Successful state backing

The advantages of, and rationale for, supporting urban agriculture quickly became clear. Urban centres had the highest demand for foodstuffs, especially perishables that were difficult to transport. Such produce - vegetables, fruit, flowers, spices and small livestock - required a high labour input that was readily available in the cities. Further, city wastelands and neglected areas were otherwise becoming breeding grounds for disease (Companioni et al, 2002). The state recognized the potential of urban agriculture in contributing to the new National Food and Nutrition Programme (of 1989) and supported it by making land available for growers, providing them with appropriate extension services and organizing marketing (Murphy, 1999). In 1994, the Department of Urban Agriculture was established which became, in 1998, part of the Ministry of Agriculture. According to Companioni et al (2002), urban production was based on three principles: the use of organic methods that did not contaminate the environment; the use of local resources; and the direct marketing of produce. Already by 1994, urban production was well developed, and this new department, and research groups allocated to work on urban systems, found themselves running to keep pace with urban producers. As one researcher described it, 'Development was ahead of research due to the high demand for techniques, so it was participatory and spontaneous from the start - we had to give out technologies before we could even test them, and in fact the farmers tested them.'

The urban agricultural movement differed in its development from the more prescriptive, top-down model of agricultural support customarily employed in Cuba; in this case the grassroots was driving research and policy. This was for a very pragmatic reason under the challenging circumstances: urban production showed to double or triple each year and even whilst technologies were still being developed and improved. This immediate success gave the state further incentive to continue with its support and facilitation rather than instigating legislative restrictions. It formalized land access and legalized the right to sell produce. In one example, the governing council of Havana, which included representatives from the Department of Urban Agriculture, turned down a proposal for a joint-venture building planned on an agricultural site in the city. In 1997, a Resolution (527/97) was passed that allowed each urban dweller in Cuba to be eligible for up to one-third of an acre of land. By December 1999, more than 190,000 lots had been taken up (Sinclair and Thompson, 2001). Success could be measured not only in terms of production, but also by the satisfaction of city dwellers who were empowered to resolve their own food problems. The hands-off, facilitatory approach of the state encouraged a diverse range of responses to the heterogeneous local conditions (Companioni et al, 2002). As a member of the Department of Urban Agriculture put it, 'Our objective is for producers to fulfil their production goals with as much ease as possible.' By 1999, urban agriculture was contributing 5 per cent of Cuba's total domestic production, mainly salad crops, according to one researcher. Significant support was also permitted by the state from international sources; in the early days from foreign NGOs interested in supporting the Cuban cause; and later on from bilateral donors concerned with reducing urban poverty. This meant that Cuban researchers had comparatively good access to international knowledge and materials. It also enabled alternative agriculture networks such as the permaculture and organic movements to make significant input into urban agriculture as a serious development option. Sociological studies were also undertaken which may not have been possible in rural areas, such as the work of Murphy (1999) on agriculture and food security, and that of Carrasco et al (2003) on the Agricultural Knowledge and Information System. Finally, this international interchange encouraged foreign reporting to focus on the urban situation.

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