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Warm temperatures and persistent rain accompanied President Obama on his visit to Cuba last week, the first visit to the island by a US president in 88 years. Old Havana was packed with smiles and black umbrellas. To the outside observer, it’s impossible to tell that Cuba is going through its worst drought in over a century.
While the President and his wife Michelle toured the streets of Havana last week, municipalities in the Cuban countryside continued to struggle with the aftermath of the silent disaster. In the eastern provinces of Cuba, the soil is extremely dry and damaged, and the region lacks adequate water supplies.
Agriculture in Cuba is unable to produce even a third of the food needed to feed the country’s population
The drought will have an impact - the severity of which is yet unknown - on Cuba’s food security, already declared an issue of national importance by the Cuban Government. Agriculture in Cuba, despite policy changes such as the redistribution of more than one million hectares of idle land to small farmers, and the easing of measures to diversify production and increase the availability of credit, is unable to produce even a third of the food needed to feed the country’s population. Authorities have recently been forced to regulate food prices in local markets as they were getting too high for most Cubans to afford.
However, a recent assessment conducted as part of an Oxfam supported urban agriculture strengthening project implemented in 85 agricultural cooperatives by the National Association of Small Famers (ANAP) and the National Institute for Tropical Agricultural Research (INIFAT) shows that simple investments in irrigation systems, solar panels, windmills and machinery repair supplies would allow Cuban farms to double their fruit and vegetable production, and better feed their livestock.
If the United States could, if not lift the embargo, at least allow food producers to purchase quality supplies and equipment at accessible prices, both countries would benefit.
Not only would Cuba be able to provide healthy food to millions of tourists from neighboring countries, but the country would also be able to offer fresh, affordable and nutritional food to its own population. Unfortunately, what we are seeing on state store shelves is exactly the opposite: an increasing number of imported food products with little nutritional value and large ecological footprints. Oh, and they also happen to be too expensive for most Cubans.
A woman and her daughter walk near their home in Cuba, where several regions are still suffering the consequences of a silent natural disaster.
Rural women are at the heart of transforming the agriculture sector
In Cuba, "value chains" are still in their infancy, and it remains challenging for people to think and act based on demand and consumer preferences. However, ANAP and other national organizations like the Cuban Women’s Federation (FMC), have highlighted that rural women are at the heart of transforming the agriculture sector, even though they still represent only 20% of small farmers.That’s why OXFAM has been working with these and other associations to increase women’s participation in agricultural cooperatives and their access to much needed resources and training. In fact, Oxfam is currently supporting the Cuban Ministry of Agriculture to implement its first ever gender equality policy.
President Obama celebrated Cuba’s emerging entrepreneurs, in particular those who have opened restaurants (paladares) in Havana. But what about women farmers selling organic fertilizer, growing flowers, or creating crafts from locally-grown bamboo in rural Cuba?
There is an unprecedented opportunity to build bridges between a new generation of entrepreneurs and rural Cuba - a relationship that could greatly improve the agriculture and the diversity of the sector. The development of these sectors combined with the emergence of new and innovative cooperative models, could help build a richer economic and social fabric in the rural provinces.In its progress towards decentralization, local governments in Cuba could begin working directly with a wide range of social institutions and economic agents - both public and private. In addition, agronomy research institutes now have the means to transfer new knowledge and technologies into practice in the field. A handful of international NGOs that have been present in Cuba for 15 to 20 years, working in solidarity with Cuban institutions, are ready to support these innovations. By allowing them to work with other philanthropic associations and North American NGOs, President Obama would greatly help advance the development of Cuba’s rural areas.
There is still a lot to do to seal the deal on rapprochement between Cuba and the United States, but including the agriculture sector in the process from the start is both essential and strategic – for both countries, and their people. Initiatives currently underway such as agro tourism, US-Cuba agroecology networks and certification processes for agro ecological goods, must be supported and encouraged.
A suggestion therefore to the person who will succeed Obama on the next Presidential visit to Cuba, get out of Havana and don’t forget rural Cuba!