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Wednesday
Oct282009

“Cuba's Accidental Revolution”

Comment on “Cuba's accidental revolution” (the review, not the movie)in The International Journal of Cuban Studies(1) 2008:

 

The transition toward a sustainable agriculture in Cuba was no accidental revolution but the result of struggle between different views of development within the process of inventing the appropriate relation between an evolving socialist society and the rest of nature.

 

The groundwork was laid in the 1960's and 1970's when labor law protected agriculture workers from pesticide poisoning by regular screening, micropresas were dug to make water available, and Fidel was circulating Rachel Carson's “The Silent Spring” among his friends. The Instituto Nacional de Sanidad Vegetal was experimenting with polyculture in their field plots in Guines de Melena, the Institute for Fundamental Research in Tropical Agriculture was examining the potential of ants as biological control agents, researchers at the Institute for Citrus Research were discussing integrated ecological agriculture. The Voisin system of rotational grazing was being introduced into dairying. In the 1970's, Cuban ecology was emerging fro the more classical colonial descriptive botany and zoology. A Communist Party nucleo of museum workers prepared its case for an ecological approach to development against the common dismissal of ecology as sentimental nostalgia for a golden age that never really existed.

 

In 1981 the first national conference on ecology saw lively debates about pesticide use. Unlike the debates in other countries, they were not surrogates for vested interests but rather strong differences of opinion among people with a common goal. Therefore reason could eventually prevail. The defenders of pesticides embraced the liberal and Soviet view of “progress” along a single pathway from less developed to more developed, an evolution from labor intensive to capital intensive, from peasant heterogeneity to industrial homogeneity, from “traditional” to scientific knowledge, from dependence on nature to control of nature. The ecological side saw development as a branching process, and the evolution from capital-intensive to knowledge-intensive, from control over nature to nudging nature, from random heterogeneity through industrial homogeneity to planned heterogeneity. The landscape is seen as a mosaic of land uses, each with its own products and also its contribution to the whole. For instance, forests gave lumber, fruit, honey, and charcoal but also regulated the flow of water, provided refugia for beneficial insects, birds and bats; created special micro-climates at their edges, preserved biodiversity and offered shelter to farm workers. They also looked at agricultural science as itself a social product with priorities and concepts influenced by the dominant philosophy and the economics of research, thus encouraging a skeptical stance toward the prevailing world science. Representatives of the tourism and food industries were asking for help to mitigate their own environmental impacts. The meeting called for the environmental council to have enforcement powers.

 

By the end of the 1980's , biological pest management was the accepted goal, centers for the raising of beneficial insects were established on the farms, the Institute of Ecology and Systematics had been organized from the previous institutes of botany and zoology.

 

Therefore, when the economy collapsed after the sudden loss of trade relations with eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, there was already a strong base from which to propose ecological approaches to agriculture. For some, ecological techniques were a compromise imposed by necessity, but the rest of us saw it as a process of converting ecologists-by-necessity into ecologists-by- conviction. Agricultural education was transformed to conform to these new perspectives.

 

Long term changes occur in Cuba when they are a point of convergence of diverse major goals represented by several ministries or other constituencies. This provides a measure of stability in an uncertain environment of shifting urgencies. Ecological agriculture met immediate urgent needs for food but also was supported by the Ministry of Public Health because of concern with pollutants and with nutrition (Cubans now actually eat vegetables!), urban planners who saw it as protecting green areas in the city and modulating the urban climate, economists who appreciated the savings in transport and refrigeration, others who noticed that the urban farms were foci of neighborhood social integration. Ecologists saw ecological agriculture as part of a planned land use strategy along with reforestation, protection of fragile habitats, resistance to desertification, preservation of protected natural areas and biodiversity, buffering of the river banks to protect potable water. And all of this within a Marxist orientation that presupposed priority for collective needs and the long run, whenever the short run was in good enough shape to permit longer range planning. This philosophy stresses wholeness, heterogeneity, and process, and a self-reflective understanding of science that made it easier to criticize technological fads.

 

To see Cuban ecological agriculture only as an improvised response to an emergency misses the opportunity to examine the dynamics of socialism and more generally the weaving together of all sorts of accidents and caprices of history into necessary patterns.

 

Richard Levins Harvard School of Public Health and the Cuban Instituto de Ecología y Sistemática.

 

 

 

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Reader Comments (2)

I love the Cuban people. are brave and not cry

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