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A Lesson for Our Future – the Cuban Experience

Part II

Part IV

Cuba has, for good reason, often been studied in a bid to pre-learn the lessons we need to understand if we’re to successfully transition into a post-peak oil world. The videos above delve into this topic.

For the benefit of those not in the know, Cuba faced a rather abrupt introduction to a life without oil after the collapse of the Soviet Union (see also) in 1989. In the early 1990s, virtually overnight, Russian ships supplying the US-embargoed island state just stopped coming. Supplies of all kinds ceased — oil being the most important.

Cuba thus entered its ‘special period‘.

This didn’t just mean that people couldn’t take their Sunday drive any more — it meant a dramatic reduction in food production. Farm machinery sat idle. The pesticides (made from petrochemicals) and fertilisers (made from natural gas) they’d become, like most countries today, accustomed to and dependent on, were no longer available.

There was a very real threat of widespread starvation. Although this was ultimately avoided, many suffered from malnutrition in the meantime, stunting the growth of children, robbing some of their eyesight, etc.

Food rations were intensified. Monthly allocations for families were based on basic minimum requirements as recommended by the United Nations. However, at the worst of times, the rations were only 1/5 of these consumption amounts. — Wikipedia


Cuba’s history of colonization included deforestation and overuse of its agricultural land. Before the crisis, Cuba used more pesticides than the U.S.. Much of their land was so damaged (de-mineralized and almost sand-like) that it took three to five years of intensely "healing" the soil with amendments, compost, "green manure", and practices such as crop rotation and inter-planting (mixed crops grown in same plot) to return it to a healthy state. Bio-fertilizers and bio-pesticides have replaced most chemicals. Today, 80% of Cuba’s produce is organically grown…. — Wikipedia

There are many lessons to learn here, but the topic of the last paragraph is one worthy of deep reflection. Just as we’re rapidly depleting our oil supplies, we’re also rapidly depleting our soil health. Feeding ourselves off dead soils with little to no access to quick-fix fertilisers is not an easy ask — especially since we’ll need many, many more farmers and few of us know a thing about it any more. The sooner we get started, the easier and thus more peaceful the inevitable transition will be. It will mean a return to more manual labour; we’ll use horses for more than just show-jumping; it will mean most of us will need to learn to provide for much of our own needs as possible — but it will also mean improved physical and mental health* and the strengthening of the community ties that bind people into harmonious interdependent and mutually symbiotic relationships.

Note: Roberto Rivero, a gentleman you’ll see featured in the clips above, will be attending the Tenth International Permaculture Conference & Convergence (IPC10) in Jordan this September. Roberto would like to put in a bid for Cuba to be the host site for IPC11 in 2013, so perhaps future IPC attendees will have a chance to learn from Cuban experience — first hand and on location.


*with the reduction in calories and the increase of manual labour (otherwise known as ‘exercise‘), Cubans witnessed a significant drop in the rates of heart disease, diabetes, strokes, etc. during the special period.


  1. Very important new article!!!!

    Back to the Future
    A road map for tomorrow’s cities
    By James Howard Kunstler
    Published in the July/August 2011 issue of Orion magazine

    From the article:

    “I depart from a lot of current thinking on the subject. For instance, many people seem to think that there will be more of everything — more people, taller skyscrapers, greater suburbs, bigger airplanes, larger metro regions, or even super-gigantic slums. I don’t go along with this bundle of bull, except for the slums, which I think will be short-lived, contrary to the vision of popular author Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums. Of course, trends won’t proceed with the same timing everywhere in the world. But I think the general theme going forward, certainly in the U.S., will be the comprehensive contraction of just about everything.”

    Read the whole article here:

  2. Hi Pebble. It was uploaded to YouTube Oct, 2010. Perhaps someone else knows more.

  3. It is the Documentary- Power of Community by The community solution, made in around 2006. I lend my copy to people all the time, its a great way to “tip” people over the edge into realization and action.


    KS vs PC ?

