Promoting Rural Resilience: Lessons from Cuba

by Lucas Wolf, Assistant International Director

For many folks, Thanksgiving conjures up images of abundance and family, a smorgasbord of food laid out on the dinner table with smiling faces and conversations ranging from the day’s football matches to work or politics.

For Sebastian Africano and myself, the week of Thanksgiving involved a different perspective: learning about the challenges of food production and security in Cuba. Since the embargo was put into place in 1962, Cuban agricultural authorities have developed multiple strategies to sustain its population. Urban horticulture and permaculture have been built within the larger infrastructure of the socialist food production system. However, Cuba still faces serious food security issues.

The World Food Programme estimates that the island currently imports up to 70-80% of its food, meaning that only 20-30% of Cuba’s food is produced in-country. The pressure to grow more food locally will only continue to increase as the lucrative and fast-growing tourism market explodes in Cuba (eloquently discussed in a recent NYT article). The question remains: How will Cuba meet the increasing food demands from the tourist market?

Cuban plant nursery
In just over two years, this start-up nursery is now producing over 200,000 plants per year.

The primary purpose of our trip was to try to learn more about the opportunities for “agritourism” in Cuba. Agritourism is a type of tourism that brings visitors to a farm or ranch, to enjoy the rural setting, and to be educated on the food system and/or culture. In particular, we noticed that the Cienfuegos and Cumanayagua regions of Cuba, were excellent sites for agritourism due to the intriguing mix of cultural and musical efforts that are combining to preserve rural, Campesino culture, all while maintaining the foundations of sustainable agriculture in the region.

Some of the places we visited included the Universidad de Cumanayagua, Teatro Los Elementos, and the music group Kfé Mezclado, which is located at the base of a large mountain range in prime coffee country. Music and art are the lifeblood of Cuba in many ways, and these groups promote a uniquely authentic experience that is a gateway to the essence and soul of the country. At TWP, we strive to create authentic travel opportunities for intercambios, or exchanges, between our U.S. supporters, and our Latin American partners in Central America and the Caribbean, all working in the same vein for a healthy environment and human well-being. As we begin to build partnerships and travel opportunities within Cuba, we hope to convey the importance of sustainable travel, so that many people can enjoy Cuba’s unique offerings and livelihoods for years to come.

Lucas in Cuba
Lucas Wolf, TWP assistant international director, surveying yuca plants on a demonstration farm outside of Cienfuegos, Cuba.

The Cubans are eager to show the world their beautiful country and their ingenuity and thirst for innovation and knowledge. There is a warmth and genuine human spirit that seeps through in any conversation on the street or at the farm with the Cubans. Despite the transitional moment and the challenges inherent, particularly after the death of Fidel Castro and before the start of renewed uncertainty with a new Administration in Washington, we seek to create a broader horizontal dialogue between the U.S. and Cuba focused on education and innovation for all involved. Through it all, we at TWP strive to promote and advance the skill sets and toolboxes that build broader rural resilience, an ability to adapt to and mitigate climate change, and continue to further education processes, for local beneficiaries, for tour participants and for ourselves as an organization. Cuba, and its land and people have a great deal to offer when it comes to teaching in these areas, and we at TWP are hungry to learn.

If you would like to support TWP’s work to promote and advance the skill sets and toolboxes that build broader rural resilience, please donate today!

donate button

TWP in Cuba – Life after Fidel

by Sebastian Africano, International Director

30 November 2016

On November 25th, 2016, I was sitting on a farm outside of Cienfuegos, Cuba, drinking strong coffee under a tree and talking about Latin America’s past, present, and future with the directors of a rural theater company. Like many conversations here go, we compared other countries in the region, their trajectories, their hallmarks, and their deficiencies. Among the stories told was that of a friend of one of those at the table who had returned to Cuba almost 37 years after leaving as a political dissident, after having vowed not to return until Fidel Castro died. He had given up and decided that his love for the country was greater than his fear of what its government might do to him. Waiting for Fidel to die, I thought… and I said to the table, “so many people have been waiting for that moment.”

Later that night, I woke randomly at 3:57am EST, restless, and listened to people boisterously rolling out of a nearby nightclub. I couldn’t sleep – likely due to the late afternoon coffee – and decided to flip on the television in my room to see what the State was broadcasting at that time of night. All channels were static, except for two identical ones on which credits were rolling from a program that was ending. As soon as these ended, a newsflash came on with a visibly uncomfortable female newscaster sitting next to a photo of Fidel Castro. The audio was jammed, but my heart jumped at what I thought she might be saying. I flipped to the other station, where I heard for the first time that Fidel Castro had died. Immediately I jumped out of bed to see Raul Castro come on screen and repeat the news: “…hoy, 25 de Noviembre del 2016, a las 10:29 horas de la noche, falleciĂł el Comandante en Jefe de la RevoluciĂłn Cubana, Fidel Castro Ruz.” I immediately ran out into the courtyard to wake my colleague Lucas Wolf to share what I had just heard.

