Innovator Spotlight: community tourism on Cuba’s remarkable organic urban farms

Cuban organic urban farms know as organiponicos

What does the idea of a Cuban holiday conjure up? Hanging out in bars in Havana, smoking the world’s most famous cigars, and driving around in oversized old cars? Maybe heading to the beach? Probably drinking some rum, and listening to the music of Buena Vista Social club. These are the best known stories when it comes to this little understood island off the coast of Florida. Less so the idea of visiting an urban farm.

Cuba Select Travel offers all manner of the better known delights. But it also offers something a little more unusual: for the second year, it is providing tours to see – and volunteer on for those that wish – Cuba’s organoponicos – a remarkable network of urban farm projects aimed at taking thousands of poorly utilized areas, mainly around Havana, and turning them into intensive vegetable gardens.

Across the world, agritourism has been a growing trend for a few years now – innovations such as farmstays and WWOOFing (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) offer a chance for our increasingly urbanised population to reconnect with the way our food is produced. They are a bucolic mix of The Good Life and Darling Buds of May perhaps, and far removed from the life of an East European fruit picker. But for someone whose interactions with food is normally mediated by cellophane and barcodes, such agrarian pursuits offer an introduction to the simpler rhythms of country life. In Cuba, these urban farm schemes offer the chance to witness one of the most significant ‘accidental experiments’ in global sustainable living around, the thousands of allotments and market gardens known as the organiponicos.

A land without oil

cuban urban farms fill empty spaces in Havana

A little history. When the USSR collapsed in 1990/9, so did Cuba’s means of sustenance, as the country basically ran out of oil overnight. Within a year the country had lost 80% of its trade and access to over 1.3m tonnes of chemical fertilisers a year. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (UNFAO), calorie intake per person dropped from 2,600 per person to between 1,000 and 1,500 by 1993.

Cuba’s response to international exclusion was to look inevitably inwards. Families started to work the fields – or whatever patch of disused land they could find – together. (Something similar is now happening in the UK, through Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s Landshare movement, while the Transition Towns initiatives look at how communities will respond to a post-carbon future.)

Through this mix of collective action and community resilience, Cuba began to feed itself. They had no pesticides anymore, so they farmed organically, and worked out innovative low cost ways of increasing yields. By 1995 Havana had 25,000 huertos = allotments, and dozens of larger scale market gardens (the organponicos that Cuba Select takes visitors to).

Incredibly, and this is where the international community began to sit up and takes notice –  the country did better than simply avoid starvation. Studies have shown that in many incidences Cuban nutritional health improved compared to before the crisis

farm veg

Today, More than 35,000 hectares (over 87,000 acres) of land are being used in urban agriculture in Havana alone. This network of market gardens now supplies 90 per cent of the country’s fruit and vegetables. Compare this to the UK, where currently we import 95 per cent of our fruit and 50 per cent of our vegetables.

But there has been little connection with tourism, despite this sector having also grown in recent years. Writing last year, Charles Thompson wondered: “If farmers could reach tourists and sell food directly as in the urban casas particulares where we stayed, people would pay handsomely to eat farm-raised food on a farm in place of the typical tourist fare”. 

Hopefully initiatives like Cuba Select Travel’s new tours and volunteer scheme will accelerate such developments, and a visit to an organoponico urban farm will soon become part of every Cuban travellers must do list.