A Lesson for Our Future – the Cuban Experience

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Cuba has, for good reason, often been studied in a bid to pre-learn the lessons we need to understand if we’re to successfully transition into a post-peak oil world. The videos above delve into this topic.

For the benefit of those not in the know, Cuba faced a rather abrupt introduction to a life without oil after the collapse of the Soviet Union (see also) in 1989. In the early 1990s, virtually overnight, Russian ships supplying the US-embargoed island state just stopped coming. Supplies of all kinds ceased — oil being the most important.

Cuba thus entered its ‘special period‘.

This didn’t just mean that people couldn’t take their Sunday drive any more — it meant a dramatic reduction in food production. Farm machinery sat idle. The pesticides (made from petrochemicals) and fertilisers (made from natural gas) they’d become, like most countries today, accustomed to and dependent on, were no longer available.

There was a very real threat of widespread starvation. Although this was ultimately avoided, many suffered from malnutrition in the meantime, stunting the growth of children, robbing some of their eyesight, etc.

Food rations were intensified. Monthly allocations for families were based on basic minimum requirements as recommended by the United Nations. However, at the worst of times, the rations were only 1/5 of these consumption amounts. — Wikipedia


Cuba’s history of colonization included deforestation and overuse of its agricultural land. Before the crisis, Cuba used more pesticides than the U.S.. Much of their land was so damaged (de-mineralized and almost sand-like) that it took three to five years of intensely "healing" the soil with amendments, compost, "green manure", and practices such as crop rotation and inter-planting (mixed crops grown in same plot) to return it to a healthy state. Bio-fertilizers and bio-pesticides have replaced most chemicals. Today, 80% of Cuba’s produce is organically grown…. — Wikipedia

There are many lessons to learn here, but the topic of the last paragraph is one worthy of deep reflection. Just as we’re rapidly depleting our oil supplies, we’re also rapidly depleting our soil health. Feeding ourselves off dead soils with little to no access to quick-fix fertilisers is not an easy ask — especially since we’ll need many, many more farmers and few of us know a thing about it any more. The sooner we get started, the easier and thus more peaceful the inevitable transition will be. It will mean a return to more manual labour; we’ll use horses for more than just show-jumping; it will mean most of us will need to learn to provide for much of our own needs as possible — but it will also mean improved physical and mental health* and the strengthening of the community ties that bind people into harmonious interdependent and mutually symbiotic relationships.

Note: Roberto Rivero, a gentleman you’ll see featured in the clips above, will be attending the Tenth International Permaculture Conference & Convergence (IPC10) in Jordan this September. Roberto would like to put in a bid for Cuba to be the host site for IPC11 in 2013, so perhaps future IPC attendees will have a chance to learn from Cuban experience — first hand and on location.


*with the reduction in calories and the increase of manual labour (otherwise known as ‘exercise‘), Cubans witnessed a significant drop in the rates of heart disease, diabetes, strokes, etc. during the special period.