By Sarah Marsh
HAVANA (Reuters) - In the courtyard of a temple belonging to the Abakua Afro-Cuban religious brotherhood in Havana, Nelson Piloto is pulling up the lawn to plant bell peppers and cassava in the face of Cuba's looming food crisis.
Piloto, 40, says he is responding to the Communist government's call for citizens to produce more of their own food, including in big cities, in whatever spaces they can find, from backyards to balconies.
Standing across from two giant ceiba trees that are considered sacred by many in Cuba, the temple usually resounds with ceremonies involving drumming, animal sacrifices and dance. But it sits empty now due to coronavirus lockdown restrictions on gatherings.
"I'm making the most of the earth," said Piloto, leaning on his hoe.
Food security has lately risen to the top of the national agenda in Cuba, with countless news headlines and televised roundtable discussions dedicated to the topic.
"Cuba can and must develop its program of municipal self-sustainability definitively and with urgency, in the face of the obsessive and tightened U.S. blockade and the food crisis COVID-19 will leave," José Ramón Machado Ventura, 89, deputy leader of the Cuban Communist Party, was quoted as saying by state-run media on Monday.
The Caribbean island imports roughly two-thirds of the food it consumes at a cost of around $2 billion annually, in addition to key farming supplies like fertilizer, machinery and animal feed.
But imports have nosedived in recent years as aid from ally Venezuela shrank following its economic implosion and U.S. President Donald Trump tightened the half century-old U.S. trade embargo.
That led first to shortages of imported food and then to drops in national agricultural production. Output of Cuban staples like rice, tomatoes and pork fell 18%, 13% and 8% respectively last year, according to data released this month.
The coronavirus pandemic, which has paralyzed the key tourism sector, has only exacerbated the situation.
"Today we Cubans have two big worries: COVID-19 and food. Both kill. We are flooded with scarcity," said Yanet Montes, 51, leaving a popular Havana agricultural market with just a few mangoes.
She and others said the availability of produce at such markets was dwindling, with long lines for the most sought-after items like tarot root sometimes starting at dawn.
1990s SURVIVAL LESSONS
Leaders have appealed to Cubans to redeploy lessons learned during the so-called "Special Period," the deep economic depression Cuba fell into after the 1991 collapse of former benefactor the Soviet Union.
Last year, they urged farmers to use oxen instead of tractors due to fuel scarcity.
The premium placed on fuel savings is one reason planning departments are now looking to expand organic farming in urban and suburban areas where goods can be sold directly.
Cuba became something of an organic farming pioneer in the 1990s, developing techniques like worm composting, soil conservation and the use of biopesticides, to replace imported supplies and large scale monoculture.
Havana now produces 18% of the agricultural produce it consumes, according to state run media.
Communist Party activists are signing up in some provinces to do voluntary work in the fields while authorities have distributed leaflets to neighborhood leaders in towns and cities on expanding family farming.
In a residential neighborhood in east Havana, Luis Ledesma asked his wife if he could tear up her flower beds so he could plant pumpkin, sweet potato, cassava, cucumber and chives.
"One of the things that is difficult to find these days is rice," said the 61-year-old, who recently acquired five chickens and a cockerel and wants to install rabbit cages next. "But root vegetables can replace rice."
Some Cuba observers are cautiously hopeful the crisis will push the government to reform its agricultural model which, like the rest of the economy, remains heavily centralized.
"Nothing good can come from the combination of monopoly of supplies, monopoly of distribution and distorted prices," said Cuban economist Pedro Monreal.
The government has hinted recently at a possible reform of the vast state network responsible for purchasing and distributing most farm output, which has come under fire for wasting crops and disincentiving production.
Another Cuban economist, Omar Everleny, said the government should free farmers altogether from this monopoly, allowing them to find their own ways to sell produce and import their own equipment.
"I have the impression in the next few months we will see new reforms," he said.
Come what may, some Cubans like sustainable agriculture enthusiast Marnia Briones hope the country won't lose the habits that have arisen from this and previous crises, which some have termed its "green revolution".
"It’s great more people are planting but it cannot just be when there is a crisis," said the Havana-based artist. "It should be fomented as a healthier lifestyle for the whole of humanity."
(Reporting by Sarah Marsh in Havana; Additional Reporting by Nelson Acosta; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Tom Brown)