ON A CLEAR DAY, looking down from the Lomas de la Canoa in central Cuba, you can see the ocean some fifteen kilometers to the north. From here, the contours of the coastal landscape gently taper away from the forested highlands of the Sierra de Jatibonico in a patchwork expanse of agricultural fields, towns, and small farming communities. Beyond them are the semi-deciduous trees of Caguanes National Park, cradled on the coastline next to the mangrove forests and wetlands of the Ciénaga de la Guayabera. Just offshore, the tropical Caribbean waters of the Jardines del Rey host an array of cays and skerries that provide habitat for permanent and passing bird species as well as vacation destinations for migrating tourists. Between the ocean and the dense woodlands, the fields and rocky highlands, the vista from the lomas is one of a dynamic landscape: picturesque, complex and diverse, like pieces of a puzzle that have grown together over decades of reciprocal flux.
This is the view of north central Cuba from the town of La Picadora, located on the Sancti Spiritus side of the province’s border with neighboring Ciego de Ávila. Geographically, the region is set apart from the rest of the island, nestled between a modest range of karst mountains to the south and the forested coastal peninsula to the north. While tourists frequent the offshore beaches of Cayo Coco to the east and the urban centers further south, few ever venture into this narrow strip of land that runs one hundred kilometers between the cities of Remedios and Morón. Despite these unique regional attributes, however, what is most interesting about La Picadora are not the things that make it distinct from the rest of Cuba, but rather what it shares with the island as a whole.
As with many other agricultural areas in Cuba, La Picadora was once the site of a thriving sugarcane industry, entailing vast monocultures of the perennial grass that occupied most of the lowland areas along the coast. A majority of La Picadora’s sugarcane, once harvested, was sent to any number of regional mills to be processed and prepared for export. Since the times of Spanish colonialism, this had been a familiar pattern for rural Cuban communities and landscapes, one that not even the radical politics of the 1959 revolution were able to break completely. But from the heights of the Canoa hills these days, the only evident pieces of this history are fading linear patterns that once designated breaks in the massive fields of sugar. Old roads for heavy machinery that are now more frequently traversed by bikes, horses, ox carts, and aged automobiles.
The landscape that has come to dominate this region is very different from the landscapes of the past. After the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the Cuban economy became unsustainable almost overnight, in particular the heavily-industrialized agricultural sector, which for decades had been tied directly to subsidies and special trading agreements with the USSR. This marked the onset of the Special Period in Time of Peace (or simply, the Special Period), a decade of generalized economic crisis for the island. Sparked by the collapse of the Socialist Bloc, this crisis was exacerbated by the tightening of US sanctions, which had been in place since 1962 but which were newly bolstered through the passage of the Toricelli Act of 1992 and the Helms Burton Act of 1996, which further restricted trade in an attempt to strangle the economy and force the end of socialism in Cuba.
In the vacuum of Soviet support and in the face of a persistent US embargo, the Cuban state had few options but to dramatically restructure its entire agricultural sector from the ground up. The crisis opened the political space for farmers and researchers, who had been calling for a transition towards sustainable, organic and agroecological approaches for decades, to gain power and lead in this transition. Over the next thirty years, Cuba gradually moved away from a solely petroleum- and input-dependent model of agriculture based on the export of predominantly monoculture crops, especially sugarcane, towards a more diversified, localized system of small-scale and family farms, many of them implementing sustainable, low external input methods of agroecology.
All over Cuba, in places such as La Picadora, these shifts have induced dramatic social, economic, and ecological changes, resulting in both landscapes and communities that have come to reflect three decades of radical agrarian transition whose implications, while profound, remain understudied and misunderstood. What research does exist, not just from La Picadora but from places across Cuba, paints an interesting and complex picture, one with potentially much to teach a world confronted by the concurrent problems of the climate crisis and rising socio-economic inequality.
To understand what these lessons are, and to understand why they are relevant beyond communities in the Caribbean, it is necessary to zoom back out and take stock of the challenges that this century has on offer. Existentially, aside from the rising potential for global thermonuclear war, a growing body of evidence from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reveals that climate change represents the single greatest threat to life on this planet. The seasons are changing, species are disappearing, and temperatures are on the rise, even as millions of climate refugees have already been displaced and the vast inequities of the world continue to grow deeper.
Of course, there is no shortage of potential solutions. There are the more typical ideas, like improving renewable energy production or moving towards electric vehicles, which offer actionable steps forward, if only they were not so mired in culture wars and corporate influence. Such ideas are important and not to be discounted, but they also present a number of concerns around equity and accessibility. Environmental justice, it seems, is still less politically palatable than reducing CO2 emissions. And change—even positive change—always offers novel opportunities for new regimes of capital accumulation (which often end up looking pretty similar to the last).
