The Work

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and in the face of ongoing US embargoes, Cuba lost its supply of oil, machinery and petrochemical fertilisers, leading to a severe economic crisis. The agricultural system, which relied heavily on imported chemical based pesticides and fertilisers became unsustainable.

The Cuban government responded by mobilising domestic resources to avoid acute food shortages and mass starvation. Cuba is now at the forefront of sustainable agriculture based on organic local food production. In Havana, Ash documents Organoponicos, community growing spaces covering 8% of land in the capital, which have transformed derelict urban spaces into thriving organic farms. The Organoponicos produce four million tonnes of organic produce each year using integrated pest management, crop rotation, composting and soil conservation as well as providing employment to many thousands of local people. Ash’s photo essay combines urban landscapes, intimate portraits of the farmers and the techniques they employ, as well as highlighting the benefits to health, environment and community life in Havana.

Urban Farming in London by Lulu Ash

In the UK we rely heavily on imported food and crops grown with the intensive use of oil based chemicals and fertilisers. We are now more reliant on food imports than at any other stage in the last 40 years.

In response to this and to complement her photo essay on Havana’s Organoponicos, Lulu documents Capital Growth a food growing initiative in London. The project aims to create 2,012 new community food growing spaces across the capital by the end of 2012. Capital Growth is a partnership initiative between London Food Link, the Mayor of London and the Big Lottery’s Local Food Fund.

Lulu’s photo essay highlights a local food movement in Britain, which is creating practical solutions to the issues of finite oil supplies and food security. Many of the growing spaces, previously plots of derelict land, have provided benefits in health, safety, community cohesion and employment.

  • The end of the cold war resulted in Cuba losing key supplies from the former Soviet Union, whose support had buffered the country against the negative effects of the United States economic embargo.
  • For thirty years until the end of the 1980’s, Cuba had relied on the availability of cheap imported oil and pesticides to pursue a policy of intensive agriculture based on a mono-culture system. Tobacco, sugar, and other cash crops were grown on large state farms and were exchanged for products from the Eastern bloc.
  • With food shortages imminent the Cuban Government encouraged the residents of Havana, Cuba’s capital, to use derelict urban spaces dotted around the city to start growing food. Communities came together to shift tons of garbage and rubble from these spaces with the aim of transforming them into thriving organic farms.
  • Cuba photos LRes for website-13 Cuba photos LRes for website-13 The small farms, known as Organoponicos, have become a movement creating a revolution in the landscape of the city’s urban spaces. The growing spaces vary in size and nature and include reclaimed parking spaces used to grow lettuces as well as small farms growing a diverse range of crops, created on land formerly used as rubbish tips.
  • There are now over 200 farms in urban Havana producing four million tons of produce every year which help to make the country 90% self sufficient in fruit and vegetables. Many of the Organoponicos work as co-operatives and give employment to thousands of local people.
  • Cuba’s agricultural research centres had already been developing sustainable agricultural methods before the onset of the economic crisis. When oil based fertilisers and industrial pesticides became unavailable, researchers continued to develop alternative methods to provide organic nutrients and control invasive pests.

    There are now more than 200 biological control centres throughout Cuba, producing a host of biological agents.

  • Bio-pesticides, including the introduction of beneficial insects to control natural enemies and the use of bacterial diseases which are non toxic to humans, have proved effective in controlling pests.

    Complementary plants such as marigolds, basil and neem trees are planted around crops to keep aphids and beetles at bay. Sunflowers and corn are planted around the beds to attract beneficial insects such as ladybirds and lace wings.

  • As Cuba has become a low fuel economy, oxen have been bred and reintroduced to work the land, with around 300,000 oxen working on farms across the country. Necessity has been the mother of invention with farmers using salvaged and recycled materials such as old drainage pipes to create raised beds.

    With the soil so badly damaged by oil and chemical based fertilisers it took the farmers three to five years to make the land fertile and productive again.

  • Organoponicos use a variety of soil enhancing conditioners to rebuild and maintain the soil. Organic humus is produced in long troughs, where worms are fed cow manure and other organic waste products.

