Revolution is often portrayed as an idea that’s better when shouted, spray painted on a wall, or driven by anger, fear, or a need for drastic and fundamental change.
Sometimes revolution moves quietly from farmer to farmer. The tool of a revolutionary can be a hoe instead of a Molotov cocktail. Born of necessity, a revolution can be about enabling marginalized people as much as changing the minds of the elite. Revolution isn’t easy and almost always requires that we learn from the past as much as we plan for the future. No one knows these things quite like Cuba. Cuba’s revolution, as romanticized by icons like Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara often overshadows the exemplary agricultural revolution that took place in the 90’s.
Until 1989 Cuban agriculture was characterized by an utter dependence on chemical inputs like fertilizer, pesticides, and other petroleum based products that were almost exclusively traded with the Socialist Bloc. These technologies prompted Cuba to devote 30 percent of its agricultural land to a single export crop—sugar cane—while 57 percent of all food was imported.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 was like a trap door opening beneath Cuba. The once lucrative and reliable trade scheme between Cuba and the USSR vanished, the United States tightened its trade embargo and Cuba lost 80 percent of its trade relations. The resource-intensive model of agriculture Cuba had become accustomed to during the Green Revolution ground to a halt when the supply of fertilizers, pesticides, petroleum, and machinery were no longer available. Cuba was stranded.
At this point Cuban agriculture, and ultimately Cuban society at large, was on the brink of change. It was during this time that the Cuban government implemented the “Periodo Especial”, or the Special Period, a time of austerity measures in which Cuba tried to boost its economy.
The once thriving island nation was now in need of serious changes. Until this collapse, Cuba had enjoyed relative food security, but little food sovereignty. This meant that when the Cuban food supply was threatened, the people had no local control or autonomy over their food system, jeopardizing their access to adequate, safe, and healthy food. How would Cuba feed its people without all the resources they once relied so heavily upon? Cubans faced many challenges during Periodo Especial.
With no access to chemical inputs and food imports, Cuba had to shift to local food production, and fast. The cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all, export driven approach of Green Revolution technologies no longer worked in conjunction with local realities. Because Cuba found itself largely cut off from the outside world’s new methods and technologies, Cuban agriculture was in desperate need of local innovation, developed by blending farmer knowledge with ecological agriculture.
Cubans are resilient.
Seeing the need for a dramatic transformation, the National Association of Small Farmers, or Asociacion Nacional de Agricultores Pequenos (ANAP) stepped in. Virtually all Cuban peasants belonged to ANAP at this time. These small-holder farmers were typically growing on plots less than 10 acres and often as small as 1 acre. The need to assist these peasant farmers to promote their own innovations grounded in the context of their individual needs was critical. ANAP looked to a popular model being utilized amongst peasants in Honduras called Campesino-a-Campesino (Farmer-to-Farmer). This Freirian pedagogy focused on empowering the individual through a peer to peer knowledge network.
However, traditional agriculture extension has a strangle hold on agricultural development. The current extension model functions as a trickle-down approach to knowledge sharing in which scientists or so-called experts develop methods in laboratories often very far from and foreign to farmers fields. This model not only disregards farmers’ unique needs, but also supplements agribusiness interests. Traditional extension serves only to discourage farmer innovation and create a reliance on the systems that oppress peasant farmers in the first place.
Campesino-a-Campesino (CAC) is a retrofitted methodology of horizontal communication inspired by the work of Paulo Freire. As a Brazilian educator, Freire taught 300 Brazilian sugar cane farmers to read and write in just 45 days and thus earn the right to vote. This Freirian model was a participatory process that used small groups to dialogue and share personal experiences to empower participants. The movement quickly translated into the rapid spread of knowledge.
The approach became so successful that within two years, over 200 cultural circles had spread throughout the country. The success of these programs led to the participation in democracy, development and education of groups previously marginalized. The threat that this self-empowering pedagogy had on the elite and current governing models led to Paulo Friere being exiled in just two years and his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, being banned across colonial countries around the world.
Inspired by groups in Honduras, who had adopted the models of Friere’s literacy campaign to peasant organizing, ANAP would use CAC as a vehicle to aid peasant farmers in the creation of a mass movement to transform Cuba’s food system. Being that Cuba had limited time to waste during this shortage of food, they would need to shift to an entirely new food system, an Agroecological revolution.
Agroecology is a dynamic movement that is as new to many present day readers as it was to Cubans in the early days of the Periodo Especial. With deep roots throughout history, agroecology plays a key role in democratizing the food system. One of the tenets of agroecology is that all people should have a spot at the table to express their thoughts and concerns. The CAC movement helped in giving a voice to the voiceless.
