Goldman Environmental Prize Winner Humberto Labrada

Apr 19, 2010
Outside Magazine

An agricultural revolution is in the works in Cuba, aided in part by the scientist and biodiversity researcher Humberto Ríos Labrada. The standard sugarcane monoculture has proven unsustainable, and Labrada saw an alternative: local farms thriving via pre-industrial farming techniques, such as crop rotation and seed diversity. This, he believes, is the future of Cuban agriculture. It's a path that respects indigenous knowledge and the land itself, and it can become an international model for solving food crises. Outside Online caught up with Labrada, who has just won the 2010 Goldman Environmental Prize, which recognizes outstanding efforts in environmental protection at the grassroots level. Check out the video, above, narrated by Robert Redford, to learn more about Labrada.

--Aileen Torres

How did you originally meet the farmers who still use pre-industrial techniques?
The first were some farmers in the municipalities of Batabanó and San Antonio de Los Baños, south of Havana. In these first two, there had been a project called "agro-ecological lighthouses." In the nineties they reintroduced agro-ecological techniques in small farms that had collapsed due to the economic crisis. The other interesting place was the municipality of La Palma, Pinar del Rio, in the Western zone of Cuba, where I visited frequently because my first wife was from there.

What specific techniques did you find these farmers using?
The farmers set aside and improved their seeds every year by selecting the bestones. They prepared their fields with oxen. They combined crops: beans/corn,squash/sweet potato, yucca/beans, among other combinations. They used naturalpesticides extracted from certain plants to control insect blights. Theyplanted according to the phases of the moon. They used organic compost tofertilize their crops. They managed medicinal and nutritional crop diversity.The most important thing that caught my attention was that they werecontinually experimenting with new things every minute.

How do the farmers protect their crops without the use of pesticides?
They plant according to the phases of the moon. They combine crops. They identify and use plant varieties that are pest- and disease-resistant. They use natural plant extracts as pesticides, such as tobacco. They use organic fertilizers.

What other crops grow naturally in Cuba besides sugarcane?
Squash, corn, tomatoes, peppers, beans, cassava, sweet potatoes, taro root, carrots, bananas, plantains, lettuce, okra, cabbage, rice, arugula, radishes, chick peas, andeven wheat!

What happens at a "seed fair"?
Seed fairs have been one of the key events in my projects. First, a group of farmers and scientists meets to select seeds from a diversity of them that have been placed on a field or table. Then the farmers take the seeds home to experiment with them and continue to exchange them with other farmers and scientists. Now, seed fairs have become cultural events where people select seeds, exchange knowledge, buy and sell local products, talk to friends, even find a date. It is estimated that over 50,000 farmers are involved in the movement.

Does the government acknowledge the potential importance of grassroots farming?
The government became aware of the potential for farmers to develop the agricultural sector in a moment of crisis in agrochemical imports. The government has allowed projects such as mine to gain a space in the national conversation and is now demanding alternative methods to be introduced in agricultural development in Cuba. In practice, Cuban universities and scientific institutions have become the catalysts for my projects.

What has been the impact of local, sustainable farming in these communities?
Income for families and cooperatives that participate has increased significantly. In some cases, the producers double or triple their yield. For example, in La Palma the diversity of beans has gone from three or four varieties to over 200! The quality and diversity of the product associated with the program are recognized locally.

Families have changed their nutritional habits. Farmers have strengthened the sale of products and seeds. The farmers involved in the project have increased their self-esteem and strengthened a national network for the seed and knowledge exchange.

How will this movement grow to a national level?
Presently there are three forms of organization for the discussion of agriculturalbiodiversity and farmers’ experimentation: Primary Centres for Genetic Diversity and Technology, which are farms that introduce, try out, and disseminate the diversetechnologies and seeds; Local Innovation Centers, which are spaces where diverse municipal actors can meet to promote innovation and disseminate best practices at the local level; and the National Innovation Platform, a space where representatives of local, national, and international organizations meet to promote agricultural biodiversity and experimentation among farmers.

What is your hope for the future of farming, food security, and economic development in Cuba? How do you envision Cuba's changing role in the global economy?
I dream every day that mainstream Cuba has and will have an ecological agriculture with the strong participation of farmer-technicians and consumers demanding and working hard to diversify agriculture. I also believe it is important toreforest our farmland and support a food production system that respects the trees.

My personal experience confirms that, although Cuba seems alone in thedevelopment of an ecological agriculture, it could be an example for many countries that base their food production systems on the use of agrochemicals and importing supplies. Cuba has been an example that demonstrates the weakness of the agro-industrial system. Cuba demonstrates that, with the knowledge of farmers and scientists, an agricultural system can be developed that contributes positively to the environment and the well-being of people and the planet. My goal is still to integrate traditional and scientific knowledge. In practice, this will mean more lateral relations among farmers, scientists, consumers, and policy makers to design, implement, evaluate, and disseminate policies that consider the environment and the traditionalknowledge of the men and women of the field.

You've done similar work in Mexico. How is local farming doing there? Where else do you plan to explore this initiative?
I was working in Mexico fairly regularly between 2002 and 2007. I was especially impressed with the way they have advanced in Chiapas with a system of participatory plant breeding, which consists of collecting bean and corn seeds from farmers’ plots, planting the diverse seeds in an area, andinviting the local farmers to come select plants. It had a big impact on the rescue of seed diversity, hundreds of varieties were reintroduced, and the farmers who worked on the process were very happy with it. After 2007, I collaborated less because the Mexican government changed and with it the people that supported the initiative. It would be interesting to initiate it again. Recently I spoke with a colleague at the University of Villa Flores in Chiapas, and other colleagues, and we are thinking about how to continue.

What can the rest of the world learn from these local farmers?
We can learn many things: how to generate wealth with a minimum of fossil-fuel consumption, select seeds or genetic mutations by adapting to the local conditions for production, and, above all, to be less arrogant and to be better people!

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