When Cuban teacher Maria Felix Bonome started cultivating the front yard of her home in the Havana suburb of Cojimar, it was quite a revolutionary thing to do. Before 1989, half of Cuba's caloric intake was imported from the Eastern bloc, and the rest of its food came from the countryside. No one planted fruits or vegetables in the city.
But then the Soviet Union collapsed, and dire food shortages hit its Caribbean trading partner. While some Cubans panicked, Bonome created a cooperative urban garden, an organipÛnico.
Soon, the citizens of Havana began cultivating any available plot of land--including rooftops and balconies. City authorities opened an urban agriculture department to support the growers by providing them with seeds, technical advice, and free land titles for cultivation only. They instituted a seed house network and outlawed chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
Today, around 30,000 inhabitants of Havana are directly involved in organic urban gardening, and the results have been spectacular. Half of the island's vegetables are now grown in the cities; Havana provides 30 percent of its own. Many Cubans also enjoy health benefits from eating more fresh foods. Bonome is justifiably proud of the success of her organipÛnico. 'We organized a brigade of family and friends and created it for ourselves,'she says. 'We needed only our hands. And we have a wonderful relationship with the people around us; we all work together to make our city a good place. We provide good cheap food for people, and free food and care to those who need it.'
The urban garden also provides on-site work programs for students from a local youth correctional facility, sending them home every day with free food. 'We give them an area in which to work,'says Bonome, 'and after showing them how to prepare the soil, to sow, to weed, to harvest, we leave them to do the work without overseeing them, although, of course, they can always come to us for advice or guidance. We never have problems with these kids. It's wonderful to see their excitement when the plants begin to grow and they see the results of their labor pop through the ground.
From The New Internationalist (June 1999). Subscriptions: $35.98/yr. (11 issues) from Box 1143, Lewiston, NY 14092.