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The radical project in Havana that is feeding entire communities

April 12 2016

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The benefits of growing your own food far outweigh the nutritional benefits. Getting your finger tips in the earth, working on a joint food-growing project with others, and playing an active part in the cycle of nature empower us to overcome individual isolation, heal mental health issues, and bring our community together.

Indeed, planting your own food in the outdoors with your neighbours is one of the most fundamentally life-enhancing activities that you can do. But what happens if you live in a concrete jungle with no fields to cultivate?

In Havana, Cuba, the residents did just that as the whole city came together in an extraordinary whole-community project. Here’s how it happened.

In 1989, Cuba’s trade with the former Soviet bloc dried up. Already suffering from a US trade embargo, Cuba suddenly found itself completely cut off. With a shortage of pesticides and fertilisers, and now without the Russian oil that had driven the machinery, transport and refrigeration to supply the island’s regions, a food crisis loomed.

In response to these shortages, the communities of Havana came up with a revolutionary solution. People started to dig up the parks and gardens of inner-city areas to grow their own food. A green revolution of organic, local produce was initiated. Essentially a grass-roots community-led project, these ‘guerrilla’ gardening initiatives blossomed into inner city farms, manned by an army of volunteers.

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Due to the food crisis in Cuba, people used parks and gardens to grow food

Over 200 gardens were created in Havana to supply its inhabitants with more than 90% of their fruit and vegetables. Over 90,000 acres of land was employed to create these urban farms. Some residents even took over tiny balconies or their own modest rooftops. Many reclaimed land from vacant plots between the crumbling buildings of Havana. These former wastelands were transformed, helped by the government’s ‘free land’ policy.

One of the most successful of the gardens, or ‘organoponicos’, covers one-and-a-half acres and employs around 25 people. Here you will find a wide range of healthy fresh food sold at low cost to the local community.

Produce includes everything from salad vegetables to squash, sweet potatoes and mangoes. All are freshly picked and sold cheaply in the attached shop. As staff keep 50% of the produce, there is a huge incentive to work hard to grow as much as possible.

With no chemical fertilisers available, gardens like this were created around managing pest control. Plants such as marigold, basil and neem trees were planted around crops to keep aphids and beetles at bay. Sunflowers and corn were added around the edges of gardens to attract ‘good’ insects, such as butterflies and ladybirds.

Although many gardens also supported livestock, the majority of the Cuban diet comes from vegetables – the traditional lunch in Havana consists of black beans and rice. Far healthier than the Western diet, it also requires less energy to produce – a vital consideration when oil is in short supply – and contributes to a cleaner, more sustainable environment.

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Havana’s inner-city farms offer a model for rethinking how food production can be woven into the fabric of urban life. It also represents a shining example of successful local community and state partnership – the Cuban government supports the project in a variety of ways – which is part of the key to its incredible success. It is estimated that over 90,000 acres of land was employed in food production in the city.

But the real beauty of the urban farming project is not just about economics – producing food and creating employment. It is also about community development, the collaboration of an urban neighbourhood, creating a healthier, saner life and the emergence of widespread community engagement. It serves as the inspiration for more holistic way of living.

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Livability runs the Flourish project at Livability Holton Lee, which supports participants in improving their wellbeing, resilience, confidence, self esteem, skills and motivation within the context of gardening.

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