    I date back to one of our family farms, S. of Sydney near Mittagong where an uncle practiced Vincent Yeoman’s Keyline principle and pput in an extra dam with 3% bank finaince whenever they had a good rain year. That was instead of his neighbours who would buy a new Holden ute when they made some money.
    I Introduced Bill Mollison to the folk of Byron Bay in the mid 80’s. One night of his iconic message about PC as the hall first filled, then over-filled until people were literally hanging in through the windows.
    Spent time working up to eighty hours per week at Byron Bay’s Epicentre. First running my own graphics arts business. Then as one third of Ian Peter’s ISP ‘Pegasus’ (Google Pegasus Networks Australia for the background of that special, early ISP at Byron Bay.)
    There at the Epicentre, I met the wonderful Robyn who not only played the guitar and sang great songs of peace. But was also the Editor of the IPJ (Later IPJ moved to Lismore, as we all know.) To get each issue of IPJ to bed at the printers each moth was like giving birth with but a 30 day gestation period. I well remember the day when the index page would not print from Robyn’s MAcintosh software. “No problem, Robyn. Give me your text and I’ll lay it out using my proper (and legal) typesetting and layout software on my big Macintosh screen.” That last page went off to the printers just on time.
    And we’ll never forget John Seedd from RAGS Rainforest Action in Lismore. Johnwould turn up at The Bay in his hand-painted van wearing little but a cotton sarong and a T-shirt. Always accompanied by at least one nubile, bra-less young follower. Oh. the mammaries (Ooops – Memories, in these boring, PC Politically Correct. Not Permacultur, days. Sigh.)
    – Later, I met Miche & Jude Fanton of Sedsavers as I set up a PC day at Earth Repair Foundation in the Blue Mountains. Franklin Scarf’s helpful gardner kindly ‘tidied up’ my carefully-prepared Permaculture Demonstartion areas because we had visitors coming’. Sorry about that, Jude.

    Jude and Miche went on to spend time in Cuba, preaching PC.

    Now, in 2011, I see a TV doco ‘Tropic of Capricorn’ during which the host visits ‘organoponico city plots’ (That one on the site of a former cement factory in Havana. There are now more than 1,000 organoponico units all over Cuba, producing more than a million tonnes of fresh, absolutely fresh, organic fruit and vegetables off ration books and at a profit for those growing the good food, Part of the credit must go to Miche and Jude Fanton, of course.
    Me ? I spent almost five years living and working in rural Bangladesh, training village nurses; a project that worked well and setting up a Permaculture demonstaration unit that did not go so well. For I did not truly understand the Bengali culture. ‘ It’s fine as long as that stupid Anglo provides the seeds, the work and all the inputs. We’ll come and politely watch him work. But why does he object when we then expect to be able to share in the stuff that his PC two- acre garden has produced?”

    Baack here in Australia, I’m now living in Tenterfield, N. NSW. In a rented unit with but a small, no dig garden I created from scratch at the rear of our block. I might not be able to produce much from my PC garden yet, but I operate my total life here according to Bill Mollison’s principles.
    As I practice my urban version of Permaculture that is, ‘Everything that comes into my life must be used or recycled.’
    Even those brochures for stuff I have neither wants nor needs for that appear in my post box are shredded to provide mulch that my worms enjoy recycling in my compost heap made from four off-road tyres filled with organic matter. I save all my veggie clippings. Also choose what comes into my place; from visitors to which music, TV programmes and radio subjects.
    I also minimise my use of electricity. Have bought a big, secondhand truck battery. Presently charge it using a battery charger. This week I am buying a string of LED’s to light my bedroom and a small solar power unit to trickle charge its battery. Then I’ll slowly expand the system.
    I have aluminium film on my porch that reflects the sun’s energy through my bedroom window where it heats up black plastic that heats so much air by lunchtime that free hot air is pouring into my lounge ROOM.

  5. Does anyone know who Roberto is referring to when he says, “In 1993 the first two Australians came” ( to Cuba to teach permaculture)
    It may be common knowledge, I would be curious to get their story, can anyone give me some idea?

  6. Cuba still imports 3/4 of it cereals. Also in oilcrops imports are more than 80%. In pulses imports are over 60%. But in vegetables, fruits, startchy roots and sugar crops there are hardly any imports at all.

    I’ve understod that Cuba is going back to industrial agriculture. At least GMOs are making their way to the Cuban fields.

    Also, Cubans have problems with high rates of anemia.
    And here it says that Cuba imports 80% of it’s domestic food consumption. FAO statistic don’t comply with that thoug, at least not in all crops. I can’t say for the caloric amounts.

    So is Cuba an example of the power or powerlesness of organic agriculture and permaculture?

    Also what people think about GMOs and permaculture? Could it be apropriaite to genetically engineer crops for better intercropping and even more effective food forests?

    I personally don’t know what to think about the issue.

    – Aapo

  7. Steven Devijver, I think I have a lead on the first Aussie PC trainers in Cuba, it was a group of people called The Green Team. It would be great if they came out of the woodwork and told their story.
    It is probably old news for them and they have already told their stories numerous times, but for everyone new to PC in the last few years it would be great to learn about what happened at the time and also learn from the mistakes as well as the successes.

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