Cuba: “Peace of Mind Contributing Healthy Food”

The efforts of Magalys Rodriguez

“You need to know about agroecology in order to have a resilient farm,” Magalys Rodriguez says.  Photo: Courtesy of the interviewee.

By IPS-Cuba

HAVANA TIMES – Magalys Rodriguez has been a farmer for a decade. Her farm, El Guayacan, is one of the farms in the Guantanamo province with the “agroecological” certification.

She is now sharing her experience with other people as an ambassador of the farmer-to-farmer movement, in Cuba’s Oriente region.

IPS CUBA: When and how did you become interested in agroecology?   

MAGALYS RODRIGUEZ: My interest in agroecology began in 1992, when I went to live in a rural community set within the Hatibonico nature reserve, which is located in the Caimanera municipality, in the southern Guantanamo province.

I worked in administration there at the Ministry of Technological and Environmental Sciences office, which had an environmental education and conservation program. In these classes, a great deal of emphasis was given to soil conservation, as an important resource for nourishing it.

Then, in 2011, I was given a farm with 2.10 hectares and that’s when I began to apply agroecological practices, such as using crop residue to make organic matter.

I’ve now been given another 9.03 hectares, which we are clearing. We’ve already planted banana trees in one part, which is what grows best, but we’ve put squash and some watermelons in between, so we can take advantage of every space.

What has been your experience within the Cuban agroecological movement, especially as a woman?

MR: I’ve had really great experiences with agroecology from a farming viewpoint. Plus, it’s helped to empower me as a woman, in my personal life.

I’m more independent with greater economic solvency. I have also learned to make my own decisions and to take a place within the cooperative. I can express my opinions, talk about my experiences and be heard there. I was able to represent the cooperative at two international agroecology congresses, where I learned from many women all over the world and in Cuba.

I believe this is the only way to have a healthy and quality diet, without using chemicals that only poison your health and the environment.

“Turn your farm into a lab, because you need to experiment in order to see if something works.”

My farm has been given the agroecological certification by the farmer-to-farmer movement, and I am one of its ambassadors in the Guantanamo province. There are lots of women, but we aren’t the majority yet.

I feel like I’ve been heard. This is what Farmer to Farmer does, so we are able to share their experiences with one another, because the language is different. It isn’t the same when a university professor comes and tells a farmer how to plant their crops, as it is to listen to this from the lips of a farmer who has already done this on their own farm.

For example, when I plant bananas, I always put organic matter at the bottom. I prefer to water them at night, because they absorb all of the humidity and don’t dry out during sunlight hours. Farmers listen to each other more and they feel more comfortable.

What advice and suggestions would you give to people so they become motivated to start transitioning to agroecological practices in Cuba? 

MR: My advice would be for them to join the movement, and to especially turn their farm into a lab, because you need to experiment in order to see if something works.

It’s also cheaper. Sometimes, it’s more work because it’s manual labor most of the time, but it gives great results. It gives you this peace of mind knowing that you are eating healthy products, that you are contributing to your family’s diet with your own hands.

Plus, I’d also recommend you get your children and grandchildren involved in this work, so that they begin to cultivate a love for the land from a young age, for the work they do, which is healthy and has many benefits.

My husband, sister-in-law, brother, son-in-law all work on my farm… and the grandchildren too when they come. Even though I’m the owner, the entire family takes part. That’s how we all learn and help each other. The economic profits all stay in the family that way, too.

What are the main obstacles you see that hinder the progress of agroecology in Cuba?

MR: I believe that the main obstacle is changing the mindset of some leaders and public officials. For example, an organic product isn’t distinguished from the rest. They don’t point out the difference at any retail point and, sometimes, locals here don’t even know what an organic product is.

I believe this is a great weakness, to spread the importance of agroecological produce and healthy eating too.

I also believe that when universities undertake projects and research, this knowledge needs to reach the farms. They share knowledge with farmers, but it’s a whole nother thing to teach this in practice instead of in a classroom.

When projects are carried out from time to time, bringing supplies from cooperatives, most of the farmers are men, they don’t have many women present, they don’t see their potential.

On the other hand, when results are analyzed, they sometimes only look at who delivered the most, but not who was the most efficient. The most efficient farmer is the one who delivers the most given the amount of land they have, and the quality of their produce needs to be taken into account.

How can women’s participation be pushed within the agroecological movement and in farming?

MR: This can be done via the FMC-ANAP brigades (alliances between the Federation of Cuban Women and the National Association of Small Farmers), which already exist. They are working on encouraging women to take part in the movement. While we are not the majority, more and more women are joining every day.

In my cooperative, I am the president of this brigade and we not only look at production, but also social problems. This is important. We have an agroecology interest group at the primary school, which is close to the cooperative, and we socialize with women there too.

The thing is that this work needs to be more systematic and not only done by the cooperative. Universities also help, the Cuban Association of Agricultural and Forestry Technicians and the Cuban Association of Animal Production, but it needs to be more consistent.

Agroecology roundtables that are held every three months, although these has been suspended because of COVID-19, need to be more participatory and seek other ways to encourage women.

*This article forms part of the “Cuban women and agroecology” series, a joint effort between the humanitarian NGO Oxfam and IPS Cuba, on gender and the agroecological transition in the country.

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times.

One thought on “Cuba: “Peace of Mind Contributing Healthy Food”

  • A brigade is a military term for the sub-division of an army. It does not have a president, it has a brigadier. The miss-use of the term reflects the concept of control, so essential in communism.

    It is rather pathetic to read an article which describes as a “farm” that which is a touch larger than an allotment, but would barely qualify as a small holding or croft, as if it is an advancement in the agricultural industry. That especially applies to claims related to organic production and the use of organic fertilizers. For centuries agriculture has made use of organic waste materials, all the dung from a multitude of farm animals has been used to good purpose – that is nothing new. The criticism of “chemicals” is folly, for it is the chemicals within dung or other organic materials that benefit crops. Humus benefits soil texture.

    The idea that Cubans ought to be informed about the supposed – but unproven – benefits of “organic” foods, when they struggle to find and pay for any basic foods, is farcical. In a country that has now to import some 80% of food requirements, the agricultural target ought to be production from those hundreds of thousands of acres of good agricultural land, that lie fallow or are reverting to bush.

    It is nice to read that Magalys Rodriguez enjoys her work and that her family is benefitting, but the reality is that she is living and working in a system similar to that of the 18th century in Europe. Fancy terminology does not change that. She is promoting a way of life rather than perhaps the world’s most significant industry, that of food production, and it is the latter, not the former which Cuba ought to address.

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