The world-wide environmental problems continue to worsen. The century that we live in is marked by global warming, global scarcity of water resources, environmental pollution and increased salinization of soil and water. Enough scientific evidences have put the fact beyond doubt that the now dominant capitalist system is ecologically unsustainable. It has destroyed ocean and forest ecologies, and resulted in climate change, biodiversity loss, overfishing, disappearing supplies of fresh water resources, the plunder of lakes and rivers, toxic wastes, the exhaustion of fossil fuels, urban congestion, the detrimental effects of large dams, world hunger, etc. The list of destructions seems to be never-ending. All these threats are more-or-less interconnected and have a common root in the capitalist production system. The socialists now do agree that one of the primary contradictions of contemporary capitalism is the threat of global ecological collapse, which constitute the greatest challenge to the survival of humanity .
Amidst the ecological crisis, it is amazing how a poor third world country like Cuba, in spite of constant economic and military threat by the US and other hostile neighbors, have embarked on an ecological pathway of development. Cuba’s commitment to agro-ecology (ecological development in general) has its root in its anti-imperialist struggle and the successful socialist revolution that has been transforming the Cuban society since 1959. The ecological consciousness generated through the Cuban socialism has now spread over the whole Latin America, and has the potential to battle against the capitalism’s destructive forces, at least in the sphere of ideas.
‘Agro-ecology’ generally refers to the emerging new practices of agricultural productions in Cuba towards the socialist directions, infused with ecological consciousness as opposed to the high-tech capitalist production system. To understand what agro-ecology is in an objective way, let us first trace the historical journey of Cuban ecological consciousness that is linked with its scientific development.
The traditional socialist views during the time of Cuban revolution was that the scientific knowledge was created through the wealth produced by the working class, but it was monopolized by the rich bourgeoisie to make profit and to build instruments of power. So, the recapture of science by the working masses was a common goal among the radicals. Further, scientific knowledge was seen as a liberation from religious dogmatism. Cuba also walked along these lines. In 1960, in an invited talk to the ‘Cuban Speleological Society’, Fidel Castro said: “The future of our country will be a future of men of science” . In the early days of the revolution, the country-wide literacy campaigns set the precondition for a strong Cuban science. He said: “Now Cuba, with only 2 percent of the population of Latin America, has 11 percent of its scientists, a large fraction of them women” . The environmental consciousness was also ingrained in the minds of Cuban leaders as a part of a progressive scientific consciousness. When Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” was published, Fidel Castro was circulating it among his comrades to spread environmental consciousness .
After the revolution, one of the most important steps was to make the Cuban science publicly owned. The public ownership served two important goals. First, it was possible to plan science nationally and to make policies linking the training of scientists to the social requirements of the masses. Second, the science became ‘open’, i.e. there is no hiding of scientific discoveries for proprietary reasons, which is quite common in the US and other capitalist countries. In the absence of acute race for patents, Cuba has the potential to wait and see what unexpected consequences a new technology may have. For example, “Cubans have been working with genetically modified organisms (GMO) for more than 17 years but have not released any GMO plant varieties, because they are still exploring its possible risks to the environment” .
In the 1970s, Carlos Rafael Rodriguez introduced his argument for a harmonious development of the economy and social relations with nature. This contrasts the unidirectional view that production decides everything, and that only after ‘enough’ material wealth is achieved society can take over the task of bringing social relations into harmony with the economy. Interestingly, Che Guevara, despite his disagreements with Rodriguez on some economic issues, also accepted that social relations and economic development must evolve together . Around the same time, UNESCO initiated its “International Biological Program”, a ten-year international program to study the productivity of biological resources and human adaptation to environmental change. Cuba joined in and selected the rainforest of the Sierra del Rosario as its area of study. Starting from there, the old-school Cuban zoologists and botanists came together and evolved themselves as modern ecologists.
