By Ivett de las Mercedes
HAVANA TIMES — Ever since he’s retired, Rene Urra, 78, spends his time sowing ornamental plants and cedars in the courtyard of his house. He was the founder of the INRA (National Institute for Agrarian Reform), which is now the Ministry of Agriculture. Even though he hasn’t studied a university degree, engineers, technicians and farm workers visit him in search for his advice.
Havana Times: Before you’d retired, where did you work?
René Urra: I was the head of the National Seed Company’s provincial branch in Candelaria (about 50 miles west of Havana). The agricultural representative at the time asked me to keep on working. He gave me a plot in the hydroponics in Los Pinos. They used to produce fast-growing and very nutritious vegetables: cabbage, carrots, peppers, tomatoes… however, it all used to go to waste because it wasn’t really put on the market. Then I had to leave the hydroponics because of a really bad case of pneumonia.
HT: How long has it been since you began to sow ornamental plants?
RU: I began back in 2014. I wanted to do something useful, to spend my time doing something I enjoy. I have a very small plot of land and I’ve used even the sides of my house. I cultivate highly coveted plants in the tourism sector, which belong to the palm tree family, also known as arecas; Livistona leaves are used to make roofs of outdoor restaurants, these palm trees are very exotic and are used to decorate patios and green areas. I now have a project in November with a cooperative in the community of Aguacate, in the Artemisa Municipality. They’re going to give me a plot of land to sow rice, as well as a plantation where I have to plant coconut trees and Cuban royal palms. It’s a job that I’ll do with a lot of pleasure, I love the land and everything that has to do with Nature.
HT: How do you get hold of yogurt bags and the black plastic bags you need and seeds?
RU: I looked for yogurt bags at a primary school, they were given as a school snack. The head of the agricultural department gave me 2000 black plastic bags because there weren’t enough of the others. It’s easy enough to find seeds, especially in the park, where they move them to bags once they’ve germinated. I have between 600 and 700 cedars, if I had planted them in the ground it would’ve been much better. Many of them have dried up; I can’t really let them grow too much either because they are huge trees. I’ve contacted the Forestry company too see if they can plant them somewhere, however it hasn’t materialized into anything yet. I feed the land with organic products such as chicken excrement, organic waste, humus, fruit cores, legumes that I decompose.
HT: Are you familiar with Permaculture?
RU: Of course, although not much is said about it here and it’s extremely important for the wellbeing of the planet. I’m an environmental health technician and it’s been of great use to me to know about everything to do with this subject. You save resources like water and energy, you create less waste, while conserving natural resources and making the most of them in a natural way. I would love to belong to a project and put my knowledge to use, you’d see the results really quickly and they can be incorporated into the community. It’s hard to think about a healthy world if the people who live in it are suffering, the majority of whom aren’t aware of what they’re destroying to meet their needs.
HT: So you believe that everything we eat, both vegetables and meat, are good for our health?
RU: No, not everything, just imagine. I’ve had to ask a lot of people; there are products such as Fitomax which should be used on plants and it’s used to ripen fruit: bananas, mangos, papayas, and it’s also used as feed for pigs along with fodder; they fatten up in three days. In some organoponic gardens, sand is used instead of soil and vegetables are planted there all year round. They use chemicals harmful to our health and all of this is sold to the people.
HT: What do you feel when you sow a plant?
RU: It’s the most beautiful thing in the world. I cut away the leaves that have been affected when they catch pests, I speak to them, I water them and at nighttime, I sit in my armchair and watch them. When they grow, I have bags already prepared with soil inside them, this bag isn’t polluting, it’s biodegradable.
HT: What do you do in your free time?
RU: I like to read the newspaper in the morning. The only place I go is to the park to talk to friends and especially to an English teacher. The park also has arecas planted there that were born in my home. The, now deceased, Angela Leiva, who was the director of the National Botanic Gardens, was a good friend of mine, her death was an awful shock, a palm tree lover, I gave her a lot of them as gifts.
HT: How do you get by financially-speaking?
RU: I receive a monthly pension of 270 Cuban pesos (just under 11 USD) and I try to get to the end of the month with just that. I live here by myself, although my ex-wife and my son help me out because they live nearby. I sell an areca from time to time, but making a sale is very rare. In my opinion, the Revolution is marvellous. It’s benefitted me a lot: my son has graduated as an engineer, I learned about agriculture without paying, and people respect me. It would be great if the State would raise my pension but my thing is here in this space. Jose Marti once said: Spreading ones love for beauty is to improve people.