Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Cuban scientist wins U.S.-based environmental prize

Cuban scientist wins U.S.-based environmental prize
Jeff Franks
Mon Apr 19, 2010 3:28pm EDT

HAVANA (Reuters) - 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 grassroots environmentalism.

Green Business | Cuba

Humberto Rios, 46, was announced as a prize winner on Monday 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 longtime ideological foe.
But Cuban officials eventually embraced it and he hopes it contributes
to improving U.S.-Cuba relations.

"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.

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 favor 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

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.

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 cooperatives who, together,
produce 70 percent 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. (Editing by Cynthia Osterman)


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