Drought, rising seas put Cuban agriculture under threat

By MEGAN JANETSKY

November 12, 2022 GMT

BATABANO, Cuba (AP) – Yordán Díaz Gonzales whips grass from his fields with a tractor until Cuba’s summer rains turn it into deep red mud.

Now it takes five farmers to take care of Díaz’s crop. It shrinks Diaz’s profit margins and lowers the productivity of Cuban agriculture, already burdened by the US embargo and the country’s uncontrolled economy.

Like the rest of the Caribbean, Cuba is suffering from long droughts, warmer water, more intense storms, and higher sea levels due to climate change. The rainy season has become an obstacle, the longer it gets the wetter it gets.

“We produce more because of the weather,” said Diaz, a 38-year-old father of two. “We have to adapt to eating less because every crop, we harvest less.”

Diaz used to produce black beans, a staple of the Cuban diet and the most profitable crop. His black bean production has dropped by 70%, which he attributes to climate change. A month after Hurricane Ian hit Cuba, Diaz cultivated malanga roots, a Cuban staple that is more resistant to climate change, but less profitable than beans.

“We’re just living in the present,” Diaz said. “My future doesn’t look very good.”

Normally Diaz buys supplies a year or two before he needs them but his earnings are unpredictable now that he buys his supplies right before harvest.

Agriculture has long been a bright spot in Cuba’s struggling economy. The socialist government has had a relatively liberal hand with food producers, allowing them to pursue their economic interests more openly than others in Cuba.

Cuba has plenty of sun, water and soil, the basic ingredients needed to grow crops and feed animals. By changing the way nature functions in the Caribbean, however, climate change is tinkering with the standard elements of productivity.

When Ian hit Batabanó, about an hour south of Havana, it flooded the home of fisherman Orbelis Silega and destroyed his refrigerator and TV. He has been struggling because of dwindling fish stocks.

“The house is half full of water,” said Silega, 54. “Everything is under water.”

Cubans are leaving the island in the highest numbers in decades.

American authorities found nearly 221,000 Cubans at the US-Mexico border in fiscal year 2022. That’s a 471% increase from the year before, according to US Customs and Border Protection.

As with everything in Cuba, the outflow is driven by a complex mix of domestic political and economic management, and relations with the US and other countries.

Part of what’s driving the flow is climate change, which cost Cuba $65.85 billion in gross domestic product between 1990 and 2014 alone, 9% of its total GDP, according to Dartmouth College.

“The Caribbean economy, tourism, agriculture and fisheries, are at the forefront” of climate change, said Donovan Campbell, a climate change expert at the University of Jamaica in the West Indies.

The $2 to $3 that farmer Romelio Acosta earns for 10 hours of work is not enough to cover his expenses.

“Now there is no money and no food,” said Acosta, 77. “Everything is more expensive than people’s salaries can pay.”

A Category 3 hurricane, Ian devastated western Cuba in late September, killing three people, destroying 14,000 homes, damaging the power grid and destroying Cuba’s most valuable tobacco plantations.

Cuba has been in one of the worst economic, political and energy crises in decades, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic and the war between Russia and Ukraine, among other factors.

Cuba had said that it would get almost a quarter of its energy from renewable sources by 2030. But so far the country gets a little more than 5% of its energy from renewables and still depends on oil from its allies Venezuela and Russia.

The US trade embargo “prevents us from accessing resources that we may have that will allow us to recover from this incident as quickly as possible,” said Adianez Taboada, Cuba’s vice minister of Science, Technology and the Environment.

Around Batabanó, the coastal town that was hit by Ian, mattresses that were soaked by the storm are still hanging from the wooden houses that are shaking.

“You try to save what you can,” said Silega, a fisherman.

Life has been difficult for him due to many climate changes, he said. Rising global temperatures are damaging coral reefs, a key marine ecosystem.

“This city without fish is nothing,” said Silega. “The best fish, the ones that still show up, you have to go further to find them.”

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