Thursday, May 3, 2012

Havana Urban Agriculture - Infrastructure for Food Gardens: an interview with Claire Napawan-Seybert

[A banana orchard grows where a home once stood, within a dense neighborhood]

Havana, Cuba is often lauded as the world leader in urban agriculture, with some sources suggesting that anywhere from 50% to 90% of the city's fresh produce is grown within it's boundaries. The formation of a strong urban agriculture system in Havana began as a response to crisis - the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in 1989 - at which point Cuba lost access to importing food and agricultural inputs from their main trading partner. Further pressure came in the form of the U.S. embargo which created a shortage of gasoline for transporting food from rural to urban areas. A major food shortage resulted, and when residents began planting their own food across the city, the Ministry of Agriculture supported them. In 1994 an Urban Agriculture Department was formed.

There are whispers, however faint, of crisis in the widespread interest in urban agriculture in the U.S. Many proponents are drawn to the idea of self-sufficiency that growing your own food within city bounds promises, and it might be more than coincidence that the movement took off at the same time the economy melted down. So how does the landscape of Havana's urban agriculture relate to the growing movement here in the U.S., if at all?

Claire Napawan-Seybert is a landscape architect, and a professor in the U.C. Davis Department of Environmental Design. Her research focuses on urban agriculture systems, and she recently visited Havana, Cuba to see the famed urban food gardens first-hand. I interviewed her on what she found on her visit, and following our interview, have wondered much about the state of urban agriculture in Asia and Africa - is Havana unique in the world, or only in our part of the world? Join me in traveling to Havana with Claire:

-What is your understanding of the history behind agriculture as a strong feature of Havana?
Cuba historically shared many of the same attributes of western industrialized nations, with regard to it's food system: adopting a taste for international cuisines (predominantly a non-native, Spanish diet) and creating cash crops of rum, tobacco, and sugar to trade for food and non-food goods from around the world. This was the case even after the revolution (and Fidel) removed much of the U.S. control of agriculture & trade, converting the country into the communist state that it remains today. Following the U.S. embargo, however, Cuba conducted it's trade predominantly with the Soviet Union. The growing of cash crops, like sugar, was a chemical intensive mono-crop with heavy use of pesticides, fertilizers, etc. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba entered the 'special period' which saw their number one sugar importer gone. They were forced to re-structure much of their trade, supply, and agricultural systems during this period. What began as a necessity to produce food without the support of trade with the Soviet Union and without fossil- fuel based agricultural products, led Cuba to become a pioneer in organic and urban food production. With well-integrated individuals in both research institutions and government office and communities initiating local food growing, urban agriculture spread during the special period in both the 'top down' and 'bottom up' fashion.

[Patio Comunitario - a collection of rooftop gardens are farmed communally & produce is shared among members]