At 5:00am on November 26th, I could still hear people on the street who had clearly heard the news, and my mind raced at the significance of being in Cuba at this moment in history. The sun was an hour from coming up, and my first thoughts are how to get to Havana to bear witness to what would likely be one of the biggest public manifestations in this country’s history. I can only smile at the irony that earlier that same evening I realized that November 25th was the biggest embodiment of consumer culture in the capitalist world – Black Friday. It was as if one final ideological barb had been thrown at Cuba in an almost century-long battle for the soul of the hemisphere. Just like that, the world turned, and one of the most colossal and polemic figures in history was gone.

Cuban Flags
The Cuban flag and the 26th of July Movement flag, which marks Fidel’s first rallying cry against the Batista government in 1953, fly high in Cienfuegos, Cuba.

Several days later, now back in the U.S., I ponder the subtlety with which the country took Fidel’s passing. Flags fly at half-mast still today, and houses throughout Cienfuegos, and surely the country had both the Cuban flag and the 26th of July Movement flag draped on their windows and doors. During nine days of mourning, all cultural events and live entertainment had ceased, music in taxis was silenced, and alcohol sales were prohibited (mostly), leaving the city in a pleasant, meditative calm. But apart from the odd conversation on the street, people were relatively mum about the event unless we brought it up first, which generally led to a rich, reflective exchange.

We bagged our plans of traveling to Havana from Cienfuegos to avoid the throngs of Cubans and dozens of dignitaries from around the world that flew into Havana on Monday and Tuesday for funeral services. Mourners queued for hours in central plazas across the country to pay homage to their fallen leader, and to show their commitment to the “revolutionary values” listed in Fidel’s May 1, 2000 speech to the country. We walked to Cienfuegos’ main square in awe of the thousands of people with flowers in hand, waiting for their turn to sign Fidel’s funeral registers. For every person cheering in Miami’s streets on Friday night, there were thousands in Cuba showing, at the very least, respect for what they considered Fidel represented.  Fall where you may on the political spectrum, the impacts of Fidel’s ideological intransigence will be debated for centuries, as will the steps taken in the months and years after his death.

Paying respects to Castro in Cienfuegos, Cuba
Masses of Cuban people line up to pay their respects to fallen leader Fidel Castro in downtown Cienfuegos, Cuba

The mark Fidel Castro left on history is an unhealable wound for some, and for others a badge of honor, a national identity, and a living example of an alternate path. The Cuba I know is a place where people are cultured, talented, peaceful, loving, forward-thinking, and tough as nails. They have been through and sacrificed much to build a society and country of which most are proud, while openly recognizing its shortcomings. As Cuba crosses the chasm into a post-Castro mixed economy and an age of unprecedented information access, we have the choice of either continuing to isolate Cubans behind an artificial wall of outdated political fervor, or to lend them every bit of support we can to help protect the gains they have made while contributing to a more positive, prosperous, and inclusive future.

This is a future that I believe in, and one I hope you’ll support as Trees, Water & People extends its hands to some of the most remarkable people in the hemisphere.

donate button

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fall “Forests Forever” Newsletter Now Available!

2015 Fall newsletter

The digital edition of our bi-annual newsletter, Forests Forever, is now available for your reading pleasure. In this edition, you will enjoy news and updates from our Board, Program Directors, and other staff who are working every day to make our programs successful and sustainable. Thanks for reading and please share with a friend too!

In this issue:

  • We Are All Related
  • Lessons from Cuba
  • Replanting the Pine Ridge
  • Community Voices
  • This Changes Everything

Read the Fall 2015 Newsletter >>

Lessons from Cuba: Finding Solutions to a Climate Crisis

Havana Cuba

by Sebastian Africano, International Director

Of all the memorable encounters during my ten days in Havana, Cuba for the 10th Convention on Sustainable Development and Environment in July, there is one that stood out most. A man stopped me between sessions and said he’d overheard I was from the U.S., and asked if I could help him identify someone from our delegation. Happy to help, I asked who he was looking for, and he said, “Sebastian Africano.” I almost fell backwards when he told me that he was from Guantánamo province (where my wife worked years ago), and that he was told to look for me by some of her former colleagues.

