Page last updated at 12:21 GMT, Wednesday, 30 September 2009 13:21 UK

Seeds of change in Cuban farming

By Michael Voss
BBC News, Camaguey

Tackling the marabu shrub on land left untended for a long time
It is a challenge to make long neglected land productive

It could be a scene straight out of the Wild West: a homesteader struggling to tame a wilderness and turn it into productive farmland to provide a living for himself and his family.

But this struggle of man against the land is happening in the central province of Camaguey in Cuba.

Jorge Alcides has no electricity in the simple wooden home he built for his pregnant wife and two children.

He milks his three dairy cows by hand, sitting on a handmade stool. He and his son plough the fields using oxen. But he is not complaining.

Jorge Alcides with his ox
If you don't work the land you should lose it and let someone else take over
Jorge Alcides

"I'm really happy, it's different when you work for yourself rather than being paid a wage," he said.

Communist Cuba is undergoing one of the largest land redistributions since Fidel Castro's revolution in 1959; only this time it is leasing state-owned farmland to the private sector.

In a bid to boost production and reduce costly imports, President Raul Castro is offering small plots of unproductive state land to family farmers and private co-operatives.

Around 1.7 million hectares (4.2 million acres) are up for grabs. So far about 86,000 applications for land have been approved, with tens of thousands more Cubans hoping to participate.

Back-breaking work

Last year, Mr Alcides received an extra 13 hectares of land, with a promise of more if he makes it work.

The catch was that all of it was covered in a thick, impenetrable shrub called "marabu".

It is like a bramble on steroids - a nightmare to get rid of. The weed can grow up to 4m (13 feet), has deep roots and is so dense that once it takes hold nothing else can grow.

Taking lettuce to market
Private farmers produce about two-thirds of the food in Cuba

Mr Alcides is part of a private co-operative which gives him access to a 1960s Soviet-built tractor with a locally built rotary cutter attached.

It's still back-breaking work. After the shrub is cut, it must be burned and its roots dug out.

The fields had been part of a state-run collective farm which had been allowed to go to waste.

"If you don't work the land you should lose it and let someone else take over," Mr Alcides said.

He has managed to clear about three-quarters of the plot and so far this year he has produced some 10 tonnes of meat, fruit and vegetables.

Private markets

The Renato Guitart Co-operative is a collection of individual smallholders: 187 private farmers who have joined together for investment and to share equipment such as tractors.

It has grown by almost a third over the past year and now covers about 520 hectares (1,300 acres) in the green fertile plains of Camaguey.

Mostly this is cattle country, dominated by large state-run farms. But the co-operative produces a wide range of fruit and vegetables, along with meat and dairy.

Agustin Perez, a member of the co-operative, is working hard to meet the demand for fresh lettuce.


His grandfather first worked this land, concentrating on salad crops such lettuce, cucumbers, radishes and onions.

In the past private farmers were tolerated; now Mr Perez believes they are being actively encouraged.

It is not just about extra land. Another key reform is that private farmers are now legally allowed to take on hired labour.

"There has been an enormous difference in the last two years. The authorities are paying a lot more attention to us. Now we earn more money because we are selling more food," he said.

Mr Perez is able to sell everything he grows to privately run farmers' markets.

Early every morning, stall holders arrive to collect whatever is freshly picked .Some come on horse and carts, others on converted bicycles with trailers.

Other members of the co-operative though, like pig farmer Jorge Viera, still have to sell to the state and rely on inefficient state transport.

Mr Viera recently cleared almost 30 hectares of marabu and has planted maize and root crops to use as animal feed. He hopes to boost meat production by 20% this year.

"We sell our basic quota to the state at a not very good price," he explained, "but for anything above the quota the state pays a much higher price."

Food imports

Agricultural reform was at the heart of the Cuban revolution. Shortly after taking power in 1959, Fidel Castro nationalised the large estates and sugar plantations, many of them US-owned.

Small-scale family farmers were allowed to keep their land but increasingly the island turned towards huge Soviet-style state-run collective farms.

It has not worked.

Last year, Cuba spent $2.4bn (£1.5bn) on food imports, much of which could have been produced on the island.

The large state farms have proved highly inefficient, and allowed as much as half of the land to become overrun with weeds like marabu.

Today, about a third of Cuba's farmland is in the hands of small-scale private farmers and co-operatives, yet they produce about two-thirds of the food.

Taking lettuce to market
The profit motive is back in Cuban farming

Handing over unproductive land is only part of the equation. Farmers still need access to tools, seeds, fertilisers and other necessities.

It is starting to happen but is often bureaucratic and unwieldy.

In Camaguey, part of what the state pays private farmers for their produce is in the form of accumulated credits or bonus points. These can then be exchanged for goods at newly created special farm shops.

According to the local small farmers' association, average earnings have risen to around $200 a month, roughly 10 times the national average. Some are making significantly more.

Incentives, like the profit motive and productivity-related pay, are reappearing after half a century of an idealistic experiment in egalitarian socialism.

It is too early to tell whether these reforms will be far-reaching enough to make a dramatic impact on food shortages.

But if private farmers are seen to be successfully boosting production and earning a better living, then President Raul Castro is likely to face increasing pressure to push through similar free-market reforms to the rest of the economy as well.

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