, water and I have very little knowledge of tropical gardening.
While presenting this problem to my supervisors a man who works in the field swaggered by. He was tall and thin and though he was wearing old polyester checked pants sewn together where they were torn, a mesh tank top, high top running shoes missing the big toe, and a wide brimmed hat for working in the field, his movements and his chops made me think that he would fit in well in the movie, "Saturday Night Fever" a white suit, open in the front with some gold chains that would suit him. My supervisors called this pseudo-disco man into the office and said to him, "Alberto, this is Tara. You two will be working together from now on, she will be your jefa (boss)." "No, no, no," I interjected, "He will be mine." I said this because I knew instinctively that he has many more years of farming experience than I have life experience indeed I found out later that he has been working in agriculture for 40 years. So we looked at each other and he said, " You will be my jefa..." and I finished his sentence for him, " and you will be my jefe." And that is how it is.
We started by clearing the area of grass and weeds and all of the garbage that lay beneath. We used hoes or "watakas" to clear the land and found beneath the weeds and garbage deficient soil. We decided we would have to bring soil and organic material in to start this garden. It took us almost two weeks of toiling in the hot sun to clear this area (I wish we had chickens). We then laid out the "canteros" or beds with rope and are currently awaiting soil. As all things in Cuba, we will probably have to wait a while, and even if they say they will bring it on Monday, it most certainly will not arrive until Thursday.
Of course hoeing the grass was not all that we did during the days. Alberto is really into relaxing (rightly so!) so after a good bout of work he would look at me and tells me it was time to relax. We would put down our hoes and sit down I sucking on my conspicuously non-Cuban-definitely-North-American water bottle, and he on his cigarette. At these times we would talk about such things that were on our minds, love, what we will do with our lives, stress, health, the pros and cons of burning garbage at the farm and in the garbage dump etc. He is fond of telling me that everything resolves itself and everything passes. And when we talk about the practicalities of bringing this garden alive he, like so many Cubans, comes up with ingenious ideas. For instance, I suggested one day when we were sitting on the ground on our fancy pieces of cardboard that we needed hammocks. I was picturing going to the market in Havana Vieja and buying us two. He immediately agreed that we needed hammocks and started to concoct ways of creating them, a bit of rope that we used to mark the canteros, some old rice bags, his sewing machine, I am stuck in the consumer quick fix mind frame and he is showing me another way.
At noon all of us field workers put down our hoes, shovels or wheelbarrows and head to the kitchen armed with spoons and forks. We are greeted by the cooks with beans and rice, some unidentifiable meat (that one time had hair on it!), lettuce and tomatoes. All of this is made over a wood fire - they hope to soon build a bio-gas stove to supplement the wood. Alberto and I eat with all of the other workers, pouring salt and home made vinegar over our salad and beans to add flavour. When lunch ends we are all required, yes required, to relax until 2:00 pm. (Once I tried to start work after I had just finished a meal and I got an earful from the cooks who insisted that I had to rest after eating, fine with me!). Some people sleep on the ground on makeshift beds of cardboard and still others go home. I often go looking for the cookie man who pushes around a pushcart filled with goodies. However, lately I have also been finding myself exhausted after lunch and welcome a good cardboard nap.
However, this nap is often interrupted by the neighbourhood kids, who love to hang around and help us out. I always put them to work because I don't like them to feel useless of left out. They have incredible strength and knowledge of farming because they have spent so much time exploring the farm on their own, with their friends and with other workers. It was the kids who oriented me to this place originally, showing me where different plants were grown, bringing me on adventures to the nearby railroad tracks, showing me where to get the tools, and the best places to catch frogs. Not only have these kids been exposed to the farm on their own free time, but they also come with their school to work sort of like gym class. The result being that these kids know the names of all the plants, some of their medicinal properties, and how to grow them. This, in my mind, is one of the most important things to know, how to feed yourself. This is a skill I do not yet possess myself. It is an incredible skill to pass on to the next generation here, especially if more difficulties, like the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 90s and the resultant scarcity of food in Cuba, should befall Cuba, the younger generation will have the knowledge to survive, brilliant!
I have to admit to having a favourite little friend. She is ten. I call her "chica loca" because she is so brave. She leads the bulls around by their noses, sometimes she sits on them (with of course the help of the man who takes care of the animals) she swings from tree branches, she advises me on how best to design the garden, she suggest plants to grow, and she accompanies me when I am giving tours, pointing out different plants, their names and functions and how to prepare them. She also hoes with me sometimes, helps me to get rid of garbage, all the while educating me about the perils of rats, scorpions, and spiders. She plays practical jokes on me and is often laughing. She wants to be a veterinarian. When I am around her I recognize that being wise has nothing to do with age.
