The Contradictions of Urban Farming in Havana

I know very little about urban farming. When I think of urban farming two contrasting images come to mind. The first is of an ‘urban farming of the rich’ – organic vegetable and herb gardens on the windowsills, balconies and allotments of hip or ‘up-and-coming’ neighbourhoods of cities like London. The second is of an ‘urban farming of the poor’ – a handful of fruit and vegetables in reclaimed plastic bottles, yogurt cups or metal containers lining the rooftops, stairwells and entryways of concrete or corrugated steel houses of slums and shanty towns. In both instances, I imagine urban farming to be geared towards individual consumption by the family or household doing the growing.

I didn’t see much of either kind of urban farming in Havana. I did see versions of the latter, though far less of it than I was expecting. Given that the climate seemed conducive and that what was available in markets and supermarkets was unpredictable, insufficient and expensive, I imagined container growing would be the norm across Havana. What I saw instead were a few permaculture gardens – a sprinkling of fruit and vegetables mixed in with decorative plants in the front gardens of houses and apartments. But they were few and far between. 

Small permaculture garden in front of private residence, Havana Photo: Eva Sajovic

Small permaculture garden in front of private residence, Havana Photo: Eva Sajovic

I learned from colleagues that among the reasons was the unavailability of seeds. Those with relatives abroad might be able to procure some seeds from them, but otherwise, they were expensive and difficult to get. Fruit and vegetable consumption was also not high on the agenda for many Cubans. Meat was considered most nutritious and families with limited resources focussed on obtaining meat rather than acquiring or growing fruit and vegetables. 

This is not to say that Havana was entirely devoid of urban farming. It just wasn’t as abundant as I imagined it would be and looked and functioned rather differently to what I expected. What struck me were the small and medium sized farms in Havana producing fruit and vegetables for sale. As our Cuban colleagues had told us, urban farming of this kind was actually quite common, but generated a lot of contradictions. 

Urban farm next to Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución Photo: Agnes Czajka

Urban farm next to Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución Photo: Agnes Czajka

A substantial amount of the produce generated by urban growing of this sort was not actually geared towards individual or local consumption and was inaccessible to much of the local population. Rather, it was largely bought out by restaurant owners and resort managers, who purchased it in bulk and at higher prices. So, whilst a few heads of good quality lettuce might be sold to locals, most was reserved for the hospitality industry and consumed by tourists. 

Ranchón El Alamo, medium size farm outside central Havana Photo: Agnes Czajka

Yet the solution, as our Cuban colleagues suggested, was not as simple as barring restaurant owners and resort managers from purchasing from urban farmers. They had little choice but to buy from urban growers, as they had nowhere else to obtain their produce, inhibited by government economic policy and embargoes. Urban growers, in turn, preferred to sell to them as they generated more income by doing so. The consequence was that little was left for local and individual consumption, and that which was left was of poor quality. 

Ranchón El Alamo Photo: Corinne Silva

So, the urban farmers that I imagined growing for their families and communities were actually, more often than not, growing for big business and tourists. As a result, tourists had access to a variety of excellent local produce that was virtually inaccessible to Cubans. 

Agnes Czajka