Singing Cuban scientist wins environmental prize

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A singing scientist who says the key to Cuba’s agricultural future lies in its agrarian past has become the first Cuban to win a U.S.-based Goldman Environmental Prize, the world’s biggest award for grass-roots environmentalism.

Humberto Rios, 46, was announced as a prize winner on April 19 in San Francisco along with five other activists from around the world. They will each receive $150,000, a huge sum in Cuba where the average annual salary is equivalent to $240.

Rios said the award initially was met with suspicion by his government because it came from the United States, Cuba’s long-time ideological foe. But Cuban officials eventually embraced it and he hopes it contributes to improving U.S.-Cuba relations.

New vision

“I think there’s a new vision, which is to cool a little bit the hostile environment,” he said. “I think we have common problems – maybe different solutions, but also common solutions,” he told Reuters recently.

He will use his prize money for such things as house repairs, but some will go toward funding his work, Rios said.

The prize was begun in 1990 by philanthropists Richard and Rhoda Goldman to encourage environmental protection.

Rios won for his work promoting a return to more traditional farming techniques focusing on seed diversity, crop rotation and the use of organic pest control and fertilizers to both increase crops and improve the communist-led island’s environment.

Musical message

Rios is also a musician and has found music to be a useful tool in spreading his message. At local events, he sings folk and salsa songs that promote biodiversity and good environmental practices – “Recycle, papi, recycle” is one – and get the farmers dancing in the fields.

Traditional farming methods fell out of favour in Cuba as agriculture, dominated by sugar production, became industrialized in the last half of the 20th century, particularly after the Soviet Union took the island under its wing following Cuba’s 1959 revolution.

Flooded with pesticides and fertilizers from the Soviet bloc nations, Cuba in the 1980s became the highest per-capita user of agrochemicals in Latin America.

At the same time, farmers, dependent on the government for seeds and supplies, had little choice in what they could grow.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Cuba was stuck with an agricultural system dependent on agrochemicals it could no longer get and an environment damaged by their heavy use.

Rios, then a doctoral student in agricultural sciences, began to see positive results as farmers, out of necessity, turned to traditional ways. In the late 1990s he launched a program to encourage their broader use.

His biggest emphasis, he told Reuters in a recent interview, was to simply give farmers more seed choices and to let them, not distant bureaucrats and scientists, decide which ones to use.

He began organizing “seed fairs” in farming communities where farmers could choose from a broad selection of seeds. They were encouraged to share information on the results so that each farm became a micro-experimental station.

Seed selection

The key was that farmers chose seeds suited to their specific conditions, he said, instead of everyone getting the same ones.

In different regions of the island, “the criteria for seed selection are completely different,” Rios said.

He said yields began doubling and tripling, and soil damaged by years of overuse and chemicals began to recuperate as crops were rotated and agrochemicals abandoned.

“When you use a diversified system, over the years it increases the amount of protein per area, the amount of vitamins per area, it diminishes the amount of work per area and above all, it increases the smiles of the people,” he said.

He says 50,000 farmers are involved in his Program for Local Agricultural Innovation, which is backed by the National Institute of Agricultural Sciences, but much work remains.

Most land and agriculture is under state control in Cuba, but the island has 250,000 small farmers and 1,100 private co-operatives which, together, produce 70 per cent of agricultural output on less than a third of the available land.

Cuba is dependent on imports for most of its basic foods, which drains its fragile economy and has forced President Raul Castro to put more land in private hands and – as Rios advocates – decentralize decision-making to local levels.

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