Agriculture and Resistance
Review by Erin Royster
Debates about biotechnology and biodiversity, environmental racism and environmental justice, urban quality of life, the degradation of rural environments, and the loss of rural communities have led many activists to conclude that it is necessary to radically transform the dominant agricultural practices. Indeed, activists and farmers around the world have tried to create new approaches to food production and distribution based on the principles of ecology and social justice. Their successes and failures offer rich lessons to anyone who wants to build a new society literally from the ground up.
Curious about the nature and relevance of some of these new approaches, I chose to study the stories of activists in this country working on food and agriculture issues, and in comparison, the story of post-revolutionary agricultural reform in Cuba. I selected two books; the first, Sustainable Agriculture and Resistance: Transforming Food Production in Cuba, is a comprehensive study of the changes in Cuban agriculture following the 1959 Cuban Revolution and during what is known as the Special Period of the 1990s, the era following the collapse of the Communist Bloc in Europe. The second, Urban Wilds: Gardeners’ Stories of the Struggle for Land and Justice, is a collection of articles written by organizers of community garden projects, interviews with participants, how-to guides, and analytical pieces about the current agro-industrial system. The stories are compiled largely from the travels of the editor, Clea, and other North American activists to various urban centers where both public and covert gardening projects are taking place.
Sustainable Agriculture and Resistance
Agroecology, the methodology that has transformed not just Cuban agriculture but its education and research practices as well, is defined by editor Luis Garcia as a “new paradigm [that] views the farm as an ecosystem, and blends the technological advances of modern science with the time-tested and common sense knowledge of traditional farming practices.”(1) Government and university extension under this paradigm is characterized by popular education–style farmer-to-farmer workshops and outreach, a variety of both accredited and informal learning opportunities that encourage a well-educated farm population, the participation of farmers in research and technological development, and the inclusion of farmers in setting regional agricultural production quotas. According to the authors, the wide-scale reorganization of land tenure also aided the wide-scale adoption of agroecological farming techniques. Following the “triumph of the Revolution,” agricultural land was redistributed in a diversity of forms, from production cooperatives granted by the state in perpetuity and held in usufruct (meaning that farmers have rights to the land as long as they use it, although no one actually owns it in the traditional sense), to large state farms, to individual holdings under private ownership.(2) The individual farms are also organized under Credit and Service Cooperatives. The Cuban Constitution lays out express governance principles that the cooperatives must conform to, and defines the government’s role in providing services and supplies and purchasing agricultural goods produced in a quota system.
According to the authors, research conducted since the 1990s shows that small, cooperative units of production function more efficiently and have been better able to respond to shortages of imported inputs during the Special Period than the larger industrial-scale state farms developed during the revolutionary period, from 1959 to the 1990s. With a shortage of fossil fuel, agricultural pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, and machine parts, the Cuban government was able to reorient agricultural policy, education, research, and development toward a new paradigm of low-input, high-efficiency agriculture that has been able to meet the needs of the Cuban population, despite the severe drop in food imports. The large state farms were broken up into a new form of production cooperatives, putting a total of 42 percent of agricultural land under cooperative, usufructuary arrangements, with another 52 percent being organized under Credit and Service Cooperatives in 1998. The reeducation of Cuban farmers and citizens about agroecological methods of food production occurred largely through participatory, farmer-to-farmer outreach as well as the refocusing of agricultural curricula in Cuban universities to favor agroecological methods.
What is impressive about this shift is that the Cuban government has seemingly been able to accomplish gains that go far beyond what most food and farm activists in the United States can even envision. As the authors describe, these achievements include: an extreme reorganization in land tenure favoring small farmers and cooperatives governed by democratic principles, the incorporation of urban farming and gardening as a legitimate and encouraged contribution to the country’s food production, and the wide-scale adoption of ecological farming techniques. Perhaps the most tremendous advance is signified by the adoption of agroecology as the guiding perspective in agriculture, rural development, and the adoption of new technologies. Agroecology’s view of nature as a whole system of interrelated functions, all of which are integral to the healthy functioning of farm and human ecosystems, is in sharp contrast to the capitalist view of land as a property and resource whose sole value is monetary. Thus, Cuba has apparently been able to transcend the development paradigm guided only by capitalist motives that causes a disharmonious dichotomy between people and the land, while maintaining the socialist goals of equitable income distribution and access to food, jobs, and health care for all.
Yet during the Special Period, with the loss of favorable trading partners in the Communist bloc, free market mechanisms were introduced to allow for a greater availability of food to the population than was possible under a purely state-regulated economy and to encourage increased production efficiency in agriculture. The ability to sell excess produce in farmers’ markets gave farmers an economic incentive to produce more food, more efficiently. While the authors can justly claim that any production system must be economically as well as ecologically viable, the introduction of free market mechanisms suggests that this viability depends on an essentially capitalist development paradigm. Although several contributors hail the diversity brought on by the introduction of market incentives, foreign investment, and regulated private and foreign enterprises as a sign of greater economic stability and flexibility, they fail to reconcile this with their faith in socialist values. Having studied the way that capitalism has entrenched itself in agriculture in the United States, I am reluctant to believe that an ostensibly socialist state can resist the penetration of capitalism and the demands of the free market once they are incorporated into the national economy.
