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Agricultural Case Studies

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In response to environmental and economic problems, farmers all over the world are, like Charlie Melander, trying different approaches to growing food and raising livestock. In some cases the approaches are new, in some cases, ancient. In Cuba a change in approach was driven by political changes that cut off Cuba's access to fertilizers and fuel. In Kenya, change was driven by environmental problems including soil degradation and limited freshwater supplies. Following are accounts of some "revolutionary" approaches taken in Cuba and Kenya.

Cuba's Agricultural Revolution

Communism's collapse in the Soviet Union in 1989 reverberated through Cuba, half a world away. Since becoming part of the socialist trade bloc in 1959, Cuba's economic development and ecosystem management was tied to its communist trading partners in Europe. Cuba's economy depended almost entirely on exports to socialist bloc countries, and those exports were dominated by sugar. Sugar and its derivative products constituted 75% of Cuba's export income. Cuba's sugar-based agriculture was the most mechanized of any in Latin America. Pesticide, fertilizer, and irrigation use was extensive. The revenue from sugar allowed Cubans a better quality of life, but also resulted in Cuba having to import about 60% of its food. Cubans ate better and lived longer than people in most other Latin American countries. And their literacy rate exceeded rates in some industrialized countries.

Urban Agriculturists
Urban agriculturists at work in Cuba.
But all this came crashing down along with the Berlin wall. The Soviet Union's demise, coupled with the U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba, devastated Cuba's economy and its farms. Food imports were cut 50%, and parts for tractors, chemical pesticides and fertilizers were no longer available. To avert widespread famine, Cuba had to figure out how to produce twice as much food with half the inputs. The answer: convert to organic farming. Cuba was in some ways well prepared to tackle such a change. In the 1980s Cuba had invested heavily in science, education, and agricultural research and development. In the 1990s fledgling Cuban alternative agricultural techniques were put to the test: biofertilizers, creative uses of soil amendments, intercropping, wastewater recycling for irrigation, biological pest controls. Though a transition to organic agriculture takes time, Cuba's 1996-97 harvest provided the country's highest-ever production levels for 10 of the 13 basic items in the national diet. There were some complaints of a lack of variety in the diet, but widespread famine was averted.

Download Adobe AcrobatTo learn more about the Cuban agricultural revolution, read Cuba's Agricultural Revolution: A Return to Oxen and Organics in the companion book World Resources 2000-2001. (Free Adobe Acrobat Reader required)

Reviving the Hillsides of Machakos, Kenya

By using traditional farming practices, innovation, and hard work, and by accessing new markets for their agricultural products, the people of Kenya's Machakos District turned once-eroding hillsides into productively farmed terraces. This turnaround came not more than three decades after a 1930s report by ruling British authorities stated that the Akamba, the first people to settle the district, were "drifting to a state of hopelessness and miserable poverty and their land to a parching desert of rocks, stones, and sand."

Terraced Hillsides
Terraced hillsides in Machakos, Kenya
Machakos District is located in a steep, hilly semiarid region just southeast of Nairobi. Water there is scarce, rainfall is unpredictable, and droughts occur all too often. Severe droughts were recorded in the 1890s, the late 1920s, and mid 1930s.

The Akamba first occupied the region in the 1600s-1700s and established an agrarian community. When the British colonized the region in 1895, various mandates regarding farming practices and land use restructured the way the Akamba farmed. By the 1930s severe soil erosion, caused by both the slope of the land and unsustainable farming practices, plagued 75% of the inhabited area.

In the late 1930s the colonial government created the Soil Conservation Service and imposed conservation measures on the Akamba. To increase the stability of the soil on the hillsides and minimize erosion, the Akamba were forced to build contour ditches, and a terracing system that was hard to maintain on the slopes. But over time, and after Kenyan independence in 1963, Akamba farmers instituted a terracing system that incorporates techniques from their own ancient agrarian culture with newer European and Asian systems. These hillside bench terraces, called fanya juu, form a series of earthen embankments that hold rainfall and slow its runoff. Farmers also built water conduits and planted trees to stabilize soils. Now farmers also use composting, among other measures, to boost output and keep the land healthy.

Today, however, slow economic development, land scarcity, population growth, and a widening income gap among farmers raise the question, Is Machakos' agricultural transformation sustainable?

Download Adobe AcrobatTo learn more about the "Machakos miracle," read Regaining the High Ground: Reviving the Hillsides of Machakos in the companion book World Resources 2000-2001.(Free Adobe Acrobat Reader required)

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Source: This profile is adapted from the companion book, World Resources 2000-2001.

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