Cuba, the Urban Agricultural Pioneers

Cuba so drastically reformed its food system that it is best described as a revolution of organic urban agriculture.

In the discourse of urban planning and management, Cuba is widely considered to be the pioneer of urban agriculture due to a unique political and social circumstance which necessitated agricultural reform in the 1990s.

Although many characterize urban agriculture as a bottom-up, grassroots approach to urbanism whereby society expresses their demand for local and sustainable food and desire to be closer to nature, the Cuban case is unique because urban agriculture was simply the most promising remedy to the imminent food crisis of the time. The national government and local civil society collaborated to recreate the food system by incentivizing the urban population to create an industry and market for locally grown food.

The trend towards urban agricultural land uses is strong in many cities worldwide. Though each city and country has a unique food system and socio-political circumstances, it is worth investigating and abstracting the policies and interactions of civic governance that made Cuba’s urban agricultural revolution so successful as a reference for enriching food security concerns in different contexts.

How did the governance strategies of decentralization and bottom-up urbanism manifest in Cuba between the national government and local farmers to organize the agricultural revolution? Their process involves an analysis of land use management, decentralization of the political structure, the emergence of free-market incentives against the formerly nationalized food economy, and the empowerment of community agriculture initiatives. The strategies of governance which restructured Cuba in the 1990s included decentralization of governance structures, bottom-up urbanism, and civic govern-mentality.

Historical Changes in Cuban Food System

Cuba underwent a series of drastic political and geographical changes throughout the twentieth century. All agricultural land in Cuba was nationalized and mechanized after the revolution of 1959 brought the centralized communist government to power. The neighbouring U.S. had enforced an embargo on Cuba because of cold-war politics over ideological differences. In this era, Cuba and the other countries of the Communist Bloc developed a symbiotic trading relationship.

By the 1980s, Cuba was importing 90% of agricultural fertilizers and pesticides and 57% of food products. Cuba offered tropical products like sugarcane, tobacco and fruits at nearly double the world market price, in exchange, for subsidized trade of fuel, animal feed, cereals, meat and other products. This trade relationship brought significant material wealth to Cuba from the 1960s through the 1980s, such that the decade of the 1980s was subsequently referred to in Cuba as ‘the years of the fat cow’.

When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1990/91 following the fall of the Berlin wall, Cuba suffered a massive change in trade patterns instigating a dramatic and deadly food shortage. Cuba lost 80% of its food trade and the population suffered a loss of one third of the necessary daily calories. This was called the “special period of hunger”.

Seeking an imminent solution to the food crisis, the government underwent a massive food system reform from industrial state-oriented farms for export products, into sourcing local food produce without fuel and fertilizer imports. The government instituted land use and market reforms to stimulate a local economy for food, but they also significantly employed the formerly unrecognized scientific community as well as the older generations to innovate the food system with low-input (organic, traditional farming techniques such as integrating grazing animals, using teams of oxen for farming, and using natural pesticides, compost, and cover cropping to suppress weeds.

The Cuban government’s incorporation of grassroots knowledge in the field of agriculture signifies the political shift from top-down centralized planning to bottom-up forms of governance emerging from the community and resident level.


In 2015, the then US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack speaks with Provincial Agriculture Deputy Julio Martinez during a visit to a local farmers market in Havana, Cuba on Nov. 13, 2015/Lydia Barraza/US Dept. of Agriculture/Flickr Photos/CC

Land reform: from large-scale to participatory, small-scale farming

The low-density capital city of Havana hosted the majority of Cuba’s population, and its geography and climate proved ideal for urban land-use reform as a solution to the food crisis. Firstly, the island’s tropical climate is amenable to yearlong harvests. Secondly, the regulation urban land of offered the possibility for land ownership reform to convert many sites to agricultural land. The urban agriculture revolution in Havana, Cuba is situated within a historical food crisis, whereby a system of food production within the city limits became a tool of crisis management – people were starving and urban agriculture proved a viable solution.

