A Light at the End of the Agriculture Tunnel (Part II)

Fernando Ravsberg

Fernando Funes and his hand dug well. Photo: Raquel Perez Diaz

HAVANA TIMES — This is the second part of an interview with Fernando Funes, who, along with his wife Claudia Alvarez and employees, has transformed an infertile area of land into an agro-ecological paradise. Fernando speaks to us of his philosophy for a productive and healthy life in the countryside. His farm is some 20 km from Havana.  Read the first part of the interview here.

How are your experiences being made known?

Fernando Funes: My colleagues and my dad were worried because they felt I was going to become a recluse out in the sticks. However, in these past four years, I’ve seen that the media coverage of the project is far more widely divulged than the academic articles I used to publish. Some 1,200 people had read my scientific articles, but thousands have gone by the farm. There’s been a lot of coverage and we are being given more and more opportunities to speak about what we do. This year, we started offering a series of workshops for children, involving scientists and locals. We’re going to design distribution systems for the region and we’re already working on a local development project. We want to put those who live here in contact with local and national authorities and with NGOs and trading companies. Combining these four actors is the key to sustainable development.

One of the most bureaucratized ministries in Cuba is the Ministry of Agriculture. How do you deal with them?

FF: My philosophy is that many obstacles are imaginary. There’s no obstacle one cannot overcome with will. When I got here, no one paid any attention. This was an abandoned place, and I dug a hole in the rock for 7 months. This well became a metaphor, a symbol of learning. It showed the determination with which we were willing to do things. They’d tell us we were crazy, that there was no water here. Today, we have more water than we need to run the whole farm. We did this and brought prosperity, because prosperity doesn’t come to you on its own, you have to go and look for it, like water in a well. Bureaucracies around the world hold back many processes but one has to have enough mental freedom to understand bureaucracy can be overcome. You have to seep in through the cracks and show, in practice, that bureaucracy is dysfunctional.

Agriculture, however, relies on the supplies which that same bureaucracy denies farmers.

FF: We’re not looking to get supplies from them, see, because the chemicals they use are no good to us in our organic system. We use local resources and, this way, enrich the process much more. Now, we’re going to receive a donation from the Japanese embassy, as they’ve realized the impact we’re having. We’re going to import the things we need to continue growing from Mexico. We’re going to buy a windmill to pump water around the farm and a device for making furrows. We’d been doing the furrows manually till now, but, if we hadn’t done them this way, we wouldn’t have the support of Japan today.

The farm run by Fernando Funes and Claudia Alvarez is located 12 miles from Havana. Photo: Raquel Pérez Díaz

Do you feel people in Cuba would be willing to head to the countryside?

FF: I’m aware that not many people are willing to “dig the well,” but, once they see it dug, they realize that it is possible. Moving to the countryside must be a free decision based on a person’s wish. To achieve this, we need a new rural environment that connects the city and countryside better, such that life in the countryside can be revalued as healthier, as empowerment and reward. The Cuban revolution has left us ethical and cultural values that aren’t going to disappear, just as what was produced by Cuban culture before the revolution hasn’t disappeared. We also want to sow the seeds of a new way of doing things in the region.

Is large-scale, organic agriculture feasible in Cuba?

FF: Well, we’ve been struggling to achieve this for 20 years and, today, we’re less ecological than before. The economic crisis brought about a rebirth, as a result of the difficulties people learned to produce through their own efforts. But we’ve been losing all this as the economic situation has improved, because there hasn’t been a resolute enough policy or mechanisms to encourage such practices. The mentality of farmers and agriculture officials is also based on an industrial, single-crop model, something we’ve been shouldering for nearly 400 years. We need a change of mindset to adopt a healthier and more varied diet, not by decree but by developing these ideas among the people.