On a more fundamental level, one has to question how the collectivist, democratic principles attributed to the land redistribution and development process play out in reality. What is the relationship between form and content? While Cuba has obviously created structures that appear collectivist and democratic, do they embody these concepts in a real and substantial way? If one looks at who, in reality, sets the policies and practices as well as defines the values that supposedly underlie the Cuban system, it becomes clear that it is not a participatory process. The development paradigm in Cuba, while seemingly guided by principles of ecology and socialism, is controlled by the Cuban Community Party. If there is no opportunity for political dissent, then Cuban social and ecological policies will never be truly egalitarian in form or content.
Unfortunately, this book sheds no light on this concern. While the authors show that farmers, researchers, scientists, students, and government agents work together on many different levels, they appear to gloss over the difference between governance and administration. Although the agricultural cooperatives have a degree of autonomy over the administration of their own farms, the state ultimately determines what and how much is produced, coordinates processing and distribution, and dictates the exact structures of “democratic” management that must take place in each cooperative. The authors do offer a critique of the problems posed by farms recently transferred from state to cooperative ownership: as they are transferred, the farmers must transition from state employees, with relatively little responsibility and decision-making power, to self-employed, cooperative farmers. The authors relate that the carry over of dependency on and subordination to state officials and agencies experienced by state-employed farmers hinders the transition to a smoothly operated cooperative farm. In addition, it is likely that this “problem” in the transition also maintains a parent-like relationship with the state well after the transition has been made, facilitating the state’s control over production and distribution.
It would add depth and relevance to this book if the authors were clearer about where political power is concentrated in Cuba, and to what degree farmers truly have autonomy in both the new and old forms of cooperative production and land use. Making some decisions democratically does not produce a democratic, egalitarian society. Rather, all decisions that affect each person must be made democratically, from setting policy to carrying it out. To assess the degree to which a particular agricultural form of organization can impact overall social change, it is necessary to have an explicit understanding of the power relationships that inform and control it. In other words, a critique of ecological practices cannot be separated from a critique of political practices: a critique of humanity’s relationship to nature must be complemented by a critique of people’s relationship to each other. Although the economic hardships and historical context that led to the development of a sustainable agricultural economy in Cuba are well explained here, one would need more information about Cuban politics than this book affords to examine whether those agricultural social forms contribute to or embody the values of a free and rational society.
What can be learned from this book, if taken at face value, is that it is possible to restructure an economy against the grain of free market capitalism. We can define values, like freedom, cooperation, ecology, and rationality, and apply them to one of the most basic requirements of human life: food. Even though the Cuban Revolution may not embody the anti-authoritarian, anti-statist, and anti-capitalist values that I might envision for an ideal society, it has gone a long way in demonstrating what can be done outside the bounds of capitalist thinking. Unfortunately, this book also demonstrates the limitation of these possibilities in a world that remains largely and increasingly dominated by global capital and the hegemony of state authoritarianism.
But, as many of the subsequent articles illustrate, gardens can indeed be an avenue for changing human relationships. Many gardeners and activists quoted in this collection argue that urban neighborhood gardens give people a chance to connect with their neighbors, talk about problems, and collectively find solutions. In poor, inner-city neighborhoods where city officials, garbage trucks, and even grocery stores can be a rare sight, if the residents don’t help themselves, no one will. The challenges of gardening in an urban neighborhood often force people to find resources and allies they would not otherwise have sought out, and this goes well beyond the particulars of gardening. As Cordelia Gilford from the South Bronx Gardeners explains, “We are resources. I know who to speak to if your heat’s been turned off, where to go if you need help with this or that. We share information and help each other get by.”(4) Many articles also reveal the connections formed between people, communities, and organizations across class and color lines.
Giving people the tools to help themselves is enormously important for any revolutionary struggle. While the gardeners in the South Bronx may not have explicitly revolutionary goals for their gardens, any experience is heartening that leads people to believe they have some power to make decisions about what they want their lives, neighborhoods, and maybe even a future society to look like. Given the pervasiveness of urban gardens tucked into communities of color across the United States, the people who started these gardens probably know a lot more about creating their own means of survival than those who see alternative institutions primarily as a form of political dissent. But how do we move from alternatives necessary for survival to those that actually threaten the status quo? There is much evidence in the garden stories presented in Urban Wilds that people recognize the failures of the present society to meet people’s needs, and that they are proposing alternative ways to meet those needs, but there is little proof that these garden projects as they are now could replace the existing system or that they illustrate to the broader public that the dominant system should and could be replaced.
This is not to say that there aren’t plenty of garden projects represented here with an expressly political focus. The Victory Garden Project (VGP) of Athens (Maine), East Orange (New Jersey), and Boston was founded in 1996 by New York 3 political prisoner Herman Bell and environmentalists Carol Dove and Michael Vernon as a way “to bridge the divide between oppressed urban and rural communities, while merging the struggles for black liberation and earth liberation.”(5) VGP gardeners, volunteers, and activists are exposed to the political critique articulated by the Black Panther Party’s survival programs, and do much more than just garden. The project, connected to anti-prison activism, creates networks of rural and inner-city food distribution that lie outside the cash economy while encouraging community organizing and education about the global economy and struggles for liberation.
