From Sugar Cane Fields to Organic Seeds

by Oxfam Canada | October 15, 2013
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The Cuban town of Jesus Menendez bursts with color and life. Palm trees line the streets. A bright mural decorates the local radio station. The weekly farmers’ market is a hive of activity. Private homes are open to public art, poetry and singing.

It’s hard to believe that when Oxfam started work here in 2008, the townspeople lived in the shadow of a shuttered sugar mill, their economic mainstay gone, their surroundings stripped by Hurricane Ike.  The trees left standing were leafless. The roofs of most homes had been ripped off.

Jesus Menendez, population 15,000, needed more than rebuilding. Though the situation was urgent, residents wanted to take the time to create a better town than before. Oxfam helped make that happen.

Oxfam gathered many partners to create a first-of-its-kind initiative in Cuba. There were farmers’ organizations, members of the local government, representatives of the agricultural ministry, the ministry of science, technology and environment, staff from the local university, the women’s federation and a local cultural movement.  It took a year of working together to build trust.

Infrastructure was rebuilt through the 2009-2012 project co-funded by the Canadian International Development Agency.  Sustainable food production was developed.  The local economy was strengthened.  An emphasis was placed on gender equality.

Support for Women’s Rights

Land that was once used to grow sugar cane for export was converted into arable land and made available to local farmers – a fundamental transformation that allowed producers to profit from the land while providing fresh, locally produced food to residents. Oxfam and partners promoted the adoption of new agricultural methods, including organic pest management and local seed production, and supported women to join in food production.

Production increased to the point where households became self-sufficient, no longer having to import food like meat, chicken, vegetables and milk from outside the municipality. A community market was constructed, thanks to project funds, where local producers could sell their fruits and vegetables and crafts every week.

“The opening of the market was a real celebration,” recalled Marta Oduardo Ramírez, Vice President of the Municipal Government. “Over 4,000 people came.”

Cuban culture is one of solidarity, with women visible at meetings and present in organizations. But there are still challenges. Much of women’s work is unpaid and therefore undervalued, and violence against women is an issue rarely addressed in public.

Those issues were tackled through such project activities as workshops on gender relations, leadership training for women, improving the working conditions for female farmers, and promoting employment of women.

Community rejuvenated

"It was really difficult at the beginning because male chauvinistic traditions are deeply rooted in rural areas,” said local farmer Marianela Pérez. “But power relations between men and women gradually changed for the better after the project got underway.”

The project helped bring a conversation about gender-based violence into the public domain. The local university hosted a groundbreaking event on gender-based violence and the local radio station began broadcasting programs on the subject. Jesus Menendez was one of the first rural communities in Cuba to mark the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, held annually on November 25.

Local cultural promoter Lucy Aguilar recognized how remarkable these achievements were when she attended an event in Havana: “We realized how important what we were doing was and how much we had achieved. Everyone in Havana was asking us how we did it!”

Local culture seemed to grow organically from the project. So many buildings had been destroyed that residents turned their own homes into places for cultural expression - singing, poetry and even a gallery where local artists display their work. Men and women, adults, children and elderly people – everybody comes together to celebrate local culture.

One young workshop participant said it best: “This project has brought life back to our municipality.”

Jesus Menendez was part of Oxfam’s Engendering Change program – a five-year program co-funded with the Government of Canada and private donors to build the capacity of local partner organizations to advance women’s rights.

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