Organopónicos are a system of urban organic gardens in Cuba. They often consist of low-level concrete walls filled with organic matter and soil, with lines of drip irrigation laid on the surface of the growing media. Organopónicos are a labour-intensive form of local agriculture.
Organopónicos first arose as a community response to lack of food security after the collapse of the Soviet Union. They are publicly functioning in terms of ownership, access and management, but heavily subsidized and supported by the Cuban government. Cuba continues to have food rationing, and imports even more food than before.
During the Cold War, the Cuban economy relied heavily on support from the Soviet Union. In exchange for sugar, Cuba received subsidized oil, chemical fertilizers, pesticides and other farm products. Approximately 50 percent of Cuba's food was imported. Cuba's food production was organized around Soviet-style, large-scale, industrial agricultural collectives. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba used more than 1 million tons of synthetic fertilizers a year and up to 35,000 tons of herbicides and pesticides a year.
With the collapse of the USSR, Cuba lost its main trading partner and the favorable trade subsidies it received, as well as access to oil, chemical fertilizers, pesticides etc. From 1989 to 1993, the Cuban economy contracted by 35 percent; foreign trade dropped 75 percent. Without Soviet aid, domestic agriculture production fell by half. This time, called in Cuba the Special Period, food scarcities became acute. The average per capita calorie intake fell from 2,900 a day in 1989 to 1,800 calories in 1995. Protein consumption plummeted 40 percent.
Without food, Cubans had to learn to start growing their own food rather than importing it. This was done through small private farms and thousands of pocket-sized urban market gardens—and, lacking chemicals and fertilizers, food became de facto organic. Thousands of new urban individual farmers called parceleros (for their parcelas, or plots) emerged. They formed and developed farmer cooperatives and farmers markets. These urban farmers found the support of the Cuban Ministry of Agriculture (MINAGRI), who provided university experts to train volunteers with organic pesticides and beneficial insects.
Without the fertilizers, hydroponic units from the Soviet Union were no longer usable. The systems were then converted for the use of organic gardening. The original hydroponic units, long cement planting troughs and raised metal containers, were filled with composted sugar waste and hydroponicos became organopónicos.
The rapid expansion of urban agriculture in the early 1990s included the colonization of vacant land both by community and commercial groups. In Havana, organopónicos were created in vacant lots, old parking lots, abandoned building sites and even spaces between roads.
More than 35,000 hectares (over 87,000 acres) of land are being used in urban agriculture in Havana alone. The city of Havana produces enough food for each resident to receive a daily serving of 280 grams (9.88 ounces) of fruits and vegetables. The urban agricultural workforce in Havana has grown from 9,000 in 1999 to 23,000 in 2001 to more than 44,000 in 2006. However, Cuba still has food rationing for basic staples. Approximately 69% of these rationed basic staples (wheat, vegetable oils, rice, etc.) are imported. Overall, however, approximately 16% of food is imported from abroad.
The grip of the state on Cuban farming has been disastrous. State farms of various kinds hold 75% of Cuba's 6.7m hectares of agricultural land. In 2007 some 45% of this was lying idle, much of it overrun by marabú, a tenacious weed. Cuba is the only country in Latin America where killing a cow is a crime (and eating beef a rare luxury). That has not stopped the cattle herd declining from 7m in 1967 to 4m in 2011.
The structures of organopónicos vary from garden to garden. Some are run by employees of the state; others are run cooperatively by the gardeners themselves. The reliance on the state government cannot be overlooked. The government provides the community farmers with the land and the water. The gardens can buy key materials such as organic composts, seeds and irrigation parts, as well as "biocontrols" such as beneficial insects and plant-based oils that work as pesticides from the government . These biological pest and disease controls are produced in some 200 government centers across the country.
All garden crops such as beans, tomatoes, bananas, lettuce, okra, eggplant and taro are grown intensively within the city using only organic farming methods since these are the only methods permitted in the urban parts of Havana. No chemicals are used in 68% of Cuban corn, 96% of cassava, 72% of coffee and 40% of bananas. Between 1998 and 2001, chemicals were reduced by 60% in potatoes, 89% in tomatoes, 28% in onion and 43% in tobacco.
By 1999, some farmers could have black beans, rice, tomato or even a boiled potato to eat; this is impressive by Cuban standards.
Applicability beyond Cuba
In Venezuela, the socialist government is trying to introduce urban agriculture to the populace. In Caracas, the government has launched Organoponico Bolivar I, a pilot program to bring organopónicos to Venezuela. Urban agriculture has not been embraced in Caracas as it has in Cuba. Unlike Cuba, where organopónicos arose from the bottom-up out of necessity, the Venezuelan organopónicos are clearly a top-down initiative based on Cuba's success. Another problem for urban agriculture in Venezuela is the high amounts of pollution in major Venezuelan urban areas. At the Organoponico Bolivar I, a technician comes every 15 days to take a reading from the small pollution meter in the middle of the garden.
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