Liz Postlethwaite, who is giving a presentation at Levenshulme’s Inspire Centre on Wednesday 14th March about her trip to Cuba looking at urban food production, answers some questions about the project.
Could you tell us a bit a about why you went to Cuba and what you’d already been doing around food issues in the UK?
Through the kind support of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust I was lucky enough to spend a month at the end of 2012 in Cuba learning more about their Urban Agriculture systems. This something that they have developed since the early 1990s when their economy and agriculture collapsed meaning they had to design new ways to feed their population. As over 70% of the Cuban population now live in cities Urban Agriculture has been a key part of this development. The urban food systems that the Cubans have developed are world class and now other countries from all over the world are looking to Cuba to learn more about how they may do the same.
Prior to my trip to Cuba my main link to food issues in the UK was growing my own food on my allotment in North Manchester, playing a part on the management committee of my allotments and writing about organic food on my blog. However, working in the cultural sector with predominant focus on creative community development it was becoming increasingly clear to me that food production needed to start to pay a more prominent part in the cultural life within Manchester and other urban communities in the UK. I felt this to be important in terms of improved food security within our communities but also as a crucial cultural activity that has the potential to play a key part in strengthening and reinforcing cultural identity, and increasing connection to nature and natural processes.
In addition to this it is my belief that Urban Agriculture has huge potential as a catalyst in the reinvigoration and reinvention of urban communities, in particular communities within post-industrial cities, many of which have faced significant challenges attempting to fill the social and economic gap left following the end of more traditional industry.
What was unexpected in your visit – what surprised you?
I don’t think I can say that anything about my visit was particularly unexpected or surprising. I had high expectations prior to my trip but trying to secure my visa involved a long and engaging planning process which put me in touch which lots of local people so I feel that my expectations were fairly realistic. Maybe I could say that the biggest surprise was the fact that all of these expectations were far exceeded when I was in Cuba.
The level of knowledge and expertise in urban farming on all levels is exceptional – from the national head of urban agriculture to small food producers working directly in local communities to grow food. I was also amazed by the kindness, hospitality and openness of the Cubans that I met along my travels. I had so many fascinating conversations with people of all ages on a huge range of subjects from David Cameron and the credit crunch to the BBC World Service and it was some surprise to me that people, many of whom were strangers who came up talking in the street, were willing to be so open and articulate about their thoughts around politics.
If you went again, what else would you want to see, what else would you want to ask?
I certainly hope to go back to Cuba again in the future. I would like to catch up with all the friends that I made and follow up on their projects. I would also like to learn more about Permaculture in Cuba if possible – a subject that I did not get to investigate in that much when I was there but which is a very interesting and active area of work, in particular through organizations like Fundacion Antonio Núñez Jiménez de la Naturaleza y el Hombre which is one of the most active permaculture organizations in Cuba.
I would also like to look at ways to build links with Cuban Urban Agriculturalists to use their expertise to support the development of Urban Agriculture here in the UK. It would also be amazing to look at ways that we could support their work in Cuba. For example, Cuba would be a perfect climate to use solar panels to power water pumps and other simple technology on their urban food sites. However, at present Cuba has no access to this kind of technology due at least in part to the blockade of the island. It would be great to see if there are ways we can support groups to access this kind of simple equipment that would hugely improve the ease of much of the work that they need to do.
What “lessons” are there to be learnt from what is a very different social and economic environment in Cuba?
A couple of different things spring to mind:
- That infrastructure and support is essential to develop any kind of successful urban food production system.
- That knowledge and the sharing of knowledge is one of the most important factors in the development of Urban Agriculture.
- That food producers are essential parts of our communities and should be valued and nurtured accordingly – it does not matter if food is organic or free range if the person that has produced it has not been treated with respect and dignity in doing so.
- That allowing people to retake a significant control of their local food chain and supply has the potential to make profound positive changes within local communities, and improvement in quality of life in a whole number of different ways.
- That people all over the world are fussy eaters – for example many Cubans love apples (which won’t grow in their climate!) and would happily swap them for local grown tropical fruit any day. Any Urban Food system has to try and provide a mixture of what people have to eat due to seasonality combined with at least a bit of what they want to eat through personal taste.
What you are doing in Manchester around food? Can people get involved with what you are doing, and if so, what sorts of things would they find themselves doing.
If you want to learn more about my trip to Cuba the trip is being documented on my blog www.organicallotment.typepad.com where you can also learn more about organic food production and permaculture on my allotment. I will also be doing a talk about the trip in Levenshulme on 14th March from 7.30pm – 9pm at Inspire at 747 Stockport Road.
I also run a creative social enterprise called Small Things that is developing a number of different projects around food and cultural identity. You can out more about these projects at our website www.smallthings.org.uk
Finally, I am always looking for new projects to get involved in and support. If you are developing a community food project that you feel could benefit from my support I would be happy to come and speak to you about how I may be able to get involved. My email address if firstname.lastname@example.org
Anything else you’d like to say?
If you are interested in learning more about Cuba have a look at:
British Cuba Solidarity Campaign http://www.cuba-solidarity.org/
Manchester Cuba Solidarity Campaign http://cubasolmanchester.blogspot.com/
And if you have an idea for research that you would like to do overseas:
Winston Churchill Memorial Trust http://www.wcmt.org.uk/
Addendum: The event on the 14th is free, and will also include a talk by Chris Walsh of Kindling Trust. For our report of a previous event with the same two speakers, see here.
Further Addendum: A prolific commenter has suddenly developed shyness, and sent this to our email: “I thought I would forward this article to you, in support of your recent article, as some people believe the hype of the giant agrochemical companies.