Feature Story

Harnessing nature's power

September 5, 2017

In 2008, two hurricanes hit Cuba, devastating the Pinar del Río area. The government introduced a policy to create opportunities for people to farm this ravaged and unproductive landscape, and, fortunately, the start of the Country Pilot Partnership on Sustainable Land Management coincided with this major land reform initiative.

‘Tierra Brava’

Onay Martinez Diaz is one of more than 12,000 farmers who have benefited from the Country Pilot Partnership on Sustainable Land Management (SLM) in Cuba. Onay previously had a successful career as a computer engineer working in the city, but, he had been raised in the countryside and always retained a deep connection to the land and a desire to nurture life from it.

“It is a kind of love story,” says Onay of his encounter with the sustainable land management approach. “A friend lent me a book on sustainable land management – I couldn’t put it down, and read it cover-to-cover in two days.”

Onay’s 22-hectare farm, located in Pinar del Río province, about one hour from Havana to the west, is named ‘Tierra Brava’ (meaning ‘brave land’). Listening to the story behind the creation of this beautiful, totally organic farm, makes it is easy to understand the choice of name.

The farm is bustling with life; a cornucopia of fruit trees, sheep, fish, and birds. Underground, it is equally busy and alive.“Look at this!” Onay says, as he points to his mango field and proudly lifts up a handful of soft, rich humus that has been nurtured by worms, micro-organisms and mulch, untouched by chemicals. “This is aromatic, fertile soil!”

But, things could have been different here…

In 2008, two hurricanes hit Cuba, devastating the Pinar del Río area. The government introduced a policy to create opportunities for people to farm this ravaged and unproductive landscape, and, fortunately, the start of the Country Pilot Partnership on SLM coincided with this major land reform initiative.

After a lengthy process, Onay was allocated the land on which we now stand. Before this, the land was not only ruined by severe weather events, but was also infested with an invasive alien plant species known as marabύ bush (Dichrostachys cinerea). The initial business of establishing ‘Tierra Brava’ was daunting. Problems abounded: weeds, pests, and poor soil – only a thin centimeter of it covering hard clay. Lack of information on how to tackle these challenges made the task of turning this wasteland into a productive farm even more difficult.

Nature’s power

Onay’s first thought was to request a large amount of diesel from the state enterprise, but he felt troubled by the idea of drenching his farm in poison, and was concerned about the cost. “I had big problems,” Onay recounts, “and I realized that I needed big solutions!” The Country Pilot Partnership provided much of the information and many of the tools to generate the ‘big solutions’ through local support institutions, such as the National Association of Small Agricultural Producers and the Cuban Association of Agricultural and Forestry Technicians.

Three hectares of the farm are now planted with soursop, which originates from the Caribbean region and is well-suited to the local climatic conditions. This plant has medicinal properties (it is used for hypertension and diabetes and holds potential for cancer treatment), in addition to being delicious to eat. Soursop is pollinated by a beetle which spends part of its lifecycle underground. If insecticide is used on the farm, it kills the pollinators, which would mean that people need to be hired to pollinate the flowers by hand – an extremely time-consuming (and expensive!) task. Onay quips, “I told you I have only four family members working on this farm. But, actually, I have millions of insects and worms working for me. I consider myself an ecosystem manager rather than a farmer!’’

Strength in diversity

The biggest crop on ‘Tierra Brava’ is mango, of which seven varieties are grown. This enables Onay to supply the market over much longer periods in the year, as the different varieties fruit at different times. In the mango fields, mixed silvo-pastoral approaches – using about 80 sheep – are being used, yielding an annual return of some 2.7 tons of lamb and mutton. “I rotate sheep grazing areas so that they eat the dropped mangos and this interrupts the fruit fly pest life-cycle,” Onay explains. “Sheep also eat weeds and browse on the lower branches, which controls fungi and reduces the need for fungicides.” Previously, Onay used 200 litres of diesel per month for cutting grass and other farm activities, but, since the introduction of sustainable silvopastoral techniques, diesel consumption on this farm has been reduced to a mere 60 litres per year. The mango fields also supply squash and vegetables for the table for Onay, his wife and two daughters, and his brother’s family. Leguminous plants are grown under the trees to fix nitrogen in the soil and grass is crushed and left to decompose to add organic matter.

Looking at the plump fruits that festoon the trees, it is hard to believe that this is an entirely rain-fed farm. Onay’s secret is a small rainwater-harvesting dam, which is designed to collect rainwater and force seepage through the soil on one side, to feed water underground to the cultivated fields. The dam is well-stocked with fish, which add nutrients to the water and provide food for the family to eat.

“After only one year of adopting sustainable land management practices, I started noticing the changes,” Onay says. “The first change was that birds started coming here in greater numbers. And as the birds came, the number of pests decreased.” Forewarned and forearmed, for the future With support from the Country Pilot Partnership, an early warning system has been installed to help farmers plan their agricultural activities to coincide with optimal weather conditions – and to reduce risks caused by severe weather events. Weather data from the provincial meteorological centre is ‘translated’ into information that is useful for farmers, and relayed to them regularly through text messages on their mobile telephones. Onay explains, “For example, if rain is predicted to fall in three days’ time, even if it is before the planned harvesting date, I can decide to harvest early to reduce fruit spoilage as after the rain mangos can quickly rot.”

“What inspired me?” Onay beams. “It was the awareness of the fact that we have the choice to farm our land in a sustainable way, instead of simply going after short term gain. If I don’t produce in an environmentally healthy way, I would be deceiving my children and leaving them a depleted piece of land.”