In the backdrop of the emergence of a strong Cuban science (as we described above), the issue of managing agricultural production naturally came up. It started with setting up the priority goals in agriculture, which included a stable food supply for the population, safety for agricultural workers, and management of sugar production both for export and inputs to other industries. But, the agriculture was still in the “green revolution” paradigm based on high yielding plant varieties and massive chemical and mechanical inputs, most of which had to be imported at a high cost. Further, the inhumane US trade embargo and the collapse of the Soviet bloc limited the imports of chemicals, fuel and food. This revealed how fragile the high-tech agriculture was and encouraged the Cubans to achieve self-reliance. The Cubans started experimenting with alternative ways of farming such as rotational grazing system, polyculture (as opposed to the capitalist drive of monoculture of a specific cash-crop), and biological pest control using natural enemies of the pests. Soon the dangerous effects of excessive use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers on health and agriculture were recognized. In the article, “How Cuba is going ecological” , Prof. Levins recalled his engagement with this new development of agriculture: “…we argued that beyond the dichotomy of labor-intensive versus capital-intensive was a knowledge- and thought-intensive agriculture. Instead of mobilizing vast amounts of energy to move large masses of materials, we sought the design of systems that were as self-operating as possible. Mechanization was sometimes very important but at other times destructive of the soil, inefficient in very wet soils, too expensive, and a constraint on other agronomic practices. A combination of tractors and animal traction according to circumstances seemed a better choice.”
We therefore see how agro-ecology historically emerged as an integral part of Cuban socialism, which has created new alternatives challenging the conventional capitalist production. We now aim to summarize its basic principles and characteristics.
Rejection of capitalist drive of profit-making: Capitalism is unidirectionally driven by profit, not social needs. Capitalist production may achieve short-term gains in agricultural productivity, but generally at the cost of social and environmental destructions and of human nutrition. The capitalist agriculture primarily depends on input commodities such as fertilizer, machinery, seed, hired labor, fuel and pesticides. Farmers used to grow their own seeds, raise the mules and cows, raise the hay that the animals ate, and spread the manure from the animals to the land. Now, farmers have no other choice than buying the seeds from a seed company, or the “manures” from Union Carbide. This dependence on input industries also forces the farmers to loan for buying the farm-inputs, and to accumulate huge debts. A study shows that in the US about 40% of the agricultural cost is added in creating inputs, 50% is added in processing and transportation of the farm commodities leaving the farm-land, and only 10% is added in actual process of farming on a land . Thus, farming is no more a self-sustained process that generates its own input and convert them into outputs. On-farm productivity is becoming less and less important to determine the agricultural cost.
Further, agricultural research in the capitalist countries is basically conditioned by the agribusiness and is designed to maximize the profit of seed companies, machinery companies and fertilizer companies. Agroecology fundamentally challenges this scenario by reducing the farmer’s dependence on input commodities. In Cuba large landscapes of destructive industrial farming are being replaced by a planned mosaic of lands (e.g. forests, crop-lands, fruit-orchard, fish-ponds and pastures) in which each patch is used to produce its own product, but also contributes to the production of other patches. For example, a patch of forest surrounding a farm-land not only provide timber, fuel, fruits and honey, but also regulate the water-flow, offer food for live-stocks, and provide a home for natural enemies of the pests and the pollinators for the crops .
A dialectical approach in agricultural science: The science of agroecology is fundamentally influenced by the Marxist dialectical philosophy of science, which emphasizes on the historical and social nature of science, and, the wholeness and interconnectedness of natural phenomena. To make this point clear, let us take an example. In India, the ‘green revolution’ strategy was to increase the yield by selecting dwarf varieties of wheat and rice . These dwarf varieties expend more energy in the grains instead of the vegetative parts of the plants. This of course increases yield, but also makes it easier for weeds to outgrow the plants, making herbicide treatment necessary. These varieties are further sensitive to shortage of water due to their reduced roots. Thus, the one-sided emphasis on yield of grains may produce short-term gain, but ultimately fails in the long run. Further, the level of farm-inputs has to be optimized for such varieties to provide a ‘magic bullet’ recipe in the form of a ‘seed-chemical’ package. This ignores the possible irreversible losses due to soil erosion. A dialectical critique rejects such one-sided approaches, and focuses on complex interplay of opposing forces in a natural process.
