Saturday, January 26, 2008

Cuban permaculturalist to tour Australia

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc in the early 1990s, Cuba lost access to the oil, fertilizers and virtually all trading partners that the small island nation depended upon to survive. Cuba faced economic collapse virtually overnight.

Cuba, however, refused to give up on building a socialist society — maintaining, for example, its universal free healthcare and education — while it entered into the period of economic hardship known as the "Special Period", and the United States tightened its decades-long blockade of the country.

During this time, however, it faced an even more challenging crisis: securing food to sustain the population. Over half the country's food had come from the USSR, and most of its petroleum, fertilisers and pesticides were imports.

Early in the "Special Period", a number of Australians travelled to Cuba to introduce permaculture, a form of sustainable, low-input agriculture. The ideas were eagerly taken up by the Cuban government as part of its policy of "linking people with the land". The government immediately set about creating urban agricultural cooperatives and investing in biotechnology and agricultural science.

Cuban agriculture is now over 95% organic, and the city of Havana itself now produces over 60% of its fruit and vegetables within the city's urban and peri-urban spaces, in community gardens and cooperatives.

Multi-cropping, worm-farms, appropriate crops and water efficiency have led to an explosion in urban agriculture, and local food production has been a source of employment, while cutting down on unnecessary transport costs.

At the same time, Cuba has been engaging in a massive reforestation campaign, and has invested massively in alternative energy production, particularly solar and biofuels.

When the World Wildlife Fund released their Living Planet report in 2007, only one country — Cuba — managed to meet the criteria set for sustainable development, by "improving the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of supporting ecosystems".

With help from Cuban experts, Venezuela has also begun setting up city-farms in Caracas and elsewhere, with a target of meeting 20% of that country's demand with a reliable, sustainable food source.

Now Australia will have the chance to hear first-hand about the Cuban experiences over the past decade. Roberto Perez Rivero, permaculture and environmental educator for the Antonio Nunez Jimenez Foundation for Nature and Humanity — Cuba's major environment organisation — will be touring Australia in March and April this year.

Perez is one of Cuba's leading permaculturalists, featured in the award-winning documentary on Cuba's shift to sustainable development, The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil.

Perez will be a keynote speaker at the Climate Change — Social Change conference organised by Green Left Weekly in Sydney on April 11-13 and at the Ninth Australian Permaculture Convergence at Easter.

For more information on Perez's national tour, visit

First published in Green Left Weekly, January 26, 2008.

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