    This makes a richer fertiliser more efficiently than regular compost, with the humus binding together the farmed land to increase plant nutrients, which help control plant disease and stimulate growth.

  • Some plants have been found to be excellent natural fertilisers. Farmers grind the Yerba Buena mint plant to a paste creating a concentrated fertiliser which new cuttings are dipped into before planting.
  • Many farms also grow medicinal plants and share knowledge of the healing and nutritional benefits of certain plants, including curcumin found in turmeric roots, which studies have shown has anticancer effects.
  • Farming in Cuba is a desirable profession and farmers are some of the most respected workers. Many people working on the farms are highly educated; it is not uncommon to find a trained doctor picking lettuces or an engineer planting seeds.
  • The farms also employ retired people, many of whom remember fighting in the Revolution for the land on which they live and work.
  • The proximity of the farms to people’s homes has enabled many older people to continue in employment, contribute their knowledge and skills and take an active role in community life, while they benefit from improved nutrition, exercise and fitness.
  • Many of the farms are operated as co-operatives with members receiving a better than average wage, a share in farm ownership, free food and a nineteen-day working month. Most farms have market stalls or small shops close by where the fresh produce is on sale to the local community who can buy fruit and vegetables within walking or cycling distance of their home.
  • Eliminating the cost of transportation also keeps costs down. There is no stigma attached to imperfect produce; consumers know where their food comes from and are more concerned with it being fresh and organic than being perfectly shaped.
  • The farms form part of an integrated network, which has enabled the experience and knowledge of individual farmers to be shared at regular meetings. Successful seeds are also shared around the country, allowing farmers to grow the most efficient varieties.

    Findings from scientific research centres can be disseminated and implemented quickly. The Organoponicos movement, which started with just twenty people, now has a membership of over 50,000 farmers nationwide.

  • Growing Communities is a community-led organisation based in Hackney, London, which harnesses the collective buying power of the community and directs it towards farmers who are producing food in a sustainable way.
  • The project has organically certified urban market garden produce which is sold through an organic fruit and vegetable box scheme and at the Stoke Newington Farmers Market. The ethos of Growing Communities is to enable small-scale farmers and producers who use a sustainable agricultural system to thrive.
  • Brixton City Farm is a collective of people who are passionate about animal farming in urban spaces. While they do not yet have a site large enough for a farm, they each keep chickens and small livestock at home and gather regularly for meetings and shows, to plan research and share their experiences of urban farming.
  • Global Generation’s Skip Garden, which is situated in the centre of Kings Cross, has transformed a derelict area into an inspiring and thriving permaculture growing space, including the use of disused skips as vegetable containers.

    The project works with young people to inspire them to grow organic and sustainable food and uses empty spaces, rooftop gardens and courtyard allotments to help create a more connected and sustainable London.

  • Food from the Sky is a permaculture community garden growing food on the rooftop of Thornton Budgens supermarket in Crouch End, London. The garden follows biodynamic rhythms and organic principles.

    The volunteers collect food waste from the supermarket to create compost, which is used for the growing process. The produce is then shared between the gardeners as well as being sold in the supermarket. The project is also a learning and educational space for the local community.

  • The Dalston Eastern Curve Garden in east London has reclaimed former railway land to create a wildlife haven. Trees and shrubs, including hazel, hawthorn and birch, have been planted alongside butterfly bushes, bracken and other plants, which were already growing on the derelict site.

    The Garden also includes large raised beds for growing food, with tomatoes, peppers and scented herbs grown by Dalston residents. The project has an emphasis on working with children who otherwise would have limited access to green spaces.

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The Photographer

Lulu Ash

Lulu Ash’s interest in photography was first sparked when her school set up a darkroom in an old wooden shed. She went on to study Photography at University College Falmouth, graduating in 2009. During this time her work became focused on portraiture and social documentary. Her degree project documented a close-knit traveller community living in rural poverty. Her aim was to create compassionate portraits of the individuals that would surprise people, raise awareness and alter preconceptions.

Lulu’s fascination with humanity and a desire to shake up common ideas through documentary photography are the driving forces behind her work. Recent projects have focused on positive solutions to social and environmental issues with an aim to generate public awareness and inspire change.

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