Jorge Pena Diaz and Professor Phil Harris

This chapter focuses on the outstanding experience of urban and peri-urban agriculture (UPA) taking place in Cuba today. It has developed an innovative and comprehensive model supporting food produc­tion within the boundaries of its cities using a combi­nation of top-down and bottom-up approaches.

Cuba, the largest island of the Antilles and the only remaining Western socialist society, has experi­enced two absolutely extreme situations in the last decades. On the one hand, the 1990s saw the most intense economical crisis of its history, produced after the collapse of the socialist block; on the other, it suffered the severe strengthening of the US block­ade. The crisis generated a group of innovative responses; among them the first individual, sponta­neous and later government-led support of UPA. The last few years have seen the success­ful, though partial, recovery of its main economic indicators and the maintenance of its social achieve – ments. These improvements came accompanied by the introduction of market-oriented components into the socialist-planned Cuban economy. The over­whelming crisis that elicited the appearance of UPA has disappeared and new economic forces are now in operation. Meanwhile, the UPA implementation process itself has evolved towards more complex levels of organisation.

In this chapter the authors present the main char­acteristics of the urban agriculture currently present in Cuba, the causes of its origin, antecedents, peo­ple’s and government’s roles and other key factors emphasising the peculiarities of the Havana case study. They offer an overview of the main types of UPA production and producer partnerships to be found in Cuba, and of the integration of UPA into the planning policy of Havana, and comment on some of the conflicts that have appeared during its evolution. Finally, they discuss the most important lessons to be learnt from this experience and the factors affecting its replication.


Cuba, with a surface of 110 860 km2, has a population of 11.22 million inhabitants and an increasing rate of urbanisation. More than 75 per cent of the popu­lation lives in cities. The collapse of the Eastern Europe block in the early 1990s, with which Cuba conducted over 80 per cent of its trade, resulted in massive economic dislocation and severe social impacts. In the same period, Cuba suffered the strengthening of the US 40-year-long economic, financial and political sanctions – the blockade. As a result of this combination, one of the most severely affected areas has been food supply: it is estimated that there was a 67 per cent reduction of food availability in 1994. A longstanding and sys­tematic focus on social issues has resulted in par­ticular achievements. For instance, the highest quality (and free) education and healthcare in Latin America are provided to all Cuban citizens. These actions have been reflected in other areas such as science, sports and culture. For example, despite having only 2 per cent of Latin America’s popula­tion, Cuba has 11 per cent of its scientists and has developed an advanced network of world class research institutes. Female participation in society is outstanding and Cuba is ranked 58 in the UNDP Human Development Index 2000.

Since the 1820s Cuban agriculture has been dominated by sugar production and in the 1860s Cuba became the world’s largest sugar exporter. After the revolution in 1959, and its agrarian reforms, sugar continued to play a dominant role and most agriculture involved extensive mechanised cultiva­tion of ‘exotic’ species and other export crops. Much work was done to develop the National Agricultural sector into a highly mechanised one, with intensive use of agro-chemical products. Non-sugar agricul­ture had also largely been based upon large state farms and co-operatives. Cuba’s agriculture and food industries were heavily dependent on imports, includ­ing 100 per cent of wheat, 90 per cent of beans and 57 per cent of all calories consumed. The agricultural sector imported 48 per cent of fertilisers and 82 per cent of pesticides (Rosset and Benjamin, 1994). Balanced animal feeds were largely based on maize and other cereals, of which 97 per cent were imported (Deere, 1992, Rosset and Benjamin, 1994). From 1989 these imports were drastically reduced and agriculture faced an immediate crisis: imports of wheat and other grains for human consumption dropped by more than 50 per cent (Deere, 1992) while other foodstuffs, with the exception of powdered milk, declined even more, with a drop of more than 80 per cent in the availability of fertilisers and pesticides (Rosset and Benjamin, 1994). Electricity generation was drastically reduced, affecting food storage capacities; fuel and parts for maintaining transport vehicles, oil and other inputs became scarce com­modities, driving the traditional agricultural system into critical disruption, with a subsequent impact on the availability of nationally produced food, addition­ally affected by the reduction of food imports.

Together with achieving general economic recov­ery, the challenge was then established to gener­ate effective mechanisms to meet people’s food needs and to fulfil the government’s commitment on this social issue. Taking into consideration the scale and coverage of the crisis what strategy would serve to meet the food demands of a pre­dominantly urban population heavily dependent on the produce of a depressed countryside?