Reaping the Revolution: Urban Agriculture in Havana, Cuba

Workers loosen and and rake the topsoil of raised beds at the Organopónico Vivero Alamar in Havana, Cuba (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

During my recent visit to Cuba, I took a coco, one of Havana’s zipping yellow motorcycle taxis, from my accommodations in the Vedado neighborhood to Old Havana. I joined about fifteen other U.S.-based scholars and we made our way along the narrow cobblestone streets of the colonial capital and boarded a refitted Blue Bird school bus to travel to one of the city’s major urban farms.

The bus driver adorned the flat metal surface just above his head with a bumper sticker that read, “war is not pro-life” and these words overhung an image of a coffin draped with the U.S. flag. On my initial reading of the sticker, it simply highlighted the hypocrisy of U.S. discourses on life as the world’s chief dealer of arms. By the time we re-boarded the bus back to Old Havana, however, its meaning had grown added dimensions in the context of Cuba.

Despite its limitations, the revolution is an ongoing process that everyday Cubans take up and which they center in a very different genre of life discourse than is mainstream in the United States. While socialism is of course not immune to the processes of normalization and regulation that constitute modern forms of state racism, everyday Cubans’ efforts to figure out how to remake the world in the interest of collective well being contrasts sharply with this era in the United States, where the multicultural façade of neoliberalism has collapsed and white supremacy and enmity are fueled by the president on Twitter.

There, as part of the Association of Humanist Sociologists’ meetings, the other American scholars and I were all concerned with questions of food and environmentalism in our research and political practices. We wanted to see firsthand the ways that Cubans have taken global leadership in the development of the kinds of small-scale organic farming advocated in the 2013 United Nation’s Environmental Program report, Smallholders, Food Security, and the Environment. According to that report, small-scale organic food production is requisite for sustaining the planet’s biosphere and its human populations.

That morning I got the life-altering opportunity to take a guided tour of the Organopónico Vivero Alamar in Havana. Organopónico is a local neologism used to describe a series of urban and rural farms that Cubans initiated in the era of the country’s “Special Period.” That era that began with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s pressed many to refashion their relationship with matters of food and land as the population experienced a period of collective food crisis. As oil grew scarce, it became increasingly difficult for the government to transport food from the countryside to Havana and the island’s other urban centers.

Organopónico Vivero Alamar, Havanna, Cuba (Photo: J.T. Roane).

Although rice, which is largely imported into the country from Brazil and East Asia remains the primary staple in Cuban gastronomy, the “Special Period” pressed Cubans to reconsider the ways that they feed themselves and led to an expansion in small-scale organic farming in Havana and in other parts of the country. The organopónico I visited was founded in 1997 on ten and a half hectares of land. Until the Soviet Union’s collapse, the land was projected for a new major hospital and worker’s housing complex. When that future never materialized visionaries in a neighboring housing complex gained permission to use the land to create the organic farm.

The organopónico emerged as a vital alternative in a moment in which the surety of an oil-lubricated future collapsed. Cubans’ experimentation with the organopónico model is a critical example of the kinds of possible futures we might theorize and court as we face the apotheosis of our fossil fuel dependent order. Through organopónicos, these urban agriculturalists have begun to reimagine the ruins of a future that never was in order to draw people back to the land.

In Cuba, no less than in the United States, this is no straightforward task. Like other islands in the landscapes of cultivation and catastrophe that in part define the Caribbean archipelago, Cuba was founded through brutal European colonialism marked by a vision of God-ordained control that justified ecological exploitation as well as the erection of a racist system of labor. This system of labor and ecological transformation and the vision of the colonial hierarchy of being that was its chief ideological pillar tethered most Africans and their descendants to agricultural drudgery and exposed them to worst effects of ecological degradation. In Cuba, the emancipation of the enslaved by royal decree in 1886 did not end the geographic oppression most of the island’s African-descended population experienced, and most remained confined to a brutal plantation labor regime. Despite Cuba’s track record of revolutionary non-racist and anti-racist discourse, racial hierarchy has continued in the aftermath of the 1959 revolution to structure the kinds of labor available to its African-descended communities.

Within this context proximity to the land is often associated with the conditions of racial slavery and the non-arrival of full freedom. Agricultural labor is considered backward—as that which is antithetical to the modern, as arduous and ungenerative labor, as directly recalling the histories of plantation slavery and social and geographic immobility. Indeed, the average age for laborers on the farm I visited is fifty-six years old and our tour guide reported the difficulty of attracting anyone younger to that kind of labor.

