Postcard from Cuba

n746976520_930596_1597.jpg Robyn Francis reports from Cuba and the reciprocal visit of the Cuba-Australia Permaculture Exchange.

Robyn Francis May 10, 2008
It’s been an interesting 2 weeks since I arrived in Cuba (28th April) to work with the Foundation for Nature and Humanity (FANJ) as part of the Cuba-Australia Permaculture Exchange. These initial weeks have mainly involved orientation and visits to a range of urban and rural permaculture projects in Havana and central Cuba. The visits have been important to gain insights into the challenges the permaculture team here face and to identify key areas for further training over the coming weeks.

maydayrf.jpg The Cubans have also insisted I have time out and have taken great pleasure in showing me around to the sights: the May Day march in Revolution Square, Old Havana, the Caves of Belamar, Bay of Pigs, rainforests and waterfalls in the mountains near Trinidad and the many picturesque colonial Spanish towns and cities with buildings dating back to the 17th Century.

My Havana base is in a registered private Casa, a little penthouse on the roof of a private home with a kitchenette and rooftop patio looking out over the rooftops of Havana. Cuban cuisine is somewhat repetitive: black bean rice, starch veg (potato, yam, taro or plantain) with pork or chicken steak or schnitzel and a few slices of tomato and cucumber or raw cabbage, no sauces, spices or flavouring apart from salt. This is the typical Cuban lunch and dinner, day in and out, so it’s great to have access to a kitchen to have some variety in my diet and I’ve enjoyed checking out the fruit and veg markets, finding the local bakeries and cooking up some delicious vegies. It’s amazing really in such a tropical paradise where so many different foods can be grown that the local cuisine is so limited and unimaginative.

Last week Carmen took me on a tour of some domestic permaculture projects in the city. The first place was Nelson’s rooftop rabbit farm where 364 rabbits a year are raised on food scraps collected from the neighbours. He dries the food scraps and mills them into a dried feed and supplements this with greens grown in containers and weeds collected from the neighbourhood. Guineapigs run around on the floor foraging on scraps falling from the rabbit cages. Nelson also raises quails and constructed an incubator to raise the chicks.

The second place was Angelo’s garden and food forest, complete with rabbits, ducks, and pigs. Angelo did the PDC a year ago and has achieved a lot in a short time. His food forest produces most of the green feed for his animals and he collects food wastes from a large store next door to feed the pigs.

I also spent a day with the FANJ Environmental Education Team visiting projects in 5 schools in various parts of Havana and a community park project. With some of these projects the key focus to date has been on putting in the hard landscape infrastructure and next phase will be the plantings. One of the main priorities in the schools is establishing shade trees. Most of the school projects also involve kitchen gardens and planting fruit trees.

Part of our visit to the schools was to deliver much needed garden tools. Each school received a pick, rake and machete, some also received a pruning saw. It took the FANJ team months of paperwork and hassles to import the tools from Mexico. It’s a real struggle accessing resources for these projects, and hard for Australian’s to comprehend just how difficult it can be. The most impressive school program I visited was during my rural tour to the south of the island, a school in Trinidad with a highly productive school farm growing all the vegetables for the school lunches, Several of the staff from this school will be doing the PDC in Havana which I’ll be teaching with the local permaculture training team.

A highlight of the rural visits was the cultural community on Cuba’s south coast. The 26 Ha farm is the base of Theatro Elementals, a cultural/environmental theatre group. Five families live on the community, plus 6 cows, 1 bull and 2 oxen. The cows are milked for cheese-making and manure is fed into a methane digester to provide fuel for cooking. The farm is FANJ’s main rural production project, however it is a struggle shifting the entrenched mono-crop mentality to food production. Apart from an acre of coffee interplanted under old citrus trees, the only real species diverse system is the riparian reforestation project along a section of the creek where 12 species were included in the 3000 trees planted last year by Canadian Interns working on the farm. Hopefully some of the suggestions and recommendations from my visit might be taken up. The actors and artists are not really involved in the day to day operating of the farm, for this there’s a farm manager and local farm labourers. They have created a great open air ampitheatre for local performances and the troupe are often away on tour around Cuba and overseas. When I visited they were busy preparing for a tour to Venezuela.

Over the coming weeks much of my work in Cuba will involve teaching on the PDC here in Havana, plus several 1-day conferences/seminars on Permaculture and Vocational Environmental Education, and one on Permaculture Practices and Projects in Australia and Internationally. I will also be meeting with people from the built environment faculty of the university and travelling to Sanctus Spiritus to conduct an advanced designers training program.

Cuba is a fascinating place, interesting culture and incredibly hospitable. It’s a pleasure and honour to be here, and I look forward to making a meaningful contribution to the permaculture work here over the coming weeks.
Robyn Francis
Havana, May 10, 2008

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