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Sustainable urban agriculture flourishing in Cuba
Mennonite Church Canada
Winnipeg, MAN. — Krystofer Penner’s studies in international development piqued his interest in food supply issues and drew his attention to Cuba and its established system of sustainable urban agriculture. That sparked a conversation with Mennonite Church Canada to explore internship possibilities with some of its church partners in Cuba.
“Cuba is the largest centre of this sort in the world,” says Penner.
“Krystofer is the first intern that Mennonite Church Canada has been able to successfully place in Cuba and it would not have been possible without the assistance of our partners at the Martin Luther King Memorial Center [MLKMC],” says Tim Froese, Executive Minister, Witness.
From April 26 through July 23 of 2011, the 4th year Canadian Mennonite University student, whose double major also includes Peace and Conflict Studies, engaged in a practicum at MLKMC in Havana. Rev. Raul Suárez, Director of the Center, and his wife, Eva Deulofeu, hosted Penner during his stay.
In 1989, Cuba plunged into economic crisis. The withdrawal of Soviet support and a tightening US embargo hit the food industry particularly hard. With massive reductions in the availability of imported fertilizers and seed from the Soviet Union, and declining food imports from the US, the country was forced to make sustainable agriculture – and therefore, food – a top priority.
“[Sustainable urban agriculture] is in every town in the country,” Penner says. “There are local urban agriculture organizations that fall under the umbrella of national institutions and government.”
Penner describes the system as “top down from the government,” but says that the idea was to build the capacity of farmers to grow sustainably without creating dependency on government. “They are trying to build a system of independent farmers with interconnectedness and support.”
To this end, specialized stores selling feed and seed, and booklets on a wide variety of crops are found in many places.
During his practicum, Penner studied urban farming practices under the tutelage of Benedicto Castañeda, who also introduced Penner to a number of local urban farmers. What Penner observed has increased his optimism for our ability to feed the planet.
“Often it feels to me like we're heading for a crisis in our food system and that we can't do anything about it,” Penner says. “This has shown me that there is hope, we can change things around if we want to.[The Cubans] did and we can too. We just have to want to.”Penner says that he was impressed by more than agriculture during his time in Cuba. “I think what resonates with me the most is the community I saw there. The people that I interacted with were so open and welcoming. They made me feel at home and took care of me like I was one of them. And they treated everyone this way.”