Despite these difficulties, food and other plant life remain an ongoing way in which the urban agriculturalists at the Organopónico in Alamar look to reimagine primary social relations within their society and therefore to continue the work of la Revolucion as an ongoing process. Cubans created organopónicos in order to increase the number of organic vegetables available to the city’s residents while there was no rice or meat. Yet their efforts extend beyond just inserting fresh food into a community. Critically, food and its sharing, commensality, embody primary social relations and intimacies and thus mark significant sites where sociality is remade intergenerationally.

A Santería Ceremony in Centro Habana (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/ Bernardo Capellini).

In plantation societies like Cuba, where deprivation, starvation, glutting, and other tactics of terror explicitly employed food and metaphors of eating and consumption, it is potentially revolutionary to remake the ways that people procure, prepare, consume, and create wider networks of sociality through food. Moreover, these urban farmers’ efforts to rethink food extend to the question of commensality and communion with the divine. Along with food, they grow houseplants and flowers vital to the practices of Santería—the Yoruba-derived tradition of spirituality and divination that is an essential part of Afro-Cuban culture. By rethinking matters of sharing and practice across the human-divine continuum, organopónicos have the potential to disrupt even the theological premise of a white patriarchal god who condones dominion over the resources of the land, the water, and the people.

Each of these objects ranging from turmeric and lettuce to houseplants, represents efforts of the collective to employ savvy, non-chemical dependent, and culturally integrative techniques for growing plants vital to the unique gastronomic and cosmological universe of their community. Food from its procurement or growth to its preparation and sharing is a constitutive element of a wider social assemblage that brings people, insects, and inanimate resources like soil into a complex social network. These urban agriculturalists seek to create new forms of symbiotic interspecies life that contrasts sharply with the organization of petrol-agriculture, up from the matters of the soil itself.

In the U.S., for example, agribusiness conglomerates use synthetic fertilizers and pesticides along with genetically modified plants to render matters of the soil inconsequential in the process of producing food. This model of organization for our food system emerged along with the wider efforts of scientific farming that was consolidated through federal policy during the New Deal and in the aftermath of World War II. Later, the U.S. exported these practices as part of the wider “Green Revolution.” Then, federal agricultural policy precipitated the rapid shrinking of agricultural land ownership, the consolidation of large food companies, the radical displacement of Black communities from the processes of procuring our own food (despite the active politics around food in Black communities), and the use of food to support the U.S.’s imperial interests abroad.

In contrast, the Havana-based urban agriculturalists create their own soil and have built beds of worms to transform the waste of oxen and rabbits into a rich hummus ideal for the patch of earth that never became a hospital. They help to regulate the insect life that impacts their crops by intentionally maintaining plant biodiversity within the spaces between fields growing cabbage and lettuce. They strategically plant insect repellent and insect attracting plants to route insects away from foodstuff. They articulate an alternative vision of stewardship anchored in Santería that they extend between various species as well as to the divine.

On my way back to Old Havana from the organopónico at Alamar, I read the driver’s sticker with a new appreciation for what the discourse of life means in the context of Cuba. Everyday Cubans like the bus driver understand themselves in part through the contrast of their efforts to survive and to thrive, within and despite their history, with the inordinate resources the U.S. mobilizes to destroy, maim, and murder.

Cubans haven’t escaped anti-Black racism and yet the model of the organopónico contrasts sharply with politics of the U.S. where white supremacist, climate change skeptics have ascended to the highest offices of the land. Both major political parties are also committed to further entrenchment of our primary energy infrastructures in the earth-defiling and blood-drenched economy of oil and coal. Cuba’s urban agriculturalists have created a sophisticated model that we will need to emulate if we are to revolutionize our country in the face of the ongoing histories of social-ecological domination, abetted by the theological premise of god-ordained dominion.

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J. T. Roane

J.T. Roane is assistant professor of Africana Studies in the School for Social Transformation at Arizona State University. Roane is broadly concerned about matters of geography, ecologies, sexuality, and religion in relation to Black communities. He is at work on a manuscript, Dark Agoras: Insurgent Black Social Life and the Politics of Place in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @JTRoane.

Comments on “Reaping the Revolution: Urban Agriculture in Havana, Cuba

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    Lovely and important J.T. Many thanks.

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      Thanks for your engagement Russell.

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    Excellent reflection Reemphasizing the material base of their social revolution. Let’s hope they defend these gains in face of ongoing imperialist onslaughts
    Aluta Continua

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    I’m always conscious of how food insecure so many Cubans are. Still, they produce wonderful organic vegetables. They can’t afford chemicals or machinery. In the countryside you’ll occasionally see an old rusted out Soviet tractor and the farmer in the field nearby planting with a team of oxen.

    This article taps into so many layers of Cuban and US history, as well as the issues of race, place, and space. I even learned a new word: organoponico. Thanks for an enlightening piece on a place that has a lot to teach us.

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