Two local community-based organisations together with RULiv staff visited Cuba and Brazil on a study tour aimed at sharing experiences and lessons from the Cuba Green Revolution and Brazil’s Zero Hunger Programme.
One community group is based in Duncan Village and is concerned with waste recycling while the other is a cluster of villages which are setting up household food gardens using agroecological principles in a number of Ndakana villages on the N6 near Amabele.
One of the most important lessons the team learnt from their study tour is that one does not need fancy equipment or expensive inputs to produce a surplus of food. All over the world and in South Africa, people are starting to realise the benefits of growing their own nutritious food without the need for lots of space and expensive inputs such as fertilisers, pesticides and equipment. The lessons from Cuba in particular, have proved this can done with very little.
Water is always an issue in an arid country like South Africa but the good news is using agroecological methods and working with nature, can help conserve water by actively harvesting water and using it wisely.
Lessons from Cuba
Following the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989, Cubans found themselves cut off from vital imports from the Soviet Union. Faced with massive oil and food shortages, Cuban took matters into their own hands and started growing food – on balconies, terraces, in fact on every piece of open land they could lay their hands on. Cuba is now considered a world authority on urban agriculture and more than half of Havana’s food is produced within the city limits.
Importantly, the Cuban government did not react and squash these efforts. Instead they worked hand in hand with grassroots initiatives and created an enabling environment to assist people. In 1994, the newly formed Urban Agriculture Department did the following:
(1) it adapted what we would call city by-laws to the planning concept of Usufruct, making it not just legal, but free to adapt unused, public land into food production plots;
(2) it trained a network of extension agents, community members who monitor, educate, and encourage gardeners in their neighborhoods;
(3) it created “Seed Houses” (agricultural stores) to provide resources/information; and
(4) it established an infrastructure of direct-sale Farmers’ Markets to make these gardens financially viable.
A mere four years later, there were more than 8,000 officially recognised gardens in Havana, all were organic and most use agroecological principles which includes vermi-composting (worms process waste and produce compost), the use of microbes, fungi and bacteria to assist in nutrient absorption and pests. Cuba has also invested heavily in the training of technicians and scientists in alternative sustainable food production and many volunteer their knowledge and services for the greater communal good.
Overall, the Cuban Green Revolution has resulted in reduced carbon emissions, provided employment for the jobless and elderly, reduced hunger dramatically and boosted nutritional health and has built social cohesion.
Lessons from Brazil
The group visited the city of Belo Horizone, home to 2,5 million in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, located in the southeastern region of the country. They were hosted by the local municipality and visited pre-and primary schools, food production training facilities and subsidized restaurants which provide nutritious meals to everyone.
Hunger had been very widespread in Brazil which was why the country adopted income transfer schemes such as the Bolsa Familia as part of the Zero Hunger campaign – which supports more than a quarter of the population – and combines food safety, access to education and health, and measures to foster local development, especially in rural areas.
The encouragement of family agriculture was fundamental to the success of social policies in Brazil. Family farming is responsible for 70% of food consumed domestically and represents 10% of Brazil’s GDP. These results would not be possible without agricultural research, agrarian reform and land tenure, technical assistance, and access to credit and insurance, among other things.
One interesting aspect is the municipal control and monitoring of street markets selling fresh produce. In order to qualify and get their stamp of approval, the vendors have to guarantee that they will sell a certain percentage of their food at a subsidized rate. This initiative is rigorously monitored and enforced by the local authority.
As part of its activities, Zero Hunger in Brazil provided direct financial assistance to the most impoverished families. It also opened up government-run restaurants that provided low-cost meals three times a day to those in need. What’s more, Zero Hunger worked to address root causes of poverty and hunger. For a family to receive money for food, the children had to be enrolled in school. Better education has given these children a chance to break free from the vicious circle of poverty and hunger.
The Bolsa Familia reaches nearly one quarter of Brazil’s 200 million people and since 2003, 23 million Brazilians have been lifted out of poverty.