Sunday, 10 May 2009

Letter from Havana (1)

This is frist of a few installments from Paulo, our friend who has been helping us with our gardens / land design, and with our straw bale section, and also with every other aspect of buildings so far.

His letters say it all. I will send them in chronological order as they have arrived. This first one from 17th April.

After 4 days in Havana I have fallen in love with this crazy, dirty, colourful, vibrant city. There is nothing I can say that really can convey the feeling of this place – it is amazing to see a city so full of creativity and ingenuity to keep it running despite restrictions of almost everything that flows into a normal city, amazing to not feel the pull of corporate advertising on your brain every place that you look, and... to be in a social space that is entirely different from anything I have encountered so far. A canadian filmmaker staying at our hotel described it as “ like a contest for making ornate wedding cakes in which a quarter of the cakes have been removed, a quarter perfectly preserved, a quarter smashed up and a quarter rebuilt with the bits that were left”. That comes close. Outside in the street it is hot and sweaty, palm trees next to old cadilacs and pimped-up Russian Ladas (the car) with leopard skin seat covers, horse-drawn carriages (for the tourists) and also a wide range of people from the guys sieving building rubble to get the lime mortar and sand out to reuse in other work, to doctors cycling to work, modern, london style bendy buses and huge old dilapidated 1950s american lorries carrying sacks of spuds or onions. Such a mind-bending colourful mish-mash. Lots of edge effect at work here!!! Today we had a meeting with Roberto Perez, a Cuban Permaculture teacher who works for FANJ (Fundación de Antonio Nuñez Jímenez para naturaleza y el hombre), the main organisation disseminating permaculture within Cuba. We discussed the PDC course that we are going to co-teach in three days time, along with Aili, a Finnish friend of mine who completed her PDC in Australia with Bill Mollison, Geoff Lawton and Gregg Knibbs and has been working recently in Lima introducing Permaculture to CAN, the Andean Community (a high level cross – country political body working across Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Columbia. But that is another story...)

I have come here on the invitation of the British organisation Garden
Organic (formerly HDRA), who have been working with partners in Cuba
for the past 2 years to combat the effects of a drought that the
country has been suffering in certain provinces. My hosts here who are
organising the course (and sorting out my visa) are INCA – the
national institute for agricultural science, who are a part of the
ministry of education. The project has been doing some great work with
participatory plant breeding, seed saving and mycorrhizal root
innoculation, and have begun moving out of the reductionist mentality
so traditional in agronomy and realise that they need to start looking
into new growing systems. That is where permaculture comes in, and I
am lucky enough to be a small part of this.

As some of you may know, Cuba has its fair share of permaculture
projects already established, but this is almost entirely focused in
the context of urban agriculture. In the countryside, conventional
farming techniques (even though more organic than not) hold sway, and
a spiral of degradation and soil loss continues – there is a serious
desertification in many areas, with the impacts of treeless
monoculture and ploughing being exacerbated by the hurricanes, floods
and droughts of increasingly unstable weather patterns symptomatic of
climate change – a new global pattern that is becoming all too
familiar to us.

The course is to be held at an agricultural research station in the
province of Matanzas, to the east of Havana. It will be a slightly
different format from the normal pdc, in that it is difficult to get
people to come for more than a week, particularly farmers who need to
get back to their land. Due to this, we will be teaching the majority
of the course over a rather intense 6 days, and then following up with
a 3 day visit to each of the areas of Cuba that the participants live
- the 28 participants come from 4 main areas. In these 3 days we will
complete a design exercise on the farms where the participants work,
and also begin implementation of certain aspects, by way of in-depth
practicals. In this way we will be able to cover the full PDC
syllabus, and also complete the requisite number of hours, but tailor
it to the unique Cuban social and environmental context. Roberto
actually remarked that in many ways, this is the ideal situation, as
we will be able to establish the beginning of several trial projects
in places where people will continue them and (I think) which can
potentially grow to be dissemination centres for their area.

To this end, today's meeting with Roberto was invaluable – he has been
teaching permaculture for more that 13 years, and knows a huge amount
about the complex and diverse biological systems in Cuba (he
originally trained as a biologist) as well as knowing what works with
Cubans (apparently the concept of zoning is sometimes a challenge). He
is an amazing character – very very bright, full of energy and
knowledge, and also a lot of fun. I am very happy to have his
involvement in this course, and I feel incredibly humble and grateful
that I have the opportunity to come here – many times I have been
asked, and have thought, “what the hell have I got to teach the
Cubans?” Roberto asserts, quite a lot, in the case of these particular
course participants, who are a mixture of agricultural researchers and
students, as well as farmers from affected areas. We are talking
ecological literacy, holistic systems thinking and getting out of
reductionist agronomy mode.

I also see a major part of my role here as being able to help
Roberto's small organisation FANJ connect with and gain influence (vis
a vis the spread of permaculture) with the much larger and prodigious
INCA. The world of Cuban institutional politics is one that I do not
pretend to even begin to understand, but I get the impression that up
until this point the potential of permaculture for the countryside in
Cuba is still not understood by the major government institutions
here, despite the successes of urban permaculture programs. Somehow me
being an outsider from a British partner institution has some sort of
respectability or catches the attention in a different way. Whatever,
it is an opportunity and we are riding the wave! It is all a little
surreal and I still can't quite believe that I am here.

My other contribution is in the realm of zone 0 – the built
environment – I am, amongst other things, an environmental builder –
mainly focusing on strawbale in europe for the last year, not so
relevant to Cuba – and I have studied an architecture masters at CAT
(centre for alternative technology) in Wales. Eco-building is
something that Roberto and FANJ have identified as a key next step for
the permaculture movement here, and INCA are also interested in this.
In this respect I will be focusing on assessing the potential for
using local natural building materials – clay, fibre and timber – as
well as introducing the concepts of passive design for climate control
(passive ventilation etc) and integration of buildings into
landscaping and vegetation for shade and cooling, as well as
protection from hurricanes – Cuba lost more than 70 000 houses in 2008
hurricanes, and had many more badly damaged that they are struggling
to repair. The availability of building materials here is restricted,
particularly in the case of modern industrial materials such as steel
and cement: I will write another piece on this later...
Roberto's organisation FANJ has acquired some large areas of land in
the countryside where they hope to start up model ecovillage projects/
training centres. I will be spending another month here after the
course to discuss the establishment of a training of trainers project
here in environmental building in a permaculture design context.

So – I must get back to my course preparation... I have a couple of GB
of spanish power points to look through courtesy of the Galician
permaculture network (thanks José) and a third of Geoff Lawton's food
forest film left to translate and subtitle (thank you linux!)

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