Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Letter from Havana (2)

Here is Paulo's last email from his Cuban teaching and research visit. Paulo's being there teaching a permaculture design course to local farmers and regional agriculture ministry people, together with a local NGO.

Aqui é o último e-mail de Paulo do seu ensino e pesquisa em cubana. Paulo foi lá para ensinanar ums curso de permacultura para os agricultores locais e regionais e também do ministério de agricultura, juntamente com uma ONG local.
It is a long message, and I do not have time - or the capacity - to translate it all so it remains in English. It is a good insight into life in rural Cuba, the challenges of agriculture and life in an island exposed to hefty climate events and an ongoing economic crisis.

Trata-se de uma mensagem longa, e eu não tenho tempo - ou a capacidade - para traduzir tudo para que ele permanece em Inglês. É uma boa perspectiva para a vida no meio rural Cuba, os desafios da agricultura e da vida em uma ilha expostos ao clima pesado e eventos em curso uma crise económica.

If you don't have time to read the article, these photos also tell the story, with captions:
Se não tem tempo para ler o artigo, essas fotos também contam a história, com as legendas:

Paulo's photos

Greetings once again from Havana, the city where more than half of china town's restaraunts specialise in pizza. There are many things here that I struggle to make sense of – or perhaps it would be better to say that many of the patterns here are unfamiliar to me: they are often quite different from other places I have been, and with familiar things (such as where to find pizza) the conventional rules and associations do not always apply. No doubt there are perfectly valid reasons for much of the patterns here – and if I were a Cuban and had lived my life inside this system it would all make perfect sense. But I am not, and so I must reconcile myself to the fact that there are parts of this culture that are impenetrable to me, and I will never understand. It also may just be the craziness of the city (and cities are always crazy if you ask me). In the meantime I will content myself with the search for an Italian restaurant where I can get really good chop suey.

I have just got back from a week in Holguin province in the far east of the country where held the second half of the permaculture design course to a group of participants – the design excercise element. The 10 hour car journey each way was fairly excruciating, mainly because of the bleakness of much of the landscape along the highway. Although I must say that this is probably because a) it is the land closest to access roads and so has probably been cultivated the hardest for the longest, and b) we are just at the end of the dry season and the beginning of the rainy season, the land is burning and suffering and it is painful to see. Literally burning, as in on fire. I know I have mentioned this before, but the sight of large tracts of brown grass or black ash, with patches of dry palms and a few scrubby forest nuclei is the norm.

There is a historical practice of burning off the scrub before the rainy season before the rain so that when it comes the new green shoots spring up fast and the cows get another hit of vegetation, but I am not sure to what degree this is oficially permitted still. It is a pretty poor way to generate biomass, given the tropical forest that was here before it, and nutrients are lost in the burning. I am also told that the old Russian tractors used here do not have spark protection and so often start fires.

We pass several places where the fires have obviously spread to forest patches and tree plantations, and the trunks are black with burns or brown with old wounds. There are dead trees standing. Tree planting is not forest planting, and monoculture timber plantations in neat rows with scrubby grass underneath suffer from the competition of the grass (it exudes tree killing hormones and competes with the trees' surface feeder roots). Such plantations also dry out fast. The forest needs its lower levels of bushes herbs and ground cover, to keep out the strong sunlight and wind, keep hold of water and humidity and cover the soil with a rich mulch (in fact it is through the mulch that the forest makes the soil). Here in the tropics, 80% of the system's nutrients are held in the biomass and leaf litter of the the forest, and only 20% in the soil – it is the other way around in temperate areas, but the spanish brought with them european agriculture and applied it innapropriately to the new world, and 500 years later everybody is still doing it.

To understand the landscape and the agriculture here you need to understand the history of the country.

After the spanish arrived, Cuba was a plantation worked by slaves, growing tabaco, coffee and sugar. This was a period of 400 years, and is deeply etched in the landscape and the psyche of the country. After the revolution, Cuba continued to grow cash crops to sell so that they could buy food, and with the help of Russian agronomists, the 'green revolution' (such a bitter oxymoron: the industrial agriculture package was anything but green) arrived here and stripped the forest back to allow the use of large machinery and chemicals, with disastrous consiquences for the soil. After the collapse of the soviet union and during the 'special period' of the 90's, people really went hungry and the focus was very much on growing as much food as was possible for the population – actually this is still the case. So there has always been a relationship of 'maximum productivity' with the land, and more recently an urgency of the need for increasing short term food yields.