Then there are the even more ambitious dreams of geoengineering, like injecting the atmosphere with sunlight-reflecting aerosols to artificially cool the planet, touted by people who have learned little humility over centuries of meddling with our planet’s machinery, or like Jeff Bezos’s proposal, after his trip to suborbital space, that all polluting industries be shipped into orbit.
But what if there was a solution—or at least part of one—that was much simpler than all of that? Something close at hand, closer than many of us realize, which could address not just the many critical environmental concerns of the Anthropocene, but also a number of underlying socio-economic concerns as well?
But what if there was a solution—or at least part of one—that was much simpler than all of that?
Long before it was used to combat an economic crisis in Cuba, agroecology was a novel approach to agriculture that aimed to integrate ecological principles into agricultural systems. Unlike many of the technologies of the Green Revolution, which as activist and scholar Vandana Shiva explains, attempt to “combat scarcity and dominate nature,” agroecology instead seeks to work alongside the natural world. By mimicking the processes of nature in our gardens, fields, and pastures, many of the functions of ecosystems—from pest management and nutrient cycling to erosion control and carbon sequestration—can be achieved without synthetic inputs like pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. To do this, agroecological systems are heavily diversified. Rather than the oceanic monocultures of the agri-industry, agroecological plots integrate a variety of species, both crop and non-crop, flora and fauna, into an agricultural landscape that is functionally diverse, imitating the various niches and micro-habitats present in nature. Such an approach is incredibly effective not just in producing a diversity of foods, but also a diversity of ecosystem services, which in turn helps to improve farmer resilience (i.e. the ability to absorb shocks, whether climatic, economic, or otherwise) while also mitigating environmental impacts, such as climate change.
But agroecology is not just a science or on-farm practice; it is also a social and political movement that seeks to transform the dominant corporate food model towards a more socially just, economically fair, and ecologically resilient model. Investing in agroecology as a solution to this era of polycrisis means investing in the small and medium-scale and family farms of the world. Rather than subsidizing industrial producers to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars every year to the detriment of both people and the planet, we should be subsidizing small-scale farmers to do what they do best: produce nutritious food and steward the land.
Perhaps surprisingly for modern audiences, small-scale and family farms still account for almost 2 billion people, roughly one-quarter of the entire global population. And despite popular contemporary narratives about industrial agriculture “feeding the world,” a majority of the world’s food is still produced by small-scale and family farmers working on less than 20 hectares of land. This is true globally, but even more when we zoom into many developing countries with largely agrarian economies. As the agricultural industry is busy responding to market incentives, redirecting its products into energy production (think: bioethanol and biodiesel) or into feed for livestock, the small farms of the world are busy producing the calories and nutrition for people where the modern agri-food system regularly falls short. At the same time, while these small-scale and family farms are integral to global food production and well-positioned to implement low-input and ecologically-restorative practices, like agroecology, they are also some of the poorest populations in the world and some of the most vulnerable to a changing climate.
If read through this lens, it is clear that climate change and inequality are symptoms of many of the same systemic problems. In helping the small- and family-farms of the world, we are working towards addressing both.
In La Picadora, we see not only a microcosm of the changing agricultural realities in Cuba, but also an example of what such a shift towards small-scale agroecology might look like on the ground.
On one hand, it would be a lie to say that La Picadora and surrounding communities are producing more agriculturally than they were before, at least by some metrics. The total acreage under production, for example, has dropped precipitously since the early 2000’s. On the other hand, it would be accurate to say that La Picadora and surrounding communities are producing differently than before and in ways that have more immediate benefits to the region.
Replacing the extractive, wage-labor system of industrial sugarcane in La Picadora has been a food system that is now focused on regional self-sufficiency and geared towards local markets. While large-scale sugarcane production has all but ceased in this region, the production of foods for local consumption, such as fruits, vegetables, and staple root crops like cassava and taro, has risen dramatically, more than doubling over the course of a decade. Along with a concurrent doubling in the number of local food markets—another policy change brought about by the Special Period—what can be seen in this region is an agricultural economy that is localizing: shortening its value chains, producing food for local consumption, and serving the nutritional needs of the people who actually live there, versus the price margins of distant markets.
Economically, such a shift has also been greatly beneficial for farmers. With the added support of a strong social safety net in Cuba, as well as stable prices offered by the Socialist government, not to mention multiple avenues for selling surplus crops on the private market—the result of recent efforts to liberalize parts of the domestic economy—salaries for farmers have also doubled in the same period. As in few other places, small-scale agriculture is now the highest paying form of employment in the region.
The depth of change brought about by this localizing food system can also be seen on the landscape. Like many of the agroecological farms that compose it, the landscape around La Picadora, from the lomas to the coast, has shifted in ways that make it more functionally diverse. This is thanks, in part, to the strong environmental protections put into place by a government which, like many small-island states around the world, is increasingly concerned with the current and future prospects of climate change.
The establishment of the Buenavista Biosphere Reserve—a conservation complex that includes everything from mangroves to wetlands to coral reefs—as well as reforestation efforts on the Lomas de Canoa have dramatically increased forest cover in the area since the sugarcane industry disappeared. They have also helped foster the rehabilitation of important natural features, such as buffer zones along the Rio Jatibonico del Norte and coastal forests on the Punta Alegre Peninsula, both of which provide vital services to a region increasingly impacted by strong storms, sea level rise, and unseasonal flooding.
Complementing this regional work are several national frameworks that seek to address climate impacts across the entire Cuban archipelago. Ambitious programs such as Tarea Vida, which is a 100-year initiative to confront climate change, and PLAN SAN, a nationwide effort to develop food sovereignty and agroecology, represent comprehensive, forward-looking efforts with few parallels elsewhere in the world. On top of this, Cuba’s new constitution, ratified in 2019, is one of only twelve national constitutions in the world to directly mention climate change by name.
In total, the view from La Picadora these days is a view towards a different kind of future. It is a future that we might seek, and not just for the billions of small-scale farmers of the world, but for those many billions more who benefit from the food they produce and from their stewardship of the land. The view from La Picadora is one of a growing movement, encompassing more and more communities in Cuba and elsewhere, intent on building sustainable alternatives based on the principles of reciprocity, regeneration, and equity.
A majority of the world’s food is still produced by small-scale and family farmers working on less than 20 hectares of land.
This isn’t to say that such solutions are comfortably within reach or that there are not significant obstacles to realizing them. Like all countries around the world, Cuba was impacted heavily by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. These impacts were heightened by the realities of the Cuban economy, which is largely dependent on tourism, a sector devastated by travel restrictions. On top of this, the Cuban economy continues to be severely constrained by the 60+ year U.S. imposed blockade, making it difficult for Cuba to supplement or invest in its domestic production with imports from abroad. Further complicating matters during the pandemic was the Trump administration’s passage of some 243 new measures, including restrictions on remittances, which have gravely impacted the quality of life of Cuban citizens. As with the blockade, these measures have brought intense suffering to many in Cuba, and represent one of the ways that the US continues to use hunger as a weapon in its war against the Cuban government.
Concurrent with these events, Cuba has also passed some of its most ambitious economic reforms in decades. The goal of many of these reforms has been to decentralize governance in Cuba with a focus on sustainable local development while opening more spaces for small- and medium-size enterprises. To do this, policies have been passed to provide more credit, services, and autonomy to farmers in order to boost food production, reduce food waste, and reduce the country’s dependence on imported foods, all of which required a degree of monetary unification which has since led to severe inflation.
Despite these challenging conditions and strict sanctions, however, there are still a number of avenues for cooperation and collaboration. In recent years new learning alliances, exchanges and concrete projects have been established between civil society organizations in the US and Cuba with the objective of mutually learning, researching, and building capacity in both countries. In some cases, these efforts go so far as to provide financial and material assistance to advance food sovereignty, sustainability and climate resilience, all with respect for Cuba’s sovereignty. Solidarity networks across the US and Latin America continue to work in support of Cuba’s unique agroecological movement.
In general, with all forms of engagement, it will be important in the coming years to help support Cubans to do more of what they are already doing well. This means also making sure not to export models of potentially false or inappropriate solutions, such as the high-capital, high-tech approaches that are not suited to the local Cuban context, or those that depend on volatile, ineffective carbon markets. In our ongoing relations with Cuba, it is important that the solutions and support we offer not be a part of the same neoliberal model of development foisted on so many other countries which benefits foreign corporations at the cost of local communities and livelihoods.
Turning a new chapter with US relations to Cuba is an opportunity to develop a posture based on a fair, rights-based approach whereby trade agreements and cooperation do not undermine local economies or ecologies on either side. With so many shared, intersecting challenges, engagement with Cuba could be a chance to realize a new type of reciprocal exchange with a neighboring nation state. It could be an exchange that centers the rights of both humans and nature and which responds to the collective need to repair our relationships not only with each other, but also with the ecosystems that sustain our economies and societies.
While pioneering, dedicated communities like La Picadora have done so much to show Cuba and the world what is possible, it is the role of the rest of us to help bring a more equitable, reciprocal, and sustainable vision to fruition. Such a task represents perhaps the most profound challenge of our time, one that will define our generation and generations to come. And the obstacles in the way are massive. But in agriculture there is always an element of hope in the earth’s promise of growth and sustenance. It is only a matter of how we nurture what we plant, so that it may nurture us too.