Agroecology is a whole-system approach to agricultural production that melds the gravity of cultural and social impacts within a productive model of environmental sustainability. Incorporating local, traditional and Indigenous knowledges, agroecology hinges on site specific and culturally relevant models of agricultural food production.
Agroecology was a stark contrast to the export-driven agribusiness approach Cuba was familiar with. The new approach would shift food production’s focus away from a monocrop driven model wherein the majority of farmers grew sugar as a cash crop and little else, to a model promoting diversification to feed local populations. Agroecology was a way of tapping into the vast wealth of knowledge that peasant farmers had used for millennia before being suppressed by Green Revolution ideologies. The Campesino-a-Campesino proved to be a great tool for the promotion of agroecology.
The CAC movement acted as the building block for the acceleration and adoption of agroecology. The shift to the horizontal sharing methodology that CAC provided was a way of empowering peasant farmers using knowledge intensive rather than resource intensive practices to lead the way forward. The CAC movement created synergies that spread like wildfire and achieved successes which covered far greater areas, much faster than extension or traditional top-down approaches of knowledge sharing could.
There are innumerable examples of the the CAC’s efficacy at solving problems unique to individual peasants while also proving helpful when extrapolated to others’ farms. Take the work of Nini and Maria Pena who had a farm with sloped, rocky, and degraded soils and incorporated an agroforestry system that promoted diversification to build soil fertility and stability. These ingenious farmers strategically developed crop associations to recycle nutrients on their land.The complex designs have been made to assure the yoke of oxen may be used to manage weeds. The couple explains that their intercropping practices attract beneficial predators that fight pests and reduce labor input. Nini and Maria have shared their experiences and their practices have been adopted by many fellow farmers.
Ilso Velasquez is another farmer in Cuba that has shown great resilience in the face of climate change. Velasquez’ highly complex and diversified farm has protected itself against soil erosion common during heavy rains by building living barriers and dams. The deep and interconnected root systems present on the farm hold soil in place. Velasquez’ farm showed impressive resilience to Hurricane Ike, with greater recovery within 40 days compared to monocropped farms in surrounding areas. After sharing his expertise with other farmers, those in his community have seen great regeneration of citrus groves after climatic events.
Farmer innovation and transition was growing.
Asociacion Nacional Agricultores Pequenos (ANAP) worked with peasant farmers to create a mass mobilization. By 1999 the movement became nothing short of a revolution using the Campesino-a-Campesino (CAC) methodology. When Cuban agriculture was at a crossroads, their chemical inputs having been completely severed, the CAC movement provided peasant farmers an ecological and societal victory. Starting as a grassroots effort, the collaboration between farmers gave communities the ability to transform the world around them and to do so on their own terms.
The community aspect of CAC spurred farmer innovation and gave peasant farmers a sense of self. This was different from previous outlooks on farming where farmers were often treated as just another cog to grow crops in a recipe-like scheme. By promoting agroecology through the CAC method, farmers returned to the helm and became their own knowledge managers.
The CAC movement enjoyed great success in Cuba growing from 200 families to 110,000 families in just 10 years. Not only did the CAC movement increase local food production during the Periodo Especial, but it aided in transitioning Cuba from food insecurity to becoming the preeminent example of food sovereignty. The increased control that the Cuban peasants had over their food systems built autonomy that restored degraded soils and reinvigorated rural livelihoods.
The participatory nature of the CAC approach puts peasant needs first and values the rich pool of generational and community agricultural knowledge linked to their local realities even to this day.
The beauty behind the agroecology movement is its adaptability. The CAC movement in Cuba emerged as a step forward after a collapse in food security and exists today because of its continued success. The example of Cuba’s transformation is not an isolated example; the CAC movement for promoting agroecology is spreading all over the world.
Agriculture is at a crossroads and agroecology can be the the movement that tips the scale not just in favor of peasant farmers, but the planet as well. Humanity is here today thanks to the innovation of these same farmers. The progression of agriculture and society writ large is contingent upon the continued innovation of our food producers. Agroecology is designed in the interest of those that have been feeding their communities for centuries and will be fundamental in feeding generations to come.
The wealth of knowledge needed for agriculture resides within farmers around the world. This knowledge acts like a flowing river in that it is never stagnant, a resource waiting to be utilized. This knowledge and innovation can be tapped into by using CAC as a model. Agroecology and models like CAC are a tremendous opportunity to create social organization to drive change within our global food system. Agroecology has the ability to put farmers and peasants first, transform rural realities and rid our communities of the problematic dependencies on chemical inputs and the countries that control them.
It will take a revolution and you can join it.
Tanner is the Development Coordinator at A Growing Culture. A former Noble-Watoto Fellow to Uganda, he completed his Master’s of Agriculture in International Agricultural Development at Oklahoma State University. He has spent the last 5 years working in different aspects of agriculture from growing to advocacy.