The Programme for Local Agrarian Innovation (PIAL), in effect since 2000, could offer an alternative for the agriculture industry in Cuba, where around half of the country’s fertile land is not cultivated, even though more than 1.5 billion dollars in food products are imported annually to meet domestic demand.
"The aim is for farmers to have a say in the design of the country’s agricultural policies," PIAL director Humberto Ríos told IPS. "It’s an example that we want to give of how, when farmers have a more active voice and are the ones engaged directly in innovation, the country makes greater progress."
For Ríos, a researcher at the National Institute of Agricultural Sciences (INCA), which has promoted the initiative from the very start, "what is needed is the development of a more decentralised system of innovation, where the key actors are not us scientists, but farmers themselves."
According to Ríos, the research has been circumscribed to scientific institutes due to the lack of resources and of determination to disseminate the results and make them more widely available,
"It is assumed that an extension worker will teach the techniques to the farmers, but that doesn’t work, either in Cuba or abroad," he said.
PIAL’s experience, said the expert, has demonstrated that, "when it is the farmers themselves who design the experiments and process and make available the scientific information, the land begins to bear more fruits."
Pedro Felipe González, better known as Coco, boosted his yield of beans from 270 to 324 quintals (around 14,500 kg) per "caballería" (43 hectares) after adopting a wider variety of seeds.
Ríos, a farmer from La Palma, 125 km west of Havana, was one of the pioneers of the Fitomejoramiento Participativo (genetic improvement) programme, which gave rise to PIAL.
On his nearly three caballerías (129 hectares) of land, the 78-year-old González grows 50 different kinds of beans (at one point he was growing 200), which at times have helped out other regions in Cuba hit by heavy rains. "One of our major efforts is to distribute the seeds, because that is our battle; if one farmer loses his seeds, another can offer him some," he told IPS.
According to INCA researcher Ania Yong, "the participating farmers transmit their know-how in the communities, gain social recognition and boost their self-esteem."
Initial scepticism and the idea that solutions depended on the availability of greater inputs have been transformed into the need to receive new seeds and come up with innovative techniques and solutions.
The programme only requires a commitment to share seeds and distribute them free of charge at the so-called "diversity fairs," said Yong. "Participants have total freedom to experiment; they adopt and adapt techniques to their particular conditions -- whatever brings the best results."
In seven years, PIAL has benefited, in nine of Cuba’s 14 provinces, some 8,000 farmers, who represent two percent of the country’s small and medium-sized agricultural producers. The aim is to raise that proportion to 10 percent over the next five years.
INCA has the support of universities, research institutes, local and international non-governmental organisations, development aid agencies, and agricultural and environmental authorities.
Mario García, or "Mocho", did not believe there were so many kinds of vegetables and grains until he travelled to a farming area in the central province of Villa Clara at the invitation of INCA and the Agricultural Department of Montaña de San Andrés. "We small farmers are very wary, we have to see to believe," he told IPS.
On his return to San Andrés, a rural area in the district of La Palma, he talked about what he had seen, but no one believed him. "They called me the crazy old man, but it's better to follow a madman than to push an idiot in front of you," said the 69-year-old farmer, who has been working the land since the age of eight.
Now he not only cares for dozens of varieties of sweet potato, mandioca and beans on his small farm, but also has become a promoter of techniques like contour plowing, or plowing across a slope following its contours in order to slow water run-off and limit erosion of topsoil.
"We have our seed projects, but if you don’t preserve the land, you can’t do a thing," he said.
In Cuba, according to statistics from the Soil Institute, nearly half of the land is unproductive, or barely fertile. In addition, farmland is affected by factors like erosion, poor drainage, low retention of humidity, and scarce content of organic matter.
"The most important thing is that we are working with the local people," said Ríos. "The idea has to be to empower people at the local level so they can continue the work later without the researchers."
"Experiences like these can teach people how to produce more, in a more environmentally-friendly manner, and without depending on external inputs," said the young researcher, who stressed that the preservation of diversity and experimentation have bolstered the small farmers’ incomes.
One example of how quality of life has improved for participants is Agustín Pimentel, a small farmer from San Andrés, one of the pioneers, with INCA’s help, of a project involving the production of animal feed from cowpeas, soybeans and sorghum, which were previously basically unknown in the area, where the authorities have put the priority on tobacco, despite the low productivity of the soil.
Thanks to what participants have learned through the initiative involving animal feed and seeds, Pimentel has seen his income rise significantly by accelerating the fattening process of his pigs, which in six months grow up to 250 pounds, without having to depend on the fodder provided by the state as part of an agreement to foment pig-farming.
"Cuba has the best conditions in Latin America for growing animal feed, because here we have beans, cowpeas and soybeans that are grown organically, without chemicals," said the 56-year-old farmer.
"We are fortunate in terms of the climate and our know-how, but that potential is not taken advantage of, because the majority of the land lies idle," he said.