Published by City Farmer, Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture

Growing Cities: Cuba's Experiment With Urban Agriculture During the "Special Period"

By Janine M. de la Salle
Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Masters of Arts
At Dalhousie University
Halifax NS
© Janine de la Salle 2004

Excerpt Background

These two documents are excerpts from a Master of Arts thesis completed in 2004 by Janine de la Salle (author) at Dalhousie University in Halifax under the primary supervision of Dr. John Kirk as well as Dr. David Patriquin and Dr. John Devlin. These particular portions of the thesis were selected on the basis that they had the most discussion and description of urban agriculture (UA) in Cuba during the past 15 years in conjunction with a detailed historical context of food security and public policy in Cuba since the beginning of the 20th century. The historical excerpt helps to set the tone for contemporary developments in Cuban food security such as the emergence of UA and is therefore essential. The gist of the entire thesis is given below as the "Thesis Abstract". If you have any questions about this material please contact the author at

Thesis Abstract

The globalization of the world food supply and urbanization have dramatically transformed the character of the food system and the nature of food security worldwide. Often these changes have brought social injustice and environmental degradation. The urban agriculture (UA) program in Cuba provides insight into mitigating these negative impacts. The development of a UA program in Cuba has contributed to increasing urban food security by providing a new source of nutrients, contributing to local and aggregate economies, being integrated into public policy and positively impacting the urban environment. As such this program is a valuable model for other cities to increase urban food security as well as positively impact the urban environment.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, Cuba's economy plunged into a state of crisis. During this time known as the "Special Period" food security in Cuba was dramatically undermined and the population teetered on the precipice of starvation. Through a series of political reforms and grass roots initiatives the UA program emerged and began to produce desperately needed food and non-food goods. Today, UA outputs comprise a significant amount (36%) of overall national production in fruits and vegetables.

Given UA's recent successes this research seeks to understand how and why UA emerged as it did in Havana and to address the question: is UA in Havana sustainable? Also, this research evaluates the capacity for the Cuban model of UA (in Havana specifically) to provide a development framework for other countries.

Based on secondary sources, this thesis adopts an indicator framework to assess the sustainability of UA in Havana. In this research, the sustainability of the UA program is explored and assessed through the use of a sustainability indicator set that is formulated on the core elements of sustainable cities and urban agriculture literature. The indicator set is then applied to a large body of research specifically relating to the UA program in Havana and Cuba. The sustainability of UA in Havana is evaluated on the basis of how well the research on Cuban UA reflected the core elements of sustainable cities and UA literature, or indicators.

This research has found that, based on the data and information, the sustainability of UA in Havana is uncertain. However, it is found that Havana is a highly viable system. This uncertainty regarding sustainability is attributed to the uncertain political-economic future that Cuba will face in the coming years. Despite this ambiguity, UA has experienced a high degree of success in the viability of political, economic, social and environmental systems. Further, while there is no blueprint for UA, it is found that Cuba's experiment with UA holds valuable lessons for other cities to implement a UA program. In this way Cuban UA can inform the creation of a UA development framework but is not one in and of itself.

The general implication of this thesis is that UA as a development framework warrants further attention. Also, areas for further research are identified such as the need for a soil survey in Havana, a study on the distribution of UA goods in Havana, and research into the economic up and downstream effects of UA. The main conclusion of this research is that Cuba's success in UA centers around a political-ideological belief that food is a human right, and in this respect other countries have much to learn from Cuba

First excerpt can be read here in its entirety (18,674 words) (468K) file)

The History Of Food In Cuba: The Impact Of Public Policy On Food Security

Food in Cuba is known by some as the "Achilles heel of the revolution" (Benjamin & Rosset 1994: 26). The securing of an accessible, equitable, and nutritious food source for Cuba has been, is, and will be the determining factor in the survival of the island. The nature of agriculture and food security in Cuba has been principally determined by the central organization and public policy reforms of the Communist government since 1959. To a large degree, Cuba has had to resort to radical changes in agricultural public policy pertaining to food security. These measures have both helped and hindered the public's access to food. Further, these measures have both been a challenge and a benefit to the sustainability of the Cuban agricultural sector. The historical context of food security and public policy in Cuba discusses the factors that lead to the emergence of urban agriculture (UA).

This excerpt will attempt to address two main questions: 1) how Cuban domestic policy has influenced food security, nutrition and health in Cuba; and 2) how the role of the Cuban state in securing food supplies has changed over time. These questions address the objectives of this section which are to establish a pattern between Cuba's domestic policy and the realities of every-day life for Cuban people over time, to assess the role of the state in Cuban domestic life in terms of food, and to explore the changes in Cuban agriculture and how they have influenced state policy, contributed to food shortages, or, conversely, played a leading role in sustainable agriculture and food security methods. The nature of the connection between public policy and food security is later discussed as an indicator of sustainability in the UA program.