Unlike with indigenous cultures in other parts of latin america there is no mystical or overtly spiritual relationship with the land and the longterm caretaker ethic it often contains. In relation to agriculture, the science of agronomy still is the dominant model: how to extract maximum yields from the land. Cuba's brutal past has robbed it of some of this consciousness in its relationship with nature, but the reality is that the conventional approach is responsible for the increasing processes of desertification.

There is no blame here, or criticism. These people have had to survive through the most terrible hardships that I can only imagine, and the fundamental ethics of the society are really sound – whatever you want to say about the imperfections of the socialist state and its propeganda and control etc, no matter what happens to a cuban family, they will never be kicked out of their house, they will always have free healthcare, they will always be guarenteed a food ration from the state, they will always have access to education. There is clearly some inequality, or perhaps I ought to say hierarchy – the directors of projects or government departments, the army, the tourist industry etc – but it is simply not comparable to the inequality in capitalist societies. In terms of the 3rd ethical principal of permaculture: redistribute surplus – they are doing very well with incredibly scarce resources (I want to reiterate just how scarce some materials are here. I have a friend working in a school in havana where they have to teach through games and workshops because there is almost no paper, and we have had to really ration the flipchart sheets in the course). So 'surplus', or shall we say resources, are directed to people care (2nd ethic of permaculture) but there is a lot of work still to do to direct it to earth care (the 1st ethical principle).

The campesinos (farmers) here are very pround – they are innovative and intelligent, well educated and with a strong sense of community and solidarity. As I think I mentioned in other messages, there have been some really great innovations made to advance a more ecological approach to organic agriculture – work on symbiotic mycorhizzal fungi and partipatory plant breeding for more drought tolerant and locally adapted seeds (if you like, a state funded community seed bank). The farmers I have talked to are very knowledgable about green manures in field rotation and for fodder. But the norm is to still work in open fields with no shade, fed with irrigation over bare soil (and thus lots of evaporation losses), with gardens over there, fruit orchards over there and grazing over there. There is some plant polyculture and associated repellant plants (tagetes/ marigolds with tomatoes etc) and maize alleycropping, but I have seen no use of mulch, and little integration of systems. The Cubans are into lombriculture and compost in a big way – this is fertiliser production. But it is a labour intensive process and where does the material input come from? Cow manure. In many places, agricultural wastes are still scraped off and burned. So there are basic ecological cycles that remain broken across large tracts of the land, and this is a spiral of degradation.

We eventually arrive with numb bottoms at Finca Hato Alegre in Banos, home of Pupo one of the course participants. He is the decendant of Spanish settlers and the family have lived here for 5 generations. This is a family farm, not a state run one, and there is a notable difference, and the family clearly have a deep connection with and love for their land. We have Pupo, his mum and dad, his wife, some young kids who might be his or might belong to his older son Mike, who also lives here with his wife. Introductions are all a bit overwhelming and I am struggling to understand the rapid Holguin dialect (I am relieved when the Havana contingent that have accompanied me later tell me that they can only understand half of what is being said).

Here it feels very different from other places I have been so far - in an inland bay by the north cost, with a beautiful meandering inland tidal mangrove estuary and lots of hills and forest still uncleared around the estuary: the topography and the salt water has kept it safe. This is the largest area of uncultivated land I have yet seen in Cuba, and it feels good to see it. Nature survives.

Pupo's mum is a maestro of food preservation and of all things edible/potable in general. We have some of the most amazing food I have ever eaten (not just in Cuba) here. A lot of it is a testimony to traditional skills and the benefits of a biodiverse farm landscape that borders the sea and a natural system. We have lobster, oysters, crabs, rum with wild fruits preserved in it, all kinds of vegetables (not so much fruit as so many of the trees were lost). Pupo is the master of the giant tomato – a variety he adapted from Bolivian seed, which is the size of a grapefruit and has dense flesh, and tastes AMAZING. It is served with every meal, including breakfast. Being tall and slim, I am targeted for fattening up by the entire family, and, outnumbered and outmanouvered, I am forced to attempt to oblige them. How I suffered. No, no more lobster. Please. I am amazed in fact, by how quickly they have rebuilt after the hurricane and how well stocked their kitchen is. Again, much of it tells of the benefits they recieve from their proximity to healthy natural systems and also their preservation of traditional farm and homesteading skills – the jars of vegetables preserved in rum were kept in the concrete section of the main house and made it through the hurricane. And the garlic and most of the roots crop harvests survived.

Other highlights of my life on the farm include being game for trying everything and anything that the Cubans show me, much to their delight. First is bareback riding – getting bucked straight off by the horse when I jump on, and then, upon remounting, enjoying its spine making regular impact with my coxis as we trot accross the landscape - and shimmying barefoot up a coconut palm to knock down the afternoon snack.

Holguin got really mashed by the hurricane, and Pupo's finca is no exception. The house is situated on the midslope overlooking a marsh filled valley bottom (this farm is very lucky in that it has access to water - 4 good wells and a marshy valley bottom with a river that drains out into the estuary), and the gardens and most of the trees surrounding the house have been ripped away. They have re-roofed the house though. On the farm over 200 royal palms have fallen, all over 70 years, many over 100 years. No shortage of building material now! I see a two huge ancient tamarinds lying where they have smashed through hedges, dying in the sun with their roots exposed. Many of the hundreds of fruit trees that were planted in the previous ten years are just gone. Remaining broadleaves show many shattered amputated limbs. It is all a bit too real for me, and is doubly unfair on these people considering how hard they had worked to plant trees in the preceeding years. So we talk a lot about forest edge profile and windbreak design.

The banana plantation on higher ground in the valley bottom below the marsh got a real pasting too (actually, flattened completely) but is recovering now, many with flowers about to set fruit. They are growing too crowded because the 4 people working this farm have just not had the time to manage them and thin them out, with all the other recovery work, but they represent a good crop of young plants to be planted out in other systems elswhere on the farm. One of the main lessons the hurricane taught us was what survives well: coconut and bamboo especially. They are highly flexible and have very strong lateral root systems, so there will be many windbreaks to come later in the design. Pupo has had a couple of weeks since the last part of the course, and has been doing a lot of thinking.

Many of the lower areas are thick with burrows and holes with small piles of wet clay outside. As you walk up to them there are sounds of squelching and plopping. Blue lobster habitat – they come a long way in land and make their burrows among the bananas, and even right up to the main vegetable garden on the fertile field in the valley bottom below the house just before the marsh. There is very diverse soil accross the site and in the lower parts of the valley there is a heavy white clay prone to compaction. The burrowing of the lobsters and the galleries they make keeps the soil open and helps the roots of the crops penetrate. I have seen my first lobster-banana-palm polyculture -If anyone else has seen one, please let me know! And the lobsters exist here in abundance – Pupo and his family survived on them for weeks after the hurricane had swept away all their small crops, many trees and most of their livestock.

Pupo shows me his vegetable garden, which he rebuilt from scratch after the hurricane. A fertile belt of land at the valley bottom, just before the beginning of the marsh (plans for ponds and aquaculture here). The soil is rich and dark, probably because it contains all the organic matter of the slopes above it which have been very badly eroded. There are alternating rows of very healthy looking peppers, maize, the remains of tomato plants that have just been harvested, some melons and pumpkins, and rows of sorghum that also attract birds. Interplanted with marigolds for nematode protection, and a few young papayas coming up – they lost over 200 plants. There are plans to resow more. Beds are raised banks and the paths allow drainage in the event of flooding from the marsh, and he oxen ploughs them to keep the weeds down. The plants are irrigated from the nearby well using an electric pump (Pupo describes dragging it up the hill to the house with the oncoming hurricane beating at his heels). The soil is dark, but is hard and cracked on the surface. He has been doing a lot of thinking since the last part of the course, and tells me about his plans to adapt things, cut reeds fromt he marsh to use as mulch, replant more trees along the paths for shade and mulch.

Despite the fertile microclimate of the valley bottom, there is bad drought here, and deterioration of the mid to upland slopes, mostly due to extensive grazing with dairy cows (an adapted Cuban version of the Jersey). However, the hilltops are still forested and this gives me great hope – also, it is hard to tell which of the brown and dead patches of the forest are due to the hurricane or the drought – an evening walk reveals whole dead trees exposed lying flat, suspended in the canopy of the living ones, flung up there by the hurricane. One thing is for sure, extensive open pasture here in Holguin (actually, I think in the whole of Cuba) is history. As I mentioned in previously dispatches, we passed hundreds of hectares of fried short brown grass on the journey to Matanzas, and the 10 hour marathon to Holguin was no different, and again we passed many burning areas with plumes of smoke across the horizon.

A complicating factor in all of this – the socio-economic element of design – is that the government guarentees all children a milk ration every day until the age of 7. During the 'special period' after the soviet union's collapse children were at risk of malnutrition and so a drive was made for every child to be able to have milk daily until the age of 7, I suppose for calcium as well as protein and minerals. I did not attempt to engage in the debate about the alternative of high quality calcium and minerals available in organic green vegetables (where do the cows get it from in the first place?).

The result of the rush to dairy was (I was informed by a Cuban permaculturist) increased deforestation, cutting down fruit orchards for dairy cattle. The deforestation (also caused by industrial agriculture, sugar cane and tabacco monocultures) changed the rainfall regime of the country (forests capture and circulate the moisture in incoming air from the ocean) and is now being worsened by the effects of climate change. The result? Crop failures, water shortages and .... nutritional deficiencies. But still, the cultural effect of this historical process is that farmers are obliged to provide milk, and they see it as a social responsibility. Unlike many other parts of latin america, most cows are for dairy, not beef. However in tropical soils with climate change this is a recipe for disaster – when the rains do come, the heavy impact on dry and dusty pasture is inevitable: compaction and erosion. And in any landscape, pasture is about the least efficient use of land compared to the biomass production possible in forests (which we can design to be edible!)

On the design exercise at Pupo's farm, we discussed all of this and one group worked to design up a system for reforesting the rocky midslope pasture using short overlapping swales (for the non-permies amongst you, swales are level water harvesting ditches dug on contour lines with an earth bank on the downhill side), nuclei planting of nitrogen fixing tree, bush and groundcover clusters in and on the swales, and heavy mulching of the trench with all available biomass resources (lots of banana plant trunks brought up from below in the marsh). During this process the area is fenced off to keep stock out and they are fed from crop wastes and other legume crops from another part of the system that the second group was designing. As the feed value of the open pasture was not that high, and the animals expended a lot of energy walking back and forth over it and then back to the watering hole, everyone accepted this was a reasonable trade: the feed value of the crop wastes would make up for the reduced range area and the stock being kept in shade closer to water and moving less would mean they would produce milk more efficiently.

The long term aim of this midslope system is to introduce timber species and also more diverse fruit and native browse trees, and let the stock back in in a managed rotation – the pasture remaining will be in shaded alleys between forest strips and so hopefully will do better. I am hoping that in the meantime the upslope natural forest will creep down in succession as well.

As well as all this, we identified points in the erosion gulleys in the landscape where we could set up check dams – woven hurdle fences stuck across gulleys to catch organic matter, soil and water, gradually building up a terrace behind them. These are then planted up with the same fast growing nitrogen fixing pioneer species nuclei, and in the longer term used for annual crops and more diverse trees (timber and fruit).

Key points were also picked out for the construction of midslope dams in the lower, wider erosion gulleys to make ponds – for livestock to drink from and also to irrigate the surrounding landscape and lower slopes. It is important that we trap the most water by moving the least amount of soil - for the least work: all dams have to be built by hand. Trees can be planted around to minimise evaporation from wind and sun, and also provide leaf browse for stock, taking pressure off the grass – and stock in the shade are less heat stressed and produce more milk.

The idea is to hold up as much water as possible, as high as possible, before it reaches the marsh in the valley bottom - to make water's path out of the landscape as long and as slow as possible, touching as many things as possible. Where there is water, there is life, and the slower it moves, the less erosion damage it can do. And when it rains here, it rains short and hard, and normally rushes off through erosion gulleys and then rapidly evaporates off the exposed and compacted land.

