The Man Who Started It All (for me)
|Roberto Perez speaking at Ceres Fair Food Warehouse on Thursday|
But five minutes into the Cuban food security activist's talk and I was riveted. I couldn't believe how ingenious and resilient his fellow country men and women were proving in the face of the twin catastrophes of the ongoing American trade embargo and the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in 1991, which left Cuba virtually bereft of oil.
As Roberto talked of cities criss-crossed with urban farms and residents using every centimetre of available space - balconies, bathtubs, footpaths, even buckets - to grow food, I knew I had to see it for myself. So I contacted some local magazines and offered to report on sustainable practices in Cuba. And last May, with beautiful new camera in hand (thank you Ponch!) I headed off. What I found surpassed my wildest expectations.
|Oxen transporting fodder in farm in downtown Havana|
Something Roberto emphasised on Thursday is that when we are thinking about designing food systems, we must never forget to include animals. Since 1991 all sorts of animals have been pressed into service in Cuba, not only providing fertiliser and food, but also transportation and 'grunt'.
Animals have a couple of additional advantages over their mechanical counterparts, Roberto believes. 'If times get tough, you can always eat an ox. You can't eat a tractor.' Yikes! Also 'You can't work for 10 hours straight with oxen. They remind you of what is is to be human.' That is crucial, he believes, because 'we need to get back to human scale.'
|Havana farmer who needs no reminding of what it is to be human|
There was so much wisdom in Thursday's talk that it's impossible to do justice to it here.
But one thing came through loud and clear: When faced with a huge challenge, like a 70% reduction in fossil fuels in a country as addicted to oil as Cuba was, people pulling together can work miracles. That was particularly heartening to hear as the the rest of us will soon be facing that situation ourselves.
|The luxuriant terraces of Finca Agroecologica El Paraiso in Vinales|
The site above is a great example of people working miracles. Just seven years ago it was totally arid, but is now a thriving experimental farm, with a host of different vegetable crops, numerous fruit trees and clumps of sugar cane. Powered by oxen and horses and fertilised by rabbits, chickens and innumerable worms, the farm has become famous throughout Cuba for its honey and medicinal herbs.
Roberto suggested that the preoccupation in some parts of the West about eating 'organically' can in fact be problematic. He much prefers the notion of eating 'sustainably'. Citing California as an example, whose organic fruit and veggies are grown mainly by itinerant Mexican workers under back-breaking conditions, he argues that a sustainable perspective ensures the ethics of food production is always kept under the spotlight.
Roberto ended his talk with a photo of two free-ranging pigs having a fine time bonking. He argues that a sustainable future will be much more appealing if it is not simply promoted as a solution for the poor, but as something 'sexy and fun to do'.
At the end of the talk, I marshalled my courage and went up to Roberto. I had come bearing gifts - a respectable little pile of Big Issues, Earth Gardens and Pen magazines featuring articles I had written about Cuba since my return. Roberto was particularly taken with the Earth Gardens, which he reminded me have been popular in Cuba ever since early Australian earth gardeners offered support to Cuban farmers.
Roberto asked if I had enjoyed Cuba, and seemed delighted with my answer - that I had loved it. I even managed to mumble, before dashing off, that he had been the inspiration for the trip.