The ongoing nationwide land reforms in Cuba played a crucial role in the monumental food system changes of the 1990s. After the socialist revolution of 1959 the Cuban government had designated the majority of national agricultural and cattle production to large-scale state-owned farms which operated for export. Until the 1990s, 80% of the agricultural land belonged to state farms, meaning only 20% was under the care of small-scale farmers. At that time the agriculture sector was highly modernized, producing monocrops with heavy mechanization, fertilizer and pesticide use and irrigation tactics. The large-scale agricultural land use was problematic because the workers were organized into teams who could not connect with the foods they grew, due to being strictly designated to one task of production.

After losing access to the imported agricultural inputs in 1989 and failing to maintain their sugar export production (their main export), the government was forced to initiate a radical conversion of the agriculture sector from large-scale, high-input agriculture, to self-managed food production at the local scale. New cooperative production programs used a philosophy of “linking people with the land” whereby farmers became “directly responsible for all aspects of production in a given parcel of land, allowing remuneration to be directly linked to productivity”.

The Ministry of Agriculture in Cuba initiated urban agriculture units in cities to utilize the land and provide new employment opportunities in the failing economy. In 1991, the Department of Urban Agriculture’s motto was “production in the community, by the community, for the community”. This government program decentralized production by issuing a series of laws to break up the large-scale nationalized farms into small-scale farms that allowed workers and collectives to connect with and manage the land. The Department of Urban Agriculture collaborated with neighborhood level governments called “Poder Popular” to distribute land to small farmers in urban areas, so long as they used the lands to produce food for the national state.

The land reform in Havana alone designated farming plots for over 25,000 allotment gardens—which were farmed by families—and dozens of larger scale ‘organiponicos,’ which translates as market gardens.

Organiponicos are high-yield urban market gardens ranging in size from 200 meters squared to a few hectares, employing five or six workers who cultivated with organic methods.

The farmers of the new Organiponico cooperatives sold their produce directly to the public in local markets as well as to the government, who then sold the food at subsidized prices to schools and hospitals and to the tourism industry. These newfound allotment gardens and organiponicos became important sites of vegetable cultivation using organic farming methods such as crop rotation, composting, and soil conservation.

Mobilization of the grassroots

By terminating the existence of state farms and installing cooperative style farming enterprises at community levels, Cuba managed to turn over the 80% of state-owned farmland to the workers, through Basic Units of Cooperative Production (UBPCs). The administrative functions of the urban agriculture systems were allocated to state enterprises in the divisions of urban municipalities called “Granjas Urbanas” which oversaw the activities. Within these specific municipal organizations, the state selected a local representative to the Ministry of Agriculture for each “consejo popular,” administrative subunits.

A local minister for each subunit of the newly formed cooperatives (Granjas Urbanas) was elected democratically, by the cooperative members, to manage the farms. Their duties included creating production plans, training the farmers in urban agriculture, promoting new technologies, and gathering data to ensure quality and veracity. They also became a link to the state-owned production inputs. Through this decentralized management structure the state apparatus transformed from an authority to a provider to the autonomous cooperative farms, who felt newfound ownership over their work.

A critical component to the development of urban agriculture in Cuba was to incentivize residents to involve themselves in the profession of farming. Firstly, the government involved academics in the research of organic farming methods and innovations. They supported workers in food production to take courses and seminars and share their knowledge through the industry. Authority over the agricultural production became decentralized in Cuba, not only in the governance of economic structures, but through the knowledge of the industry. As organic farming experts were dignified and included in the industry, they in turn incorporated themselves into furthering organization and bettering food production.

Market incentives for producers

However innovative the newly decentralized land designation process was, it was not merely new land uses and organic methods which incentivized Cubans to locally produce food. The agricultural reforms depended on a change in the governance of Cuba’s economic market structure. Under this new decentralized production regime, the state still technically owned agricultural property and dictated its function by requiring farmers to meet production quotas, but the collectives were made owners of their own food production. Because of the farmers’ participation in the governance of agricultural production, their remuneration from work became directly linked to their productivity. This ownership derived from the decision that farmers could sell their excess produce in the form of a farmer’s market.

