Havana's private gardens are a model of sustainable living and a glimpse
into the realities of Cuban life
The Guardian, Saturday 12 December 2009
An old Soviet bus splutters exhaust fumes over a gleaming blue American
Chevrolet and a car stereo shakes the Havana street, but a more bucolic
scene appears behind some rusty metal panels. Enrique, a retired
engineer, signals us into his backyard. A pair of turkeys fan out their
tails. Hens squawk and cluck, flapping up onto the lower roofs of
Enrique's simple, ramshackle house.
Visiting private gardens and meeting people like Enrique gives a rare
glimpse into the realities of Cuban life and the continuing struggle to
make ends meet. The gardens are also a model of sustainable living that
city dwellers like me could learn from.
The state encourages Cubans to grow their own food. What happens to
excess produce is down to whoever grows it – Enrique sells his to help
keep his family of 15. He started producing food for his family in 1989
when Cuba's allies in eastern Europe abandoned communism and stopped
sending food. On the 25m x 4m plot around his house Enrique keeps about
60 goats which give him five litres a of milk a day – plus meat. Enrique
shrugs when I ask how many hens, guinea fowl and turkeys he owns.
The conditions are cramped but the animals look well. He feeds them by
scouring the city for waste food. Sometimes, with the help of his two
dogs who watch us from under one of the hen coops, he herds his goats
through the city streets out into the countryside so they can feed on
grass and other vegetation.
Opposite Enrique, "The Professor" welcomes us onto his plot. He started
cultivating it a couple of months ago when the state gave him a 10m x 5m
derelict building site for vegetable growing.
The Professor has slotted lettuces, chard, tomatoes, cabbage and some
medicinal plants into the foundations. He plans to give away the surplus
to a day centre for pregnant women and to neighbours.
Round the corner Rodolfo has just come home from his job selling books
to tourists outside Havana's museums.
When the 1989 crisis hit Rodolfo used the strip of land beside his house
to raise 10-15 pigs until his mother-in-law made him stop when she could
no longer stand the smell. She was lucky, says our guide, some Cubans
living in apartments were rearing pigs in their bath tubs.
Instead of pigs, Rodolfo, watched over by his rooftop dog, Pulgosa
(fleabag), now grows mangoes, cassava, medicinal plants, lemons,
avocados, bananas, onions, garlic, spices and plantain. He sows seeds in
old saucepans, trunks and anything else he can lay his hands on. Today
he is almost self sufficient in fruit and vegetables.
Gardens like Rodolfo's are disappearing in Havana. Many have become
parking lots now that tourism is bolstering the economy so this is the
time to see the relics of Cuba's "special period" as they call the
• It can be difficult for visitors to Havana to track down private
gardens. I was shown the gardens mentioned above via our excellent
guide, Daniel, from Cuba Select and Audley Travel.
Havana's urban farms | Travel | The Guardian (12 December 2009)