Cuban Farmer Seeks to Multiply Permaculture Opportunities

Cuban farmer Ivonne Moreno among plum trees on her La Luisa farm, in Havana, where she uses permaculture techniques. The formation of a food forest provides fruits, seeds, flowers, roots, leaves, condiments, medicinal products and firewood, among other inputs. Photo: Jorge Luis Baños / IPS

By Luis Brizuela (IPS)

HAVANA TIMES – Farmer Ivonne Moreno sees permaculture as not only a philosophy of life but also a sustainable model for producing food, reducing environmental impact, and projecting sustainable communities in urban or rural areas of Cuba.

These and other principles have guided the planting of dozens of species of fruit trees, vegetables, tubers, aromatic and medicinal plants, as well as shrubs and timber trees on her farm La Luisa, located in Cotorro, one of the 15 municipalities that make up the Cuban capital.

Her food forest, as she defines it, provides fruits, seeds, flowers, roots, leaves, condiments, medicinal products, and firewood, among other inputs, while also serving as a habitat for birds, insects, and other animal species that enrich the soil and enhance biodiversity.

“When I hear about a fruit in danger of extinction, I look for its seed and plant it. I don’t remove the leaf litter to preserve the soil microorganisms. I also use organic fertilizers from manure from a nearby dairy farm, along with peels and other waste,” Moreno explained to IPS during a visit to her farm.

However, the food forest “has not been fully implemented because it also requires animals that need to be free and whose food should not compete with human food. It needs to be properly designed,” noted the 51-year-old farmer, who is married and has two daughters.

Moreno’s connection to La Luisa began in childhood when she spent vacations on the 0.7-hectare farm acquired by her great-great-grandfather in 1878.

“I embraced permaculture as an ideology of life, with a consciousness of caring for the environment and generating as little waste as possible,” Ivonne Moreno said.

After living in a populous area of the capital, in 2010 she decided to settle permanently on the land where “the connection with nature is direct.”

And without knowing it, “I started doing permaculture. I embraced it as an ideology of life, with a consciousness of caring for the environment and generating as little waste as possible.”

It is, she added, “a way of living wherever you are, on a plot in the countryside or in an apartment in the city.”

Ivonne Moreno returns a hive of melipona bees to its site after castration on her La Luisa farm, in Havana. These insects promote pollination and provide honey, bee bread – concentrated pollen – and wax, products that, due to the absence of chemicals, reinforce their nutritional, medicinal and cosmetic value. Photo: Jorge Luis Baños / IPS

Solutions to Global Problems

Permaculture is a concept that has evolved from “permanent agriculture” in its beginnings to a more contemporary one related to “permanent culture.”

As a design tool, with principles, practices, and attitudes, it envisions sustainable human settlements where people coexist harmoniously with other animal and plant species and mitigate environmental impact.

It includes sustainable agriculture, the construction of ecological housing, as well as better utilization of natural resources and clean energy sources. It has political, economic, and social connotations.

According to experts, permaculture is a creative response to the environmental crisis in a world where energy and resource availability are global problems.

Permaculture arrived in Cuba in the early 1990s. The economic crisis on the island conditioned the development of agro-productive systems on more sustainable bases, more due to the lack of resources to acquire fuel, machinery, and agrochemicals than consciously.

A network of development and groups of permaculturists extends throughout this Caribbean island country, articulated around the non-governmental Antonio Núñez Jiménez Foundation of Nature and Man (FANJ), the main promoter of this practice in Cuba.

A chayote (Sechium edule) grown on the La Luisa farm, in Havana, belonging to farmer Ivonne Moreno. She highlights that in a problematic context such as the Covid pandemic, the opportunities of permaculture were evident in Cuba, since it provides a variety of foods and does not depend on one or two crops, a factor of vulnerability to phenomena such as hurricanes. Photo: Jorge Luis Baños / IPS

Founded in 1994, the FANJ is a cultural and scientific civil institution dedicated to the research and promotion of educational, community, and research programs and projects, particularly those related to culture, society, and the environment.

“I took an introductory workshop at the FANJ. Then came the design workshop. My husband Juan Carlos Martínez and I are facilitators of this knowledge, and the farm is the headquarters of the permaculture group in the Cotorro municipality, which brings together about 10 people,” Moreno explained.