Havana’s urban gardens: a success

Havana’s urban gardens, by 1996, provided the city with “8,500 tons of agriculture produce, 4 million dozens of flowers, 7.5 million eggs, and 3,650 tons of meat”. This was a landmark year for food productivity for the thirteen main staples of Cuban cuisine and the government claimed the food shortage was officially over by 1995.

By the year 2000 Cuba supplied 60% of its fruits and vegetables with urban agriculture.

Although Cuba began importing petroleum and food again in the 21st century, their unique decade of the 1990s in food management show us the possibilities for urban communities to organically sustain themselves.

Over the last fifteen years, Cuba has developed one of the most successful examples of urban agriculture in the world. Havana, the capital of Cuba, with a population of over two million people, has played a prominent, if not dominant role, in the evolution and revolution of this type of agriculture/David Schroeder/Flickr Photos/CC

From Cuba, one can learn that food security is fragile and dependent upon political ideologies and trade patterns. When the stability of trade breaks down, communities go hungry and must reconnect themselves with the agricultural system, most sustainable through organic, grassroots measures. Sometimes a food crisis is not a national problem, but rather a local problem due to the negligence of governments to certain communities. For example, food desert research showcases the disproportionate availability of healthy fresh foods to lower class neighborhoods in many cities. Therefore one can find congruity between national-scale agricultural reform and community oriented urban agriculture projects.

Regardless of national political policy and global trade patterns, the knowledge of local urban agriculture organization innovations can be applicable in any city dealing with economic crisis, food shortage, or a need to reduce petroleum dependence. If innovative agroecologists, farmers, and food scientists are not respected under current political regimes, how can they be expected to front the agrarian reform that could become necessary in a food crisis?

Further Reading

  1. Altieri et al. 1999. “The greening of the “barrios”: Urban agriculture for food security in Cuba. Agriculture and Human Values 16: 131-140, 1999.
  2. Bohn, Katrin and Vijoien, André. “Cuba: Laboratory for Urban Agriculture”. CPULs: Continuous Productive Urban Landscapes. Carrot City: Designing for Urban Agriculture. Bohn and Vijooien Architects.
  3. Bourque, Martin. 1999. Policy Options for Urban Agriculture. Thematic Paper 5.
  4. Clouse, Carey. 2014. “Cuba’s Urban Farming Revolution: How to Create Self-Sufficient Cities” The Architectural Review.
  5. Deere, Carmen Diana. 2002. “Reforming Cuban Agriculture”. Development and Change. December 2002. Research Gate.
  6. Ewing, Ed. 2008. “Cuba’s Organic Revolution”.The Guardian.
  7. Heinrichs, Dirks. “Decentralization: new directions for an old concept”. How Decentralization and governance shape local planning practice: rhetoric, reality and the lessons from the Philippines, SPRING research series, SPRING Centre: Dortmund, 12-24.
  8. Lindell, Ilda. “The Multiple Sites of Urban Governance: Insights from an African City”. Urban Studies 2008 45: 1869. Usj Sagepub.
  9. Novo and Murphy. 2000. “Urban Agriculture in the City of Havana: A Popular Response to a Crisis”. Research Gate.
  10. Koont, Sinan. 2008. “A Cuban Success Story: Urban Agriculture.” Review of Radical Political Economics, Volume 40, No. 3, Summer 2008, 285-291.
  11. Rosset, Peter. 1998. “Alternative Agriculture Works: The Case of Cuba”. Monthly Review.
  12. Roy, Ananya. 2009. “Civic Governmentality: The Politics of Inclusion in Beirut and Mumbai”. Antipode 41 No. 1 2009 ISSN 0066-4812, pp. 159-179.
  13. Wright, Julia. 2008. Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security in an Era of Oil Scarcity: Lessons from Cuba. Earthscan.

This is a first of a series of articles from research students at the Technical University Berlin. SixDegrees welcomes articles from research students working on sustainable development issues.

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