Huanglongbing hammers Cuban economy

Huanglongbing is an incurable and fatal disease of citrus trees and their fruit, which is sweeping through the world’s plantations of oranges, tangerines, grapefruit, limes, lemons and other citrus varieties.

Before travelling to Cuba, I knew nothing of Huanglongbing, either under that name or the alternatives of Yellow Dragon or Citrus Greening Disease. I was part of a group visiting the headquarters of ANAP, the Asociación Nacional de Agricultores Pequenos or National Association of Small Farmers, in the Vedado district of Havana, when I first heard about this plague.

The UK fair trade organisation Traidcraft buys citrus juices from Cuba in the knowledge that farmers’ co-operatives benefit from the premiums paid. This extra cash had been used to good effect when I visited back in 2006. Co-operatives had invested in irrigation, workshops, spare parts for Soviet-era machinery, and better homes for members.

Machinery from the former Soviet Union is still in everyday use in Cuba.

It was a different story in 2011.  Production of citrus juice had plummeted, because of Huanglongbing, and in consequence premium income has diminished too, and the co-ops are unable to fund big improvements. The Cuban economy suffers.

Huanglongbing is a bacterial disease caused by Candidatus Liberibacter and spread by jumping plant lice, Psyllidae of the type Diaphorina citri. There is no effective, reliable treatment. The disease has spread through citrus-growing regions in Asia, except for Japan, and is common in South Africa, Brazil, Mexico, Florida and Cuba.

One day I saw that our guide had a newspaper, so I asked if I could read it after him. It was the Cinco de Septiembre (Fifth of September), the state weekly for the province of Cienfuegos, dated November 25th 2011. It contained an article about Huanglongbing. I read that a local state firm, Citricos Arimao, received 33,000 tonnes of citrus fruits in 2001-02. In 2011, the total failed to reach 5,000 tonnes, because of Huanglongbing. That’s a fall of 85%.

Dead plantations were being grubbed out and new trees were being planted, but the area of new trees was just 72.26 hectares. Citricos Arimao plans to have fruit from 200 hectares of new, healthy trees by 2018, but expects harvests to be modest, less than 3,000 tonnes in 2016. The hope is that 24,000 tonnes will be reached in the early 2020s.

This replanting in Cienfuegos is in the hands of the UBPC Aviles. UBPC stands for Unidad Básica de Producción Cooperativa, a state-owned but worker-managed form of organisation. UBPC Aviles is planting varieties of oranges, grapefruit, limes and lemons in tree nurseries as far as possible from the sick plantations.

Our group visited two co-operatives affiliated to ANAP where, in the past, premiums earned from the Fairtrade label have helped the farmer members and their families. Both co-ops are near Ciego de Avila in central Cuba.  One is a CPA (cooperativa de producción agropecuaria, a crop and livestock co-op) and the other is a CCS (cooperativa de créditos y servicios, a credit and services co-op). In CPAs the co-op itself owns the land. In a CCS,  the individual farmers own their land and co-operate to obtain finance, machinery sharing, administration and other services. Both the co-ops were named after the 19th century Cuban hero José Marti.

Taking a break at the CPA co-op José Marti near Ciego de Avila. The co-op has been badly hit by Huanglongbing citrus disease.

The CPA José Marti at Ceballos, north of Ciego de Avila, has suffered from Huanglongbing. The Fairtrade premiums no longer roll in, because the they were related to citrus juices from the now-depleted orchards. Since 2008, the energies of the co-op’s 99 members have been needed to change the farming system away from reliance on citrus to a more diverse pattern of guava, mango, pineapple and papaya, and a greater emphasis on produce to feed the members themselves, such as beans, tubers, goats and pigs. The 99, who work 469 hectares (1,159 acres) between them, have had to sell their output at fixed priced to the state, but in future will be able to market 20% directly, a radical step after decades of centralised planning. This may help them achieve better prices.

The income decline resulting from Huanglongbing, and the Cuban state’s own financial hardship, means that the co-op is still without a reservoir. In 2006, the water table was on average about 30 metres below the surface, and was falling. In 2011, the water table was between 20 and 50 metres under the surface, a little lower on average than five years earlier, but saved from a faster decline by strong rains, especially in the second half of 2011. Sixty hectares benefit from irrigation systems purchased when premium income was far higher than now.

While hoping to resurrect the citrus plantations, the CPA’s future plans are not confined to oranges and grapefruit. Members want to add the Fairtrade designation to their mango and guava, a project requiring the full support of ANAP because of the high costs of certification.

Huanglongbing is a severe blow to CPA José Marti. It brought to an end the sense of progress that was alive in 2006, when I visited and saw the plant nursery, office, and machinery repair shop that had been constructed with the aid of Fairtrade premiums. The last significant project financed with the help of premium income was in 2006.

The disease has forced the co-op members to plant new crops, and consequently to experience a period of low income while those crops become established. The farmers in this co-op hope to establish new citrus orchards, but well aware of the absence of proven treatment for stricken trees, they will continue to diversify by planting pineapple, papaya, guava and mango.

The nearby CCS José Marti, larger than the CPA with over 400 members owning in excess of 3,000 hectares, has also suffered badly from Huanglongbing. The CCS produces less than one-fifth of the pre-2008 quantity of citrus, 2,000 tonnes compared with over 10,000 tonnes. Fairtrade premium income has slumped as a result. The last major central project, a repair workshop for machinery, was complete when I saw it previously in 2006.

The farmer members are busy diversifying. The land in production, about 70% of the total, produces 23,000 tonnes of crops annually, a mix of fruit, tubers, legumes and leafy vegetables. Beans, tomatoes, maize, sweet potatoes, avocados, mangoes and tobacco all feature.

Farmers are reluctant to replant citrus trees on the same ground, fearing the return of the disease. At present the only Fairtrade premium received at this CCS is for 500 tonnes of mango, but members are hoping that their guava and pineapple crops will soon be certified too. They are also turning to small-scale food processing to boost their incomes: there are 17 such ventures within the co-op. We visited one, an on-farm enterprise making guava paste, packed in blocks like chocolate. The guava paste factory provides work for six people, who produce 2,000 packets a day for the tourism industry and for local consumption. The next phase of development will include additional flavours, such as guava-with-mango.

Adding value on the farm: guava paste plant near Ceballos in central Cuba.

Huanglongbing is not the only setback faced by the co-ops. The weather has also been causing problems: the dry season tends to last longer, and when the rains come they are heavier and more damaging.

Irrigating tomato seedlings on Nardo Brito's farm, CCS José Marti. Tomatoes are a new crop after the orange trees fell victim to Huanglongbing, and were grubbed out.

CCS member Gaspar ‘Nardo’ Brito and his wife, daughter and son-in-law have had to drastically change their farming activities and priorities since 2006, mainly because of Huanglongbing but also because of more prolonged droughts. Nardo, who was a founder member of the co-op in 1961 and who at 86 still directs operations, used to grow oranges on half of his skilfully farmed two hectares at Ceballos. Then came Huanglongbing. The orange trees have been grubbed out, and now Nardo, his family and 12 staff grow rose varieties from Ecuador and Bulgaria, tomatoes, avocados, and other high-value crops.  The crops are irrigated with the help of  water stored during the rains in tanks holding 111,000 litres.

Gaspar 'Nardo' Brito and his wife Georgina: expert, hard