Some real limiting factors here are fencing and earth moving equipment. All ditches, ponds and dam walls will have to be dug by 4 men with picks, shovels and an oxen plough. This is not an easy task, on the stony midslopes or the heavy and compacted white clay of the valley bottom. Where is Geoff Lawton and an excavator when you need them? I have seen excavators here in Cuba, but they are state equipment that is reserved for roadworks and big building project. Until the revolution puts its state recources behind permaculture then we cant rely on these technologies and will have to come up with lighter, more creative solutions.

The other problem here is fencing – to regenerate degraded pasture, we need to keep stock out for a time. This is difficult over large areas where barbed wire is in very short supply and is very expensive. As mentioned above, a solution we considered here was keeping them in a smaller area and feeding them with a higher quality food from the more fertile lower slopes and marsh, but this is only an option here on Pupo's farm where he has this fantastic resource.

A solution presents itself from observation of the site. There are quite a few places in the upslope forest where trees knocked down by the hurricane have fallen down behind and between two trunks of living trees, forming a natural barrier accross slope. Organic matter and soil builds up behind these barriers as it moves downhill from the upland forest, and a natural terrace starts to form, slowing and infiltrating water – it is doing many of the same things as a swale. So we determined that making these sort of arrangements would be a good compliment to swale building, which is pretty heavy going. With these 2 strategies we can make barriers to erosion that follow the contour lines around the landscape, and also link up existing islands of shrubs and trees, linking in with the existing features of the landscape. Into these lines we dig occasional mulch pits to plant our reforestation nuclei of Leucaena, crotelaria, mucuna, cowpea, sessbania and whatever else we can get our hands on – there is no shortage of sweet potato here, and it makes very good ground cover, so we might put some into the mulched planting pits and see how it does.

If the plantings are allowed to grow dense enough, they start to form corridors of hedges that can contain stock animals when we let them back in, which we can divide and manage with a few gates and a little bit of fencing, stakes or wire where we can get it. A real classic in the cuban landscape is the living fence – small pollarded trees with barbed wire strung between them. We discussed also planting spiky hedge plants into the middle of the swale lines to keep the stock from crossing through the hedge lines and over-browsing the legumes. Pupo was not convinced - a risk is increased injury to the animals, particularly in their eyes. A good compromise is 'cardon' a dense fleshy and spineless cactus that is used as a hedge plant here. The only downside with this is that it has a corrosive latex that burns on contact with skin, but it grows thick and well in very dry conditions. Not sure yet what it's properties are as a mulch.

The other exciting possibility that Pupo is talking animatedly about after the course is aquaculture. By building a dam accross a thinner bottleneck in the valley bottom, converting approximately a 3rd of the marsh into an aquaculture pond, we can farm fish – species that we can feed from plants growing around the pond rather than intensive manufactured feed. The borders of the marsh are also used for grazing, and the animal manure enriches the fertility of the pond: another major source of fish food will be insects and their larvae. Really, many of the semiaquatic plant species are already there, and in the stream draining out of the marsh into the river I saw small fish swimming.

This is the realm of the other design group, who also tackle a redesign of the main garden area, which among other things included a mandala garden with a central 'ranchon', a circular thatched structure for holding courses and workshops. I'd like to come back here in a couple of years and see the difference.

Back in noisy, dirty, hectic Havana I miss the smiles of Pupo's farm in the corner of that far flung province, where some seeds of hope for Cuba's future and overcoming its environmental problems are germinating, as usual, at the fertile edges.

Yesterday morning I had a meeting with Roberto Sanchez, the director of FANJ – the main organisation promoting permaculture here in Cuba. We discussed my invlovlement in helping out with the community design of an urban agriculture plot here in Havana in a couple of weeks, which will be my first encounter with urban permaculture in this country. Looking forward to it. Next week I am off to Pinar de Rio in the West, for another design excercise with a group of participants that include a lecturer in agroforestry at the university of Pinar who wants to write his doctorate on food forests! More soon.

Paulo xxx

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