The general research area that this excerpt encompasses is the history of food in Cuba. That is, it traces how state policy in agriculture, food production, and distribution have had an impact upon food security in Cuba and the people who live there. It is argued that although there has been government policy since 1959 that has worked to the detriment of food security for the Cuban people, many innovative transformations in Cuba's state policy in domestic food supply have fostered effective new ways of providing a safe, nutritious and accessible food source to the Cuban population. The political history of food security in Cuba is also considered as a macro indicator, establishing patterns of sustainable and non-sustainable practices over time that are later discussed in terms of how they help and hinder the sustainability of UA in Havana.

Cuba's domestic policy on agriculture, food security and public well-being is discussed in three main time periods. The first section gives a brief discussion on the conditions of state policy and agriculture at the turn of the 20th century that sets the stage for later developments in food security. The second section, presents the dramatic public policy reforms in agriculture and the Cuban food system after the 1959 revolution and during the years of growth and alliance with the Soviet Union. The third section provides an analysis of the most recent and ongoing stage of Cuban food security during the "Special Period", which is considered as a high point in the Cuban government's policies on securing a viable food supply for the population. The detailed discussion on the development of UA is reserved for the following excerpt. In addition, this section looks at the main domestic policy reforms in agriculture during these time periods and discusses the impact they have had on the Cuban people. This impact will be measured by indicators of public policy such as caloric intake, organization of labour, ownership of land, environment and human health. Lastly, the analysis portion of this excerpt will assess the degree to which domestic policy in Cuba has historically been able to satisfy the basic food and nutrition requirements of the Cuban people, as well as how well the Cuban state has established a viable food supply. Each of the three time periods will consider, where possible, how changes in public policy have transformed elements of the Cuban food system, and will also assess the overall impact on food security as measured by access to food as well as caloric, protein, and micronutrient intake.

Second excerpt can be read here in its entirety (14,741 words) (265K) file)

Introduction to that excerpt follows:

Urban Agriculture In Cuba, Examining The Indicators

The historical and political developments in the Cuban food system resulted in a dramatic transformation both in the organization and in the practices of the rural agricultural sector. With the onset of the "Special Period", and the concurrent drop in the availability of food, the urban sector also began to witness this dramatic transformation with the growth of UA. The shift from a high input, Green Revolution, model of agriculture to a lower-input more environmentally sustainable form, has filtered down to the production modes of food for domestic consumption. A significant element of this transformation has been the large-scale emergence of UA in major cities like Cuba's capital of Havana. Even though UA in Havana has, in many ways, redefined the possibilities for urban sustainability in terms of its unique approach to UA, a close examination of the various components of this agricultural practice is warranted in order to assess the real and potential sustainability of UA in Cuba.

This excerpt focuses on UA in Cuba, specifically in Havana, in terms of selected sustainability indicators. In this way, this excerpt is broken down into the four broad categories central to sustainability; political, economic, social and environmental. The first section describes the historical-political and contemporary-political context of UA in Cuba. This is integral to the further discussion of UA in Havana in terms of sustainability indicators. The following sections follow the breakdown of sustainability into environment, economy, and society. As such, the second, third, and fourth, sections discuss the environmental, economic and social sustainability of UA, respectively. More specifically, the first section presents background information on population and demographic trends in the City of Havana, a history of the emergence of UA in Havana, a descriptive account of the social organization of UA including public policy initiatives, land-use planning, resources for farmers, and government infrastructure. Also discussed in this section are land-use rights and material and technical support for gardeners by the government. As per the indicator set, these indicators are explored in terms of the degree to access to land, and types of support for gardeners.

The second section includes environmental indicators such as agrobiodiversity, nutrient recycling, soil and water management, ecological insect and plant pest management, and the benefits of localized food production. The third section looks at broad economic indicators for sustainability in UA in terms of household income generated as a result of UA, job creation, employments and impact that UA has on the urban economy levels of market integration, and types of urban agricultural production. The fourth section examines social indicators of sustainability such as women's empowerment, diet and nutrition, community capacity- building, impact of household income, and social perceptions of UA.

It should be noted that there is significant overlap in the categorization of indicators, within the four sections. For example, employment is part of both the economic and social components of sustainability (as is water usage is to the environmental and social realms). Therefore, the categorization of indicators within the umbrella groupings of political, economic, environmental, and social matters, is somewhat arbitrary. However, the individual indicators are discussed where they are most relevant. Further, it should also be noted that the indicators presented here are neither comprehensive nor mutually exclusive. They do, however, provide a useful analytical framework for evaluating the sustainability of UA in Havana.

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Revised Tuesday, January 28, 2005

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture