Robyn Francis and Melian Fertl, representing PCA and Djanbung Gardens, joined over 420 delegates from 47 countries converging in Cuba for the 11th International Permaculture Convention, November-December 2013. Robyn reports on the experience.

Salsa and Rum – Welcome to Havana Nov 24

The inaugural event was a Gala dinner in the garden of a beautiful colonial villa in the Vedardo area of Havana. The air was buzzing with excitement, people catching up with old friends from distant parts of the planet and meeting new friends. After a long delay to accommodate over 100 unregistered extra guests, dinner was eventually served while we enjoyed the entertainment of live Cuban music. To round off the meal and make sure everyone got into the mood for dancing, a bottle of rum was delivered to each table.

IPC11, FANJ team welcome delegates to the 11th International Permaculture Convention in Havana

Next morning the 3-day public conference commenced in the famous Hotel Libre with a welcome from the organising team of the Foundation for Nature and Humanity (FANJ). Each of the three days explored a different theme with keynote presentations and a discussion panel to end the day. Simultaneous translation of proceedings was provided in English and Spanish via an earphone and hand transmitter to help overcome language barriers.

IPC11-Havana, over 400 delegates from 47 countries at the public conference, Hotel Libre, Havana

The first day was about permaculture in Islands, with presentations from Cuba, England (UK), New Zealand and Haiti

Day two was focussed on permaculture responses to the challenges of climate change. I particularly enjoyed Albert Bates’ presentation on biochar, and was overwhelmed by the responses and feedback to my keynote presentation to the reality of climate change and how we can best respond as permaculturists. Robin Clayfield ended the day with some creative facilitation processes to get the hall buzzing and people connecting.

Urban permaculture was the theme of the third day, with many more inspiring stories from around the world. What moved me most was Pandora’s powerful talk about the Black Permaculture Network in the USA and their work with prisoners. It was great to see Stuart Muir-Wilson give his first IPC presentation on his work in Mexico, his grandfather, Bill Mollison, should be proud.

Tour of Urban food production and permaculture gardens, Havana. Nov 28

The first visit was to the famous organiponico in Allamar, a satellite city of medium density housing on the edge of Havana. The Alamar gardens cover 25 acres of land, are run as a cooperative and are an inspiring example of intensive organic food production. We also visited another garden near the seaside, where water from a carwash is being filtered and cleaned to irrigate the crops.

The famous organicponico at Alamar, Havana

After lunch in Old Havana we headed for the southern suburb of Sevillano to visit a number of permaculture home gardens. The first, and most impressive garden we visited was Shanchez’ garden. Sanchez completed the PDC I co-taught in Sevilano in 2008. I visited his garden in 2009 not long after he had gained access to the land and started planting the first seedlings. Now, four years later, the site is bursting with production with every nook and cranny crammed with plants, educational signage, a composting toilet, rainwater collection tanks, greywater system, plus some chickens, rabbits and pigeons, a small biochar kiln, a mini classroom and myriad examples of creative use of recycled materials.

IPC11-Sanchez' urban permaculture garden in Sevilano, Havana

Another garden we visited, Mi Sueno, had a bit more space for a well established food forest plus annual garden beds and a couple of pigs being fattened up.

IPC11-Sevilano-miSueno

Convergence at Los Cocos Nov 29-Dec 3

IPC11-Los Cocos, convergence venueOn the following morning we were meeting up at Hotel Verdardo to catch the buses to the convergence site “Los Cocos”, halfway between Havana and Matanzas. It was pooring with rain, gutters became rivers, and hundreds of us clamoured for dry space under the very small shelter in front of the hotel. Eventually we all had dry seats in our buses and headed east. Los Cocos is a Cuban seaside camp with brightly painted accommodation cabins, swimming pool, a large thatch roof meeting/dining structure and some marquees were set up in the open space for convergence proceedings.

On day 2 the rain stopped and the program got into full swing with 6 or more simultaneous presentations and discussions sessions happening throughout the site. Over the four-day program I sat in on a number of very inspiring presentations and spent time networking with colleagues, former students and mentoring young permaculture teachers and activists from around the world.These personal stories and contacts have become one of the most rewarding aspects of these events for me.

Some of the presentation highlights included Narsanna Koppula’s presentation of his work in central India, with some of the poorest farmers on the Deccan Plateau. A group of Cuban permaculturists from Sancti Spiritus shared their hurricane experiences and the strategies they’ve developed for disaster preparation and recovery. There were important peer group discussions on matters such as maintaining the quality of the PDC and on permaculture enterprises honouring the ethics and principles of permaculture in their operations. National and regional delegates also used the opportunity to get together and explore ways to strengthen permaculture locally. It was fun meeting up with all the other Australians, around 40 of us. The USA delegates also met to discuss a national body for permaculture and the need for a North American Permaculture Convergence.

Narsanna Koppala announcing plans for IPC13 to be in India in 2017

Gillian Leahy was there to screen her recently released documentary film on the Chikukwa project in Zimbabwe. It was great having the permaculture ‘star’ of the film, Julian, present to answer questions about the project.

The organising team were logistically challenged with 123 extra participants to feed and accommodate in an event planned for 300 people, however they managed to ensure everyone had a bed and food to eat. The meal queues were long, not unusual when catering to such a large crowd, and gave us an opportunity to meet new people and engage in interesting conversations. The convergence finished with announcing the selection of India to host the IPC13 in 2017. Pictured right is Narsanna Kopula presenting the Indian IPC proposal. The next IPC will be held in the UK in September 2015.

Permaculture Projects in the Provinces Dec 4-6

Following the convergence, 200 of the delegates participated in a 3-day tour of permaculture projects in the provinces. After a long delay waiting for our buses to arrive (more networking opportunities) we were eventually on the road heading for Matanzas. After lunch at the Bellamar Caves, near Matanzas, we visited the Bellamar Gardens, a new major project in early stages of development. I was thrilled to see what the small team had managed to achieve since I visited them in 2009 and spend several days working on design concepts and ideas for the project.

Bellamar Gardens at Matanzas, the Zone 1 vegetable garden next to a food forest

The next day we travelled to Sancti Spiritus and visited a new project on a former dump site in the suburbs (pictured below). The project is managed by a family with support of the surrounding community, and in less than 2 years have totally transformed the half-acre site into a beautiful food garden complete with composting toilet. They grow vegetables for a Chinese restaurant in the city, feed their own extended family and share surplus produce in the local community. We had lunch at Flora organiponico in the city. This organiponico produces organic cut flowers as it’s main commercial crop and have added new permaculture gardens and features since I last visited them in 2008.

Two years ago this Sancti Spiritus garden was a dump site next to small stream in the city's suburbs

In the afternoon we headed out of town to visit Casomiro’s farm, which I also had the privilege of visiting in 2008. There were a lot of changes and new additions in over the past 5 years. The old farm house has been replaced with a series of new hurricane-proof structures. A biogas digester now provides gas for cooking and fertiliser for the fields. The water systems have been developed further with mini swales for irrigation. It was great to see the dam full of water – it empty last time I was there, being at the end of the dry season.

Casomiro on his farm near Sancti Spiritus with dam in background

The last day we visited a mountain retreat, which was a bit of an adventure as we moved from our modern air-con coaches into local transport trucks for the windy trip up into the mountains. We sampled the local coffee then a hair-raising ride on dirt roads through the forest to our lunch destination and forest walk. The field trips over, our buses then headed back on the 6-hour journey to Havana.

 IPC11-Truckbus

Back home and reflecting on IPC11

IPC11-Robyn-RobertoP-MelianMelian and I spent a few days relaxing in Havana, catching up with some Cuban friends and exploring the old city before returning home.

Cuba is slowly changing, though much is the same as my last visit four years ago. One of the most notable changes is the number of small enterprises and businesses setting up. The law was only changed in early 2013 to permit Cubans to operate small businesses. The impact of the US blockade/embargo is still in evidence and the US government doesn’t seem likely to change the situation anytime soon.

Some of my permaculture colleagues expressed disappointment in Cuba and complained bitterly about the food. Cuban food is simple and bland, that’s the cultural reality, and it’s definitely not an easy place for vegetarians and people with special diets to get the special treatment they have come to expect in affluent countries. Also I think there were expectations to see permaculture-style gardens everywhere. Cuba generally doesn’t have much of a gardening culture, and in the inner city most domestic gardens are out of view behind walls and on rooftops, and certainly not appropriate for trying to herd hundreds of people through to geek at them.

One of the main reasons that Cuba is “the most sustainable country” on the planet is because of its poverty, universal low incomes and very little consumerism. What is remarkable is that despite the poverty of this resource-starved nation, everyone has housing, free health care and education. Once again Cuba was for me a stark reminder of how much we consume, how much our society wastes, and how simply and frugally we need to live to have a lifestyle that is sustainable and within our ecological footprint.

Robyn Francis, January 2014