This man was Alexander Fernández, who works for the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment (CITMA), and is also a member of the Cuban Association of Agriculture and Forestry Technicians (ACTAF). His specialties are in Sustainable Soils Management and Conservation Agriculture, and he is based in one of the driest regions of Cuba. Meeting him opened the door to a crucial network of people working on climate adaptation strategies for rural populations in Cuba, and led to a flurry of private meetings after the conference.

Cuban art

Cubans have much to teach, having lived through the forced austerity of “The Special Period” that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. During that time, Cuban people survived through solidarity and ingenuity, devising ways to produce their own food without the benefit of petrochemical and technological inputs. The lessons learned during these challenging times make Cuba a staunch ally in facing the challenge of climate change.

After an anemic 2014 harvest, several countries in Central America have reported net losses of staple crops in 2015 at over 60% due to drought, creating conditions of scarcity never before seen. Many of the approaches to agriculture and natural resource management that Alexander and his teams have been forced to adopt in Cuba hold pertinent lessons for those struggling in Central America.

This is where TWP’s model of leveraging local knowledge, building regional networks, and allocating resources to build rural resilience come into play. Over the next year, we seek to strengthen our bonds with Cuba, through educational exchanges involving our partners and donors, as well as by helping to fund local projects. Challenges as daunting as climate change require that we put our heads and resources together to find replicable and impactful solutions.

Building Climate Resilience in Cuba

Visiting with Cuban friends
Visiting with Cuban friends in 2009 – all smiles in a harsh reality.

by Sebastian Africano, International Director

In two weeks, I’ll board a plane in Miami that will take me to an island on which not many living U.S. citizens have set foot. The United States’ relationship with Cuba has been strained (at best) since Fidel Castro wrested power from military dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959. This was the same year that Bob Dylan graduated from High School, Alaska and Hawaii were granted statehood by President Eisenhower, and the first color photograph of earth was transmitted from space.

Now, 56 years and 10 U.S. presidents later, we still hold an ideological, geopolitical grudge with a neighbor that’s closer to our mainland than either of the two states added to our country in 1959. On December 17, 2014, President Obama took momentous steps to thaw U.S. relations with Cuba, by easing some restrictions on travel and trade with the island nation. This is a significant step in starting a new conversation between our two populations to examine how each of us lives, what we value individually and as societies, and where there is common ground on which we could begin building a common future.

The threat climate change poses to agricultural communities is one such platform that doesn’t discriminate by political ideology, language, or history, and one conversation where all perspectives need to be heard. Trees, Water & People intends to take part in this important conversation with Cuba, and will take our first step by attending the Tenth Convention on Sustainable Development and Environment in Havana from July 2 – 6 2015. There we will meet with colleagues from Cuba’s Institute for Agroforestry Research (INAF) and the Cuban Association of Forestry and Agriculture Technicians (ACTAF) to discuss current challenges in the rural areas of the country, and where TWP’s experience in Agroforestry and rural development could potentially contribute to a solution.

cuban chicken
(Photo by Sebastian Africano)

Rural communities in Cuba live in similar conditions as their Caribbean and Central American neighbors, with salty and silty soils, a volatile tropical climate, and difficulty accessing water. As such, there exist great opportunities for exchange and learning in agriculture, soil remediation, and forestry. Cubans have much to teach, having lived through “The Special Period” that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. During that time, Cuban people survived through solidarity and ingenuity, having to devise ways to produce the majority of their own food without the benefit of petro-chemical and technological inputs. The lessons learned during these challenging times, and while living under 50 years of a brutal U.S. economic embargo, make Cuba a staunch ally in facing the adversity that will come with climate change.

cuba
Havana, Cuba (Photo by Sebastian Africano)

Behind the curtain of U.S./Cuba relations there is a Latin American nation of over 11 million people whose reality is only known to us by the tidbits of popular culture that sneak into the mainstream. These people, while having lived a different history than the majority of their neighbors, still face the same challenges and have the same aspirations of most communities in Latin America – keeping their families fed and healthy, leading productive and purposeful lives, and creating opportunities for their children. Just as we support other Latin American communities struggling with issues relating to rural vulnerability, we seek to work with the Cuban people to create a collaborative future around resilience, reconciliation, and climate change readiness in the tropics.

Check in with TWP regularly for updates on our first exploratory trip to Cuba, and to support building climate resilience in the Americas! Also, feel free to contact me at sebastian@treeswaterpeople.org or at (970)484-3678 ext.16 with any questions.