Unlike many other contributors to this collection, Errol Schweizer writes explicitly about how VGP is linked to the struggle for liberation and runs counter to corporate agribusiness and capitalist globalization. “The key to understanding globalization, poverty, and the prison boom is by looking at both rural and urban areas. Urban people of color fill the prisons which are built in rural areas,” states Schweizer. Cofounder Dove explains that due to “globalization, rural areas have been scoped out for prison construction because the better jobs are gone and people have to get service industry work. Their self-esteem drops; their integrity is diminished. The system sets up barriers for the low-income people to battle amongst themselves. But if people rose up against the system and supported each other, the system would fall.” Cofounder Vernon is also quoted, explaining, “I really see that freedom is connected to responsibility. So if you want to be free then you have to be responsible for yourself and your surroundings. And taking responsibility for those things, although it’s really difficult in a lot of different ways, is liberating and it’s hard to imagine an argument for liberation and freedom that doesn’t include those things [producing your own food, shelter, and clothing].”(6)
The values projected in this article can be compared to those embodied by Cuba’s agricultural project. On the one hand, the VGP represent a grassroots network, mostly of volunteers, who are committed to distributing food outside the corporate agribusiness that monopolizes the U.S. food supply, and who envision a future society free of corporate or state control, where communities are empowered, self-sufficient, and make their own decisions. On the other hand, while Cuba has made significant advances in the practice of agroecology and development of appropriate technologies, it is unlikely that Cuban farmers feel the same sense of empowerment and hope for freedom under the strict administration of the Cuban government. The political and cultural climate of the United States simultaneously limits what people think is possible, and pushes them to hope for and envision a better future. To what degree is this true in Cuba, where the state maintains a monopoly on what is considered “revolutionary”?
The diversity of articles presented in Urban Wilds is amazing, inspiring, and sometimes dizzying. Due to poor editing and organization, the collection at times becomes impossible to navigate, with unclear section headings, ambiguity about who is speaking, narrating, or writing, and even long sentence fragments that make little sense. Despite this, one can glean something of importance about the nature of gardeners’ struggles for land and justice in the United States; the approaches as well as the intent and ideologies behind them are many and varied—a diversity that will hopefully strengthen rather than divide the movement. The main point of contention that ran like a thread through many, though not all of the articles was the tendency to glorify the garden’s capacity to alter the present reality, and to romanticize the earth itself as an entity that we not only need to “feel breathe” but that also holds all the secrets that we need to know to rectify all current problems.
As one author, Heather Humus, puts it, “The inherent problem with a ‘community’ approach to sustainability is that it is rooted in anthropocentrism. . . . Humans are not going to teach each other what we need to know about how to live sustainably on planet Earth. This information is free and available to any who seek it; it is in the soil and in the plants that spring from it. We must place the plants before ourselves in order of importance, and proceed in this manner.”(7) Yet seeing the earth as above or before humans in “order of importance” is completely regressive and not helpful in the least. In fact, if people are going to learn anything about how to live “sustainably,” then it will have to be within human communities, teaching and learning from each other. That is not to deny the importance of an understanding and respect for the ecology, but to place it above or before humanity is to deny that humans are a part of that ecology and can have a place in it that is both harmonious and mutually beneficial. It is, for instance, hard to interpret what the earth has to teach humanity without listening to those who have studied it extensively, using things like science and technology. Cuba gets major points here—fundamental to the agroecological method advanced by the authors of Agriculture and Resistance is an appreciation of nature as a whole system of interrelated parts in which humans can interact positively to benefit the nonhuman agricultural ecosystem, right down to microscopic soil organisms, and that humans need to eat, have meaningful work, and a nondegraded environment to live in.
These two books provide an interesting comparison in examining agricultural structures and organization and their role in a resistance movement. They offer compelling examples of the role that agriculture can play in supporting a revolution or social movement, but also the different spectrums of possibility for creating change under a socialist versus capitalist state (although I realize that can be a false distinction). While the Cuban case embodies certain aspects of life that I see as part of my ideal future society, I also believe it has severe limitations. No society can be free of capitalist hegemony until every society is free of it, simply because capitalism’s inherent logic is to extend and transform itself ad infinitum. No society can be free of authoritarianism and oppression until all people have equal political power in a culture of freedom, respect, and commitment. The examples in Urban Wilds provide inspiration as well as insight into what people truly need and want their communities to look like. Growing and distributing food, producing guerrilla solar power, restoring native habitat in city parks, and teaching urban youth about ecology and their ethnic agricultural heritage are all important contributions to creating a different culture (and agriculture) than we presently have. But in order to take the next step toward a society free of capitalist and otherwise oppressive factors, it is necessary to extend these local projects into an entire network of farmers and gardeners, educators, activists, craftspeople, and citizens, forming a confederation that will grow to meet everyone’s everyday needs and desires, and beginning to work through the details of governing a society truly from the roots up, in a direct democracy.