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Nimbin's Cuban Connection

by Warwick Fry
[as contributed to Nimbin Good Times]

Charismatic, passionate, vibrant – these are some of the terms describing Dr. Roberto Perez, Cuban permaculture expert currently touring Australia with Nimbin's own permaculture guru, Robyn Francis of Djanbung Gardens. Roberto Perez is already well known for his role in the famous documentary "The Power of Community" which was shown to large audiences throughout Australia last year. Perez' passion for permaculture is manifest in the energy he has dedicated to a whirlwind tour of Australia, including thirty public speaking appearances in six weeks, in addition to numerous off-the-cuff interviews and informal meetings with permaculture experts.

Nimbin is fortunate to have Robyn Francis here, to have made the 'Cuban connection'. Perez spent the first part of his tour in the Northern Rivers region, with Djanbung Gardens Permaculture Centre in Nimbin as his base. He took time off from speaking appearances at Southern Cross University, Byron Bay, and Nimbin, to be expertly interviewed by Nimbin Community Radio 2NimFM's Wolfgang and Matthias.

[These interviews can be downloaded or played as podcasts here]

Under Wolfgang and Matthias' keen questioning, the Cuban perspective on permaculture emerged, with some intriguing insights into its global relevance. In response to a question about the effects of the declining value of the US dollar, Perez had this to say: "I think we are paying the consequences of such an irrational pattern of consumption and thoroughly wasting our precious resources of energy in the name of a 'progress' that is only an expression of pieces of paper called 'money'. It was thoroughly unsustainable, and the planet cannot stand it. I think that we are starting to see the consequences. It is even sad to see how people will try to 'stick' with the power, and they will even do whatever they can to keep doing the same. It's not
good enough. We need something different for the planet."

Explaining the historical background of Cuba's position in the world, Perez was understandably proud of the achievements of the Cuban revolution (in 1959) in which Cuba broke free of the effects of the 'plantation economy' that had marked the Caribbean countries of the century before. An unfortunate spin off of this revolution was an economic blockade (or 'embargo') by the United States, that continues to this day. Even third party countries are subject to sanctions if they dare to trade with Cuba.

Being on the receiving end of a 'political Cold War' left Cuba uniquely placed when the rest of the developed world suddenly woke up to diminishing oil reserves and climate change a few years ago, explained Perez. "The last seventeen years [when the collapse of the Soviet Union deprived Cuba of its main source of petroleum] have been a huge lesson for Cuba … learning that it is possible to do things in a different way." Cuba adapted and reconfigured its economy around the concept of sustainability, so that now, although Cuba now has access to cheap Venezuelan oil, at US$29 a barrel, its consumption is less than half of what it had been in the 1980s. Cuba's approach to sustainability hinges upon adaptability, rather than the search for a 'magic fix' that we see in the developed capitalist world, which he says is "still stuck in the same irrational and unsustainable patterns of conventional production."

He remarked on the fact that if you do a 'Google' search of 'Cuba' with 'permaculture' virtually nothing shows up. This is because the word 'permaculture' in wealthy societies is often used as a label. But in Cuba the practice of permaculture is functional – not something to provide a 'marketing niche' he says. "It is many things to many people – the concept of the mandala garden is just one small aspect of it. To others it may be a way of organising energy, or a social system… there is no single pathway in sustainability or development as we understand it – which is the fulfilment of basic human needs." Universal access to land, food and education are the basic platform, he believes, which should be free of financial incentive or the profit motive – social expenses should be kept to the essentials.

"We need an improvement on how you go about satisfying your needs, but not the 'improvement' of consumption on fake needs surrogated by big companies in order to sell more products."

Robyn Francis will be travelling back to Cuba with Roberto Perez to look at ossibilities for developing permaculture there. One of the reasons Cuba is not suffering a 'brain drain' is that the response of Cuba to the 'political cold war' was to develop its own skill base of motivated people. Cuba is now seen as the preferred socio-cultural environment for committed permaculture experts to put their ideas into practice. It would seem that whereas Djanbung Gardens was a kind of Mecca to permaculture in Australia, Cuba is becoming an international destination for proponents of permaculture around the world.

Hence Dr. Roberto Perez has been able to promote permaculture within Cuba, and has well worked out ideas, including strategies for working around bureaucratisation, both within Cuba and with foreign NGOs. Essentially, he believes that a number of contributions of around US$5000 each of seed money for autonomous, locally run permaculture projects within Cuba "would go a long, long way."

Meanwhile AFP reports that multinational corporations like Nestles, have recognised a fact that the Cuban government was ridiculed for trying to point out several years ago. Increased use of crops such as wheat and corn to make biofuels is threatening global food supplies, the head of the world's biggest food group says. "If, as predicted, we look to use biofuels to satisfy 20% of the growing demand for oil products, there will be nothing left to eat," Nestle chairman and chief executive Peter Brabeck-Letmathe said.

Perhaps Dr. Roberto Perez is the right man for Australia at just the right time. And perhaps Australians, with their 'bran niu' government might heed the wakeup call from Cuba.

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