She noted that based on the learnings, she has a “base plan” and a “contextual plan.” The former reflects what exists and the latter what is projected to form the most efficient system possible.

In the case of La Luisa, Moreno’s “dream” includes building a biodigester, installing windmills, solar panels, fish ponds and cisterns to store rainwater.

“We would have liked to advance faster and have all these systems up and running. But the country’s economic situation makes it very difficult to buy materials and supplies,” lamented the farmer, who takes care of the farm along with her husband and the occasional support of her father.

She highlighted “the repair of several parts of the house with natural materials, without using cement, to favor air conditioning. We also separate black and gray water and place filters. It seems to work well because the grass stays green where the latter drain.”

In more than a hundred hives, melipona bees – a stingless species – promote pollination and provide honey, bee bread (concentrated pollen), and wax, products that, in the absence of chemicals, enhance their nutritional, medicinal, and cosmetic value.

“My dream is to have at least 200 hives, but the conditions must be created. For now, as part of the project, we promote training on the management and care of hives because they can be feasibly kept anywhere where bees can be guaranteed adequate flowering,” Moreno emphasized.

She noted that a problematic context like the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the opportunities of permaculture, “because even when locked down, I had a variety of foods instead of relying on one or two crops, which is a vulnerability factor in phenomena like hurricanes.”

La Luisa’s production is mainly for self-consumption, but surplus fruits and honey are sold, and donations are made to minors with cancer and homes for children without family support.

Moreover, as part of a local development project pending approval, Moreno hopes that staying on the farm will serve as an experience to learn about how to do permaculture in a specific space, which would also provide income to make the exploitation sustainable.

Specialists agree that stimulating permaculture in Cuba would help achieve food security, environmental sanitation, rescue and preserve farming culture, generate jobs, and design urban or rural spaces more in line with local needs and traditions.

It would also stimulate the diversification of clean energy sources, enhance recycling, improve soil treatment, and use water more rationally.

Ivonne Moreno poses among several plant species from the food forest on her La Luisa farm, in Havana. According to Cuban specialists, stimulating permaculture would contribute to the search for food security, environmental sanitation, rescue and preserve agricultural culture, generate jobs and design urban or rural spaces more in line with native needs and traditions. Image: Jorge Luis Baños / IPS

Challenges

Experts on the subject point out that the family space has been the scale of the introduction of permaculture in Cuba.

Statistics indicate that family and private producers’ agriculture provides 70% of the food produced nationally, generally through more efficient land use and better soil conservation compared to conventional agricultural systems.

However, it remains a problematic issue in a country with deficient agricultural production that maintains high prices and imports about 80% of the food for domestic consumption.

Most Cuban families spend more than 70% of their monthly expenses on food.

Although many actions have been developed in recent years to transition to sustainability-focused agriculture, the conventional agriculture paradigm still dominates in Cuba.

From academic spaces and small producers, there is insistence on overcoming this approach that prioritizes obtaining large production volumes despite high economic, energy, and environmental costs.

In addition to degrading natural resources and increasing vulnerability to climate change. It is considered a partial and unsustainable solution that also limits the transition to food sovereignty.

According to Moreno, permaculture in Cuba faces “a mentality problem, of wanting to do things the same way, the ‘it’s always been done that way’ mentality. If you do something different, even if it has results, they call you crazy.”

The other major problem, in her opinion, is related to obstacles in accessing environmentally friendly technologies “like solar panels to produce electricity or systems to recycle water and even make it drinkable.”

She emphasized the importance of using appropriate technology, that which the person can afford wherever they are.

“The compost I make here is not something someone living in an apartment in the city center can do. But both can produce clean energy, recycle water, and grow condiments and vegetables in pots made from plastic bottles,” she said.

In her case, it seems to fulfill the maxim that no one is a prophet in their own land, judging by “the resistance shown in her environment,” she assured. However, over time she has managed to get some community members to apply organic fertilizers and start showing interest in the subject.

Moreno would like to see the number of permaculturists multiply and to foster alliances “with other projects or people who love nature as we do and work in harmony.”

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times.

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