Valley of the sugar mills

By Oxfam
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The Valley of the Sugar Mills was one of the most productive sugar cane regions in the country before 1990.

With the crumbling of the socialist bloc in the 1990s, an increasingly rigorous trade embargo in place, and low prices for sugar on the international market, Cuba was faced with a food security problem. To overcome it, the country drastically reduced the land used to grow sugar cane in order to diversify crops. Oxfam International supported 11 cooperatives of small farmers in this change from producing sugar for export to growing products like beans, corn, fruit, vegetables, and meat for local markets.

The 43,490 acres of the Valley of the Sugar Mills includes 70 percent of the best farmland in the municipality of Trinidad, near the center of Cuba. The view is impressive: A valley of varying shades of intense green, mixed with palm trees and a few ponds. About 10 years ago the panorama was quite different. The valley was one of the areas that produced the most sugar cane. The chimneys of the five sugar mills—which emit no smoke now—gave the valley its name. But because of the crisis in the 1990's and the prices on the international markets, the farmers were forced to replace sugar fields with food crops. The food grown here by 11 cooperatives that belong to the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP) supplies part of the food demand of the 52, 000 citizens of Trinidad and the thousands of tourists a day who visit this city—a colonial jewel designated as a cultural landmark.

The transition from export-oriented monoculture to a diverse production for local consumption was an enormous challenge. Nevertheless, Gilberto Sorroche, president of the Cooperative 13 de Marzo, is quite modest in describing the cooperatives achievements. "We weren't very surprised," he says. "We were already diversified producers because we planted for our own food supply. We decreased the production of sugar cane little by little, in small areas."

When he sees a look of surprise on my face, Machim Soza, an official for International Projects and Relations, who is from the province of Sancti Spiritus, offers a clarification. "I think there were difficulties, but they didn't feel them. It is very difficult to make a change in production of this magnitude. You have to change technology, you have to modify the factors of production. And so, perhaps they didn't feel it because of the project," he says. "But imagine if this project hadn't existed, it would have been very difficult to put the irrigation system into place, or the green houses, or hold training sessions."

Higher yields with irrigation system

Oxfam International has been supporting ANAP's work to change agriculture in the valley since 1996. It has invested in irrigation systems, training sessions in organic agriculture and how to increase production, among others. The results have been astonishing. In all of the cooperatives, the production has doubled, and in some cases tripled.

"We have seen an increase of 100 percent, for example, from 1.5 million pounds of tubers or vegetables in 2005 to 2.9 million in 2007. Now we want to triple production because with this irrigation system we don't depend so much on the seasons," says Sorroche. "The earnings this year were 150,000 pesos [about $6,500] when in past years they were between 30,000 and 40,000 pesos [about $1,300- $1,730]."

The Cooperative 13 de Marzo is made up of 53 members and has roughly 1,349 acres of land. They began replacing sugar cane crops with food products such as vegetables and fruit, and built corrals and fences to start raising livestock, including dairy cows. "We are going to increase milk production," says Sorroche.

Another component of the cooperation between Oxfam and ANAP is the training that goes along with the purchase of raw materials. Misleidy Cabrera is the organic farming coordinator for the municipality of Trinidad and she explains how these training sessions work.

"In the cooperatives there is a small structure which includes facilitators and promoters. The facilitators are in charge of coordinating and planning the training sessions. And the promoters put into practice what has been learned. For example," she says, "after a training session they start to use a little worm humus [a form of organic fertilizer] and they see results. They promote it until everyone is using this organic practice. Initially the numbers are small, but through the training sessions and exchanges we see everyone do it."

Better alternatives for marketing

"We have also been able to repair two trucks with funds from the project," says Sorroche. "This helps us transport the harvest to Trinidad." The repair or acquisition of vehicles has been another key aspect of the modernization process. Having a mode of transportation facilitates the sale of the products. Because Trinidad is a tourist destination, people pay in foreign currency, which allows for investment in new equipment and incidentals.

Improved standard of living

The impact on household economies of the agricultural diversification has been significant. Farmers' earnings have increased between two and three fold. And the construction of greenhouses and the growing of fruits and vegetables have facilitated the participation of women in farming, increasing family incomes by 400 or 500 percent.

Women now feel more valued and empowered. "I am really different, I think differently, resolve my problems in a different fashion," says Ydalmez Gonzalez when we talk with a group of women. "I see changes in myself. I feel really satisfied and proud."

At the same time, however, this can mean a double shift for women: the work at home and away from home. The increase in their income, however, has helped women buy home appliances that have alleviated a little of their household workload. And because of this issue, ANAP held sensitivity trainings for the men of the house, in order to encourage a more even distribution of housework. For Gilberto Sorroche the process of participation and the gender focus in his cooperative is just beginning. "This is another great challenge still ahead of us, to facilitate the work of women even more."

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