Informacion economica sobre Cuba

Cuba: The Mojito Secret & Urban Farming

August 11, 2012

Organic and Sustainable Urban Agriculture

Fernando Ravsberg*

HAVANA TIMES — Ernest Hemingway recommended drinking the mojitos at the

Bodeguita del Medio bar, so we tried to find out why. The bartender,

Reynaldo Linea — who turned out to be a regular BBC reader — revealed

the origin of the mint they use.

It comes from an urban agricultural cooperative that only produces

organic foods. This means the mint is always fresh, since the close

proximity of the farm allows it to be delivered daily. Like they say, it

goes directly from the furrow into the glass.

"The mint was always lacking, at least until the ministers of

Agriculture and Tourism signed an agreement to ensure its supply to the

Bodeguita del Medio," explained Reynaldo, who has worked behind the bar

for 22 years.

Recent economic reforms now allow the famous restaurant to buy top

quality mint directly from growers, with payment made in hard currency

that helps further develop their cooperatives.

From the desk to the fields

The farm is located in Havana's Alamar worker housing suburb, only 15

minutes by car from the Bodeguita, so we went straight there to talk to

the growers. Upon our arrival we found a stand selling vegetables,

spices and other produce to the nearby residents at prices lower than in

the city's markets.

Miguel Salcines, the president of the cooperative, showing us the mint

that he sells to the Bodeguita del Medio. Photo: Raquel Perez

Miguel Salcines is an agricultural technician who worked for years at

the Ministry of Agriculture. He was one of the few people who, during

the economic crisis of the '90s, chose to leave that agency and become

involved in food production. Along with three or four other people, and

using vacant land, he founded the cooperative.

"It was a challenge. We were a country of large monoculture tracts that

didn't take into account small-scale agriculture," said Miguel, but he

added that this immediately became a source of employment for the

community – primarily for "women and seniors."

Food shortages during the '90s crisis forced even the most reluctant

individuals to try eating vegetables from the cooperative, and "people

gradually incorporated them into their diets. In this way we contributed

to creating different consumption habits that still remain today."

Natural cycles

One-hundred and sixty people work on the farm. Indeed, "Its greatest

strength is its human resources and our workers' level of training. We

have 22 university graduates, more than 40 middle-level technicians and

the rest have between 9th and 12th grade educations. The average age is

around 50," explained Miguel.

The oldest of these workers is Jose Luis Roche, an 81-year-old

grandfather who has spent 70 years in agriculture. So that he can "talk

a little while with the other members," he gets to work every day at

around 6:00 a.m., an hour earlier than required. He assured us that

"work is good for you; what's bad is sitting around."

Another worker, 24-year-old Roxana Fleites, is in charge of a biology

lab located in a palm-roofed shed in the middle of the cooperative. She

says they don't use chemicals; instead, "We reproduce beneficial insects

and raise parrot chicks that eat pests."

They have managed to become self-sustaining based on a system of organic

production that is free of chemicals and which "combine natural cycles."

They raise cows and use their droppings to produce worm humus

(vermicompost) and then apply this to the land as a natural fertilizer.

Farmers and shareholders

Michael assures us that the work carried out in the cooperative is more

human than in large-scale agriculture. As he put it, "The workday is

shorter, since we put in only six hours a day in the summer and seven in

the winter; plus, we make zero-interest loans to our members, and we get

free lunch and dinner."

Roxana Fleites is the specialist in reproducing insects and rearing

parrot chicks, which are used to fight agricultural pests without using

chemicals. Photo: Raquel Perez

Despite all this, it took some work to retain their members. They had to

create a pay system that combines wages and stocks, with the latter

being capitalized based on the "working capital" accumulated by each

cooperative member. "Fifty percent of the profits are divided between

the shareholders."

New employees work as employees for their first three months, and — if

the assembly approves their membership into the cooperative — they begin

accumulating capital in the fields. The first year they receive one

share and they continue getting more until they accumulate six shares by

their tenth year.

The basic salary of a cooperative member is 350 to 700 pesos a month

(about $15 to $30 USD), but added to this are their shares, which can

reach up to 2,000 pesos a month (about $80 USD). Moreover, "unlike other

cooperatives, we don't hold onto the profits for months; these are paid

out along with the worker's wages every 15 days."

"What doesn't grow dies"

Miguel Salcines explained that they have received support from European

NGOs, Cuban research centers and from the local government, but they ran

into the bureaucratic obstacles that have impeded agricultural

development across the nation for decades.

"Marketing policies sought to protect the population against food

speculation, but these created a lot of rigidity in pricing, which is

something that doesn't stimulate production. We hold the view that the

country should be subsidizing [needy] people – not products."

"The system for purchasing supplies and resources is extremely complex;

it's done through other companies and other offices with contracts and a

sea of paperwork that aren't responsive to our immediate needs, like

when a truck breaks down, for example."

"They also refuse to allow us to get involved in other activities on the

fringes of farming, for example starting a restaurant or a café. And

that kills the capital that we have for investing as a cooperative –

because what doesn't grow, dies."


(*) A Havana Times translation of the original published by

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