At the end of the day I mount my bike wishing I could stay longer and do more. But I have to beat the sun since the potholes and dead dogs on the road are even more perilous in the dark. I ride home tired and satisfied and filled with the sense of being an oddity who is nevertheless accepted by all of the characters who people the farm. I ride past the Plaza de la Revolución where Jose Marti sits in front of a tall monument pondering revolution and the sun sets behind him and the palm trees that are scattered around the city. I arrive home and am often greeted by Jen and the family that I live with here. Jen and I talk feverishly about our adventures and all that we have learned in that day. We then grab our vegetables that we bought at the market down the street, or from the man down the street who cuts us basil, parsley and spinach fresh from his small field, and we march down to the kitchen to see if there is enough gas to cook our dinner.
Being here helps me to see how much I take for granted in Canada. A huge diversity of foods always at my fingertips, regular electricity, clean water, toilet paper, cars and trucks that usually work, we have so much. Here I am learning the value of patience, ingenuity, working with less. I am even more grateful for my food now because I know how much work goes into growing it, and then for me to find it here and process it into a meal. Here it is hard to find certain foods especially regularly, and especially if you are looking to buy it in pesos. So much of the food I love in Canada and eat regularly is sold in American dollars and is therefore inaccessible to many Cubans and hard to find for people who do have dollars. Cheese is gold, eggs are diamonds, buns and rice are my sustenance, rum is blood. I realize now in a deeper sense that food does not exist without the people or animals that grow it or gather it, or process it. The food grown at the ACTAF farm, and all of the other farms in the world, is a part of the characters who work there and all of their sweat and politics, jokes, songs, sometimes boredom, days and time. All of my food has a story behind it and I feel lucky to be becoming a part of that story.
Jen Pukonen's Update from Cuba
Hmm....where to even begin??? Well, we are usually awakened around 4 am by our neighbourhood rooster, closely followed by what sounds like a territorial dispute between every cat and dog on the street. Luckily the warm breeze off the Malecon seawall soothes us back to sleep for a few hours until we lure ourselves out of bed with a tasty Cuban coffee and whatever fresh fruits the market had to offer. I climb on to my rickety old bike and dodge potholes, large trucks with loud horns instead of brakes and "psssting" men all the way to the Foundation in Miramar, about a half an hour from our house in Vedado. The "Foundation" is short for the Antonio Núñez Jiménez Foundation of Nature and Humanity (Antonio Núñez Jiménez Fundación de la Naturaleza y El Hombre). The Foundation is a non-government, non-profit organization that works on a wide range of projects, many that involve international collaborations with grass-roots organizations, such as LifeCycles in Victoria. The Foundation's goal is to work towards a "culture of nature", with the objectives of harmonizing the relationship between society and environment through:
1. The dissemination of the environmental works of their founder, a famous Cuban explorer and geographer, Antonio Núñez Jiménez.
2. Collaboration of research in the areas of geographical history, the environment, culture and society.
3. The maintenance and recuperation of the environment and a dignified quality of life.
4. Training on environmental issues.
The Foundation would like to work towards nurturing in the population an environmental consciousness that recognizes nature as an integral part of Cuba's national identity. I am currently working on LifeCycles' International Internship Program "Building Bridges", which is supported by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). LifeCycles is a non-profit, non-governmental organization which is "dedicated to cultivating awareness of and initiating action around food, health and urban sustainability in the Greater Victoria community".
My internship involves working with LifeCycles' partner the Foundation, to produce a digital map of Havana that will display 330 (the most current figure) organic agriculture sites within the city. These sites are all either owned or maintained by people who have taken Permaculture courses through the Foundation. They would also like to create links between the map and an agricultural database (which was created by Sol Kinnis, a previous LifeCycles intern), with the hopes of being able to strengthen the network of agriculturists in the city. Ideally it will provide a means to find out who is growing what, where and the different techniques and methodologies they are using. However, easier said than done!
Working with computers in Cuba is a unique and challenging experience! Some days they work and others they don't, not to mention all the other unusual situations that arise. For example, in one of the weeks which I had designated as "computer time", the office was fumigated for mosquitoes one of the days, the power shut down five or six times the other, the computer was disconnected so that the office could be rearranged the next, and well Friday there was an important party that everyone needed to attend...so as they say "poco a poco".
This week I am helping with the Foundation's demonstration garden. We are replacing all of the ornamental plants with plants that are either edible, medicinal or have other important properties such as deterring unwanted pests. Wilfredo, a farmer from a nearby Organoponico (a high production urban farm) has been helping me by sharing his immense knowledge of urban agriculture. His Organoponico supports a great program in which children from nearby schools come to help work on his farm. In return for their help, they receive fresh vegetables and herbs for their school lunches. Their teacher told me the program has been a great success as it provides the children with a chance to learn valuable hands on practical skills, as well as to expend their energy outside-which makes the rest of the day easier for everyone! The kids I spoke with were thrilled to tell me how many of them had since started small gardens in their own homes. They said it was much more exciting to eat vegetables that they had grown themselves. This is only one of the many examples in which creative urban agriculture is being incorporated at the community level in Havana.
Last week I was lucky to be able to spend the day with Manuel (known by all his friends as Conejo, because he loves his veggies) at the Geriatric unit of the Salvador Allende Hospital in Cerro, Havana. Conejo along with his two friends Renee and Alberto started a garden at the hospital in November 1997. It was created with the idea that working with plants and creating a green space would be therapeutic for the patients, many of whom were suffering from depression. The garden is one of a kind in Cuba as they are the only hospital that grows ornamental, edible and medicinal plants all for the patient's use.
Green medicine is now widely available throughout Cuba at both pharmacies and local farms. Much of the traditional Afro-Caribbean knowledge regarding medicinal plants has been recovered and is now in use. Using locally grown medicines decreases the need for imports, which are often expensive and unreliable due to trade barriers.
Large bushes bearing vibrant fuschia flowers now brighten the entrance to the Geriatric ward. These flowers, Farolito Chino, commonly know as Pacifloras can be used for their sedative properties. Conejo told me he makes a tea with five or so flowers an hour before bed each night to help him sleep. It was incredible to see the amount of energy the three have put into their garden, especially considering their ages range between 60 and 86 years. They all firmly agree that they receive invaluable benefits from the time and energy they expend in the garden. They described how talking and singing to the plants helps relieve stress. Not only does it allow them to get things off their chest but also they can watch their thoughts and energy go back into the cycle of life.
It was interesting how many times the cycle of life came into our discussions during the day. Conejo mentioned that it had been really important for them to be able to watch the life cycles that took place within the garden and to remember that there is a time and place for everything, that death is needed to create life, and that death too is beautiful. This was exemplified to them every time they put dead plants into the compost, which would later be used as a rich soil in which to plant new seeds. We discussed how the topic of death becomes somewhat of a touchy subject, which is often tiptoed around in a geriatric ward. Ironically, Conejo said he now feels much more comfortable with the idea of death, as the topic arose frequently in the garden, providing them with the opportunity to discuss their feelings and fears. After the day with my new friends I left with a renewed inspiration!
That night I returned home through the bustling streets of Havana and before doing anything else, I climbed the stairs and went straight to the little patio garden that Tara (the other LifeCycles' intern, and my partner in crime) and I have been creating. While watering our plants I felt the stresses of the street float away as I directed my energy into the herbs and vegetables we hope to turn into tasty concoctions in the weeks to come. Funnily enough, what originally seemed like an insignificant little "patio garden" has turned out to be a huge learning experience for us. It was easy enough to talk about urban agriculture everyday, but to do it was an entirely different world. For one, it takes time and energy, which well, in all honesty after biking all over the city, there were times when we simply felt we had none.
However, little by little we found balance and learned to manage our time here. Also gardening in the tropics is a little different than at home. Each new stage was followed by a new problem. Nonetheless, each of our difficulties have been somewhat of a hidden gem as they led us on interesting paths to ask the advice of people in the market, at the farms and at our work. Sure enough, they knew, we found our answers, and one by one we slowly learned the tricks to resolve our problems.
It was also incredible to see the responses we got when we told people we are trying to grow a garden and wanted their advice. Of anything to share ideas on food is one of the easiest. Everyone needs it and therefore everyone can relate to it. Talking about the garden with people here gives us the chance to knock down some of the walls that seem to build when you are being constantly perceived as extranjeras (foreigners). In the end we are all "the same same, but different!" More than anything I have been learning the need to live the things I am talking about.
When I find that the chaos of Havana is getting to me, my thoughts often drift to the lush green forests of Vancouver Island to "escape". This only confirms to me the importance of creating urban green spaces, so that people can make this "escape" a reality within the city. It feels great to be working with people who are passionate about trying to fulfill that element of nature that is so often missing in urban lifestyles. Having said all that, I feel the need to mention that the "Habaneros" (those living in Havana) have definitely found ways to vent the stresses of the city. Never in my life have I seen people that dance with the freedom and passion that they do here. I have yet to figure it out, maybe it is the hot climate that breeds such sexy dancers? However, ask a Cuban why they don't like spicy food, and they will always respond "I don't need to eat spice, it's in my blood, we are picante!!!" Need I say more?
I don't think my words can do this experience justice, as I generally see more in images than I do in words, and so I will try to leave you with exactly that. From my apartment nested amongst mango and avocado trees I gaze down at the street below....children screaming and racing around the neighbourhood in excitement, dogs barking, birds chirping, music blaring from every open window, dominoes slamming on rickety old wood tables, laughter, everyone yelling something to someone somewhere...glimpses of dancing on the street, on the rooftops, through the stain glass windows, old car engines chugging along, women sorting the rice for rocks, bicycle bells, the song of the guy who sells peanuts, shadows from the laundry that floats in the breeze dance on the crumbling walls, golden sunbeams bathe the city and make me squint to see what else? Hasta Luego, ciao.
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