A way to manage the problem of one-sidedness is to look at the problems holistically. The concept of wholeness is fundamental in dialectical philosophy, which rejects the view that complex systems always can be reduced to simple parts, and an understanding of those parts are enough to solve a problem. The issue of hunger cannot be solved by just hunting the genes for ‘dwarfing’ trait, rather we need to look at the problem from various levels, such as political-economic conditions, social control of the agricultural output, etc. A main characteristics of Cuban science is the breadth with which the problems are posed. For an example, in 1995 the Cuban Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment formed a group working on protection of the atmosphere. It included some immediately practical tasks as the monitoring of air pollution and linking this to morbidity and mortality data. It also studied the chemistry of rain and the ocean/atmosphere exchange. The group further included neurobiologists who work with problems of autism and trauma, to investigate potential links between air pollution and neurological disorder . Thus, the problem of air-pollution was being investigated from many different angles.
Rejection of pragmatic and ‘developmentalist’ view of science: A common misconception in the third-world science is that in the developing countries science should focus on the achievements of the Western science, and fundamental research is a luxury. This makes a country dependent on the basic researches done in other countries for other reasons and with a very different underlying ideology. Another error is to assume that ‘development’ takes place along a single axis, from less to more, from ‘backdated’ to ‘modern’, which is basically influenced by the urgency of a developing country to catch up with the ‘flashy’ science of the first-world. The Cuban agroecology consciously goes against both these viewpoints. The agroecologists focus on a different thesis: “….each kind of society develops its own relations with the rest of nature, and that an ecological pathway of development is at least latent in socialist development, co-equal with equity and participation. Despite all the zigzags, vacillations and disputes, it emerges as an increasingly central characteristic. And this is imperative, for socialism cannot succeed without committing to an ecological pathway”. Science in any country, on one hand, reflects its particular history. On the other hand, it is a part of the world-science since it is the product of an international system.
Another crude side-effect of the developmentalist outlook is that any technological innovation is seen as mankind’s conquest of nature. This ideology was ingrained even in the starting days of Western bourgeois science. In the beginning of 17th century, Francis Bacon, who is regarded as a prominent philosopher of science, declared: “I have come in very truth…. leading to you nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave….Nature must be taken by the forelock” . The patriarchal imagery of enslaving nature is evident. It is nothing but idealism to think that, armed with technological innovations we may intervene with any policy and make nature obey. Engels have already warned us: “Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first………..Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature — but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly” .
Integration of farmers and scientists: Infected by the developmentalist ideology, the traditional farmer’s knowledge is generally dismissed as superstition. But, it “must be understood as a pattern of insights and blindness, just like modern science.” Prof. Levins recalls “Our task was to look at both of them critically in order to integrate the detailed, particular and nuanced peasant knowledge with the more general and comparative but abstracted knowledge of agricultural science”. This attitude provides a route for democratic exchange of knowledge between the farmers and the researchers, rejecting institutionalized elitism.
Combining rural and urban farming: Contemporary capitalism has pushed the opposition of city and country-side to an extreme. Cuba is tackling this problem by combining rural and urban agriculture with an innovative vision to form ‘agro-towns’. The urban farms in Cuba are now covering 50 thousand hectares of otherwise unused land, and supplying around 40–60 percent of all the fresh vegetables in cities such as Havana and Villa Clara . National priority includes the reduction of the rural/urban disparities in health, education, and income. A visionary goal is to transform agriculture into a creative labor process so that the village-to-city migration can be checked.
Diversification of agricultural practices: Geographic diversification is a protection against natural disasters like hurricanes, which have a zone of destruction around 200 miles across, and can severely affect a large-scale monoculture farm . A study conducted after Hurricane Ike hit some parts of Cuba in 2008, revealed that “…although somewhat affected, agroecological farms suffered a damage level of 50 percent compared to the monocultures that reached levels of 90–100 percent. It was also observed that agroecological farms recovered faster and about 80 percent of the farms resumed production 40 days after the hurricane” . A mixed production of fruits, vegetables, grains, livestocks and fish also provides a balanced nutrition to the population.
In the question of land use, Cuba rejects the idea of deciding a priori between large-scale production and a “small is beautiful” approach. Rather, different scales of farming were to be adjusted to social and natural conditions (e.g. to the watershed, climactic zones and topography, population density, distribution of available resources, and the mobility of pests and their enemies etc.) . Cuba encourages both collectivized farming and state-sponsored cooperatives. While medium and large farms accounting 11.4 million hectares of land are directly controlled by the state, small farmers owning 7.2 million hectares of land, were organized in ANAP (National Association of Small Farmers) .
Convergence of food production and forest conservation: In conventional liberal notion, agriculture is seen as an enemy of forest conservation. The logic is simplistic: More land used for agriculture means less land for forest conservation. Nonetheless, people need food. Thus, the only viable option seems to be the increase of agricultural productivity through chemical-intensive, high-tech farming with high-yielding plant varieties. Agroecology challenges this notion. In capitalist world, the productivity is measured by yield of the main commercial crop or net profit. However, if the measure of productivity is simply total output per area, there is no strong data to support the basic assumption that high-tech capitalist agriculture is more productive than the agroecological farms . In fact, the dominant trend is decreasing productivity as farm-size increases, which was first pointed out by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen in the 1960s. On the contrary, a recent paper claims “…review of almost 300 studies comparing yields of organic/agroecological and conventional agriculture throughout the world, it was found that, on average, organic and agroecological systems produce as much, if not more, than conventional systems” . Thus, agroecology has the potential to achieve both the goals:elimination of hunger and conservation of forests.
The basic aspects of agroecology that we have listed above are not independent of each other; rather they are interconnected, and they all together give an entire picture of this emerging third-world science. The Cuban experience is now spreading over the other countries of Latin America under left/progressive governments with obvious local variations . Agroecology is being promoted through a grassroots movement called, “Campesino-a-Campesino” (farmer-to-farmer) spearheaded by Cooperative Association (ANAP) of Cuba. This process is also evolving towards an international form as ANAP is now a part of “La Via Campesina”, an international peasant organization. An example of this international effort is a recent survey conducted in Central American hillsides, which mobilized 100 ‘farmer-technician’ teams to carry out observations of specific agroecological indicators. “The study spanned 360 communities and 24 departments in Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala. It was found that sustainable plots had greater soil moisture and less erosion and experienced lower economic losses than their conventional neighbors” . These combined national and international efforts primarily aim for the three types of sovereignties, food sovereignty, energy sovereignty and technological sovereignty, to be achieved in rural communities.
In summary, the evolution of agroecology in Cuba slowly transforming the agricultural practices in a revolutionary way, which is, in turn, redefining the symbiotic relationship between humankind and nature. The agricultural practices have to be seen as a part of general human labor process, through which we simultaneously produce useful consumables, as well as, we relate to the nature. In “Capital”, Marx wrote: “Labor is, in the first place, a process in which both man and nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material re-actions between himself and nature. He opposes himself to nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of his body, in order to appropriate nature’s productions in a form adapted to his own wants. By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature”. So, restructuring of the form of agricultural labor, as well as emergence of new forms are necessary steps that can transform our decaying relationship with nature.
 John Bellamy Foster (2009), “A Failed System: The World Crisis of Capitalist Globalization and its Impact on China”, Monthly Review, Vol. 60, Issue 10.
 Richard Levins (2005) “How Cuba is going ecological”, Capitalism Nature Socialism, 16:3, 7–25.
 “Political economy of agricultural research”, from the book, “The Dialectical Biologist”, Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin, Harvard University Press.
 P. Narain (2002), “Need for a dialectical approach in agricultural research for sustainable growth”, Current Science, Vol. 83:6.
 The quotation is from the book “A People’s History of Science: Miners, Midwives and ‘Low mechanicks’” (chapter 6), Clifford D. Conner, Nation Books, New York.
 The quotation is from the article, “The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man” by Friedrich Engels.
 Miguel A. Altieri & Victor Manuel Toledo (2011), “The agroecological revolution in Latin America: rescuing nature, ensuring food sovereignty and empowering peasants”, The Journal of Peasant Studies, 38:3, 587-612
 Online source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Association_of_Small_Farmers (wikpedia page)
 Ivette Perfecto and John Vandermeer (2010), “The agroecological matrix as alternative to the land-sparing/agriculture intensification model”, PNAS , vol. 107 , no. 13.
 The quotation is from “Capital Vol 1”, Karl Marx (Chapter Seven: The Labour-Process and the Process of Producing Surplus-Value).
Dr. Dipjyoti Das is presently pursuing his post-doctoral research at Yale University.
Photo Courtesy: Agroécologia cubana; chloé cangiano