I Dreamed Of [Second Encounters with Permaculture] in Cuba

cuba1This year’s International Permaculture Convergence (IPC) provided a chance to gather with people around the world to discuss good work and inspiring projects relating to permaculture. A dear friend, Halena Seiferling and I had spent time in Cuba participating in a permaculture internship in 2011 and 2012, and so the IPC also provided us with the opportunity to go back to a place that has become very dear to our hearts, the island of Cuba, and to share the parts of Cuba that we have come to know and love with others. And of course, it was an honour to share the experience of international exchange with our Cuban friends, who would have had a harder time attending an IPC if it wasn’t hosted in their homeland.

Apart from the actual convergence, we had the opportunity to revisit the permaculture systems we had worked on years before and see the true impacts that this annual internship is having on the community of Sancti Spíritus, Cuba.

Reflections on the impact of Canadian Internship projects over time

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Edinson at his site “Mi Huerto” (Photo – Kay Niedermeyer)

I have heard people share terrible stories of projects led with an intention to build international partnership that end up creating dysfunctional systems that lack community engagement, or ownership. I was pretty sure when we headed down to Cuba for a seven week internship and Permaculture Design Course with the Urban Farmer and La Fundacion Antonio Nunez Jimenez that this was not the case, but returning to these systems and witnessing their beauty and abundance first hand (even during the “transition season” with low production) confirmed for me that we had not only built meaningful, lifelong relationships with our Cuban counterparts, but we had also laid the foundations for functional and abundant systems within the community.

While wandering through the systems, I was able to recognize specific elements that had a distinct Canadian fingerprint on them: the maple leaf garden bed in “Cielo de las Gomas” and its heart shaped pond; the bicycle mandala and Cuban flag garden beds at “Mi Huerto”; the spirals and terraces made of recycled tires and the ponds at “Lo Real Maravilloso”; and the beautiful mural and practical keyhole garden beds and swale combination at “El Pimenton”, for example. Over time, the beds have continued to fill out, the trees have grown at astonishing rates, and new elements have continued to be introduced.

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Ricardo at his site, “Lo Real Maravillosa” (Photo – Kay Niedermeyer)

The dream is designed and redesigned

When I walked through the gate to the system I had spent six weeks working on, “Lo Real Maravilloso” in 2012, I could hardly believe the work that Ricardo, the campesino we’d worked with, had done since our group had left. He cheerfully reminded me that permaculture often means redesigning the design. Since we left, they have finished the composting toilet, added teepees for vertical growth over the ponds to provide shade, and improved the terraces along the riverbed. Even during the weeks that I visited, a home was constructed for the newest inhabitants of the system, lombrices (worms) for the vermicompost.

Another campesino, Edison, shared with us his dream design that he has mapped out for his system, “Mi Huerto”. This map ambitiously includes the construction of several small cabins that would provide housing for folks taking permaculture workshops or design courses in his system.

All of this tells me that these systems are continuing to grow and evolve over time. It tells me that the visiting Canadians were not the story in and of themselves, but our time in these systems was a chapter in an ongoing tale.

Other people from the local community as well as from across Cuba and abroad have come to learn from, interact with, and work on these systems, contributing other chapters and subchapters to the story of these systems, and they will continue to do so in the future.

Raising awareness of permaculture within the community

I didn’t consider it at the time, but a dozen extranjeros (foreigners) covered in mud riding around town on their bicycles several times a day does create a spectacle for intrigue!

One evening a local fellow approached Halena and I in the park and asked us if weren’t we some of the folks who used to ride our bikes around town to go work on permaculture systems. We were surprised to be recognized for this, but now that I think about it, I guess we must have stuck out in a town built on daily routine.

Additionally, many of our projects engaged neighbours and youth who have been encouraged to learn more about permaculture, and even start to implement permaculture principles on their own property.

A fellow who works on an organopónico that was transformed during the program several years ago told me that he didn’t really know that much about permaculture and hadn’t learned much more since the Canadian interns had left. But, he admitted that the section of land that had been transformed didn’t flood like it used to when it was filled with traditional linear beds, and now it provided more biodiversity and more consistent harvests. This seemed pretty good to him! He said that maybe it was time he picked up some permaculture books and started learning.

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Kay, author, with Cuban permaculturalist, Edith, and Halena (fellow Canadian intern) in Sancti Spiritus, Cuba – November 2013.

Breaking gender norms and barriers

Even though the majority of the world’s farmers are women, try telling a Cuban campesino that — they will probably scoff and make some kind of remark about how working with the land is hard work, a man’s work. But, I have noticed that the language amongst permacultores/as in Cuba is becoming more inclusive.

This is not just because the majority of the Canadian interns in Sancti Spíritus have been women;there are many strong and inspiring Cuban campesinas who are taking a leading role in the permaculture movement on the island. However, the strength, endurance, and determined work ethic of the Canadian women participating with the program have definitely made some Cubano’s jaws drop and challenged some of the assumptions of women’s capabilities on the farm.

Reflection on permaculture and the Cuban revolution

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Cuba’s role in promoting permaculture ethics. (Photo – KNiedermeyer)

During our presentation of the internship program at this years IPC, a participant from this year, Henry Anton Peller, shared some profound reflections on how, because of the revolution, Cuban society is already doing pretty well in terms of two of the three permaculture principles, “people care” and “share the surplus”. He suggested that this has created a unique context for Cuban permaculturists to focus on promoting “earth care” within their communities.

That said, permaculture was first introduced to Cuba during the Special Period, with the hopes of increasing the local communities’ ability to be food secure and take care of their people. And now, as the country’s policies are reforming at a fast rate, the role and essence of Cuba’s organopónicos are being redefined.

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Montana at his organioponico in Sancti Spiritus, Cuba. (Photo – KNiedermeyer)

One campesino informed us that as of 2013, the state is no longer regulating the prices of produce at the organopónicos, meaning that some are now raising their prices to turn a greater profit.

People from certain barrios now have to travel to organopónicos in other parts of the city, and the organopónicos that have kept their prices low often sell out of produce early in the morning.

I can’t help but wonder how this opening of the market will challenge food security in Cuban communities, but this situation makes it clear to me that Cuban permacultores/as have an essential role in ensuring that the community’s wellbeing continues to be the central focus as reforms move forward, by providing chemical free, affordable food and environmentally regenerative leadership in their region.

Kay Niedermeyer

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