Oxfam in Cuba: Helping women farmers cultivate more than just crops

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“We feel like leaders”, “I am no longer the same”, “We are together now”, “we know we can do it” – these are the voices of women leading the urban and suburban agricultural movement across Latin America and the Caribbean.

Many of them came together in Cuba last week, along with over 200 delegates from 20 countries, including France, Italy, Sweden, Ecuador, Mexico, Argentina, USA and Canada for the Second International Congress on Urban, Suburban and Family Agriculture that took place in Havana from April 13 to 16.

Across Latin America and the world, small-scale urban and suburban agriculture are providing a sustainable and environmentally responsible alternative for ensuring food security. In Cuba since 1991, Oxfam works with partners such as the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP) to promote local food production, consumption and marketing, and offer training, support and materials to women so they can become more active members of their local cooperatives.  As empowered members of their communities, they are able to increase their income, gain economic independence and building leadership skills.  

Oxfam played a key role in a special side panel at the Congress that focused on how women farmers are improving agricultural production in their communities, the challenges they face in spaces traditionally reserved for men and how this process brings about positive change in their lives.

Yohanka Valdes Jimenez, Oxfam’s gender advisor in Cuba, said that Oxfam: “accompanies and supports initiatives that also promote non-sexist debate on topics such as domestic violence, feminist economics, access to employment for women and their political participation.”

One such project was implemented by Oxfam and ANAP in 10 municipalities across the provinces of Holguin, Las Tunas and Camaguey and funded by the European Union, the Embassy of Japan in Cuba and Agencia Vasca de Cooperación para el Desarrollo.

As part of the project, Teresa Fuentes has been selling fruits like papayas, bananas and mangoes for her local farmers cooperative for two years.

"Some days are slower, but on the best days I can sell as much as 300 pesos worth of produce (about $10),” she said. “I get to bring home ten per cent of that. That's good money here in Cuba! I really appreciate having this job. I can be more secure and independent, and I love coming to the fruit stand every day and seeing my clients".   

"Most of my fellow women farmers were unemployed but now have a source of income, and more importantly believe in themselves,” said Mailén León Basallo, business coordinator for a cooperative in the municipality of Camagüey Nuevitas. “Before we were only six women in the CPA. Now we have 26 and others want to join in different ways and develop new ideas and economic activities.”

“Economic empowerment, political participation, women’s leadership and gender based violence are at the heart of Oxfam’s work in Cuba,” said Jerome faure, Director of Oxfam in Cuba. He added that: "Cuba is an interesting time of economic and social changes, which are mostly positive, but we must attentive to the emergence of possible inequalities and widening gender gaps.”  

All eyes have been on Cuba over the past months as diplomatic relations with the US have been restored. Since taking over as president for his ailing brother Fidel in 2008 however, Raul Castro had already implemented major economic reforms in the country – managing an economic transition towards a more dynamic and market-responsive economy, while striving to protect the standards of social security and economic equality gained since the revolution, particularly for women and the most vulnerable sectors of the population.

“Oxfam will continue to work with our local Cuban partners on issues that they identify as priority concerns,” said Faure. “As the economic reform process in Cuba slowly gathers momentum, Oxfam is increasingly engaging with farmers’ organizations to explore new, untapped opportunities for market-driven growth, including support to a new generation of service co-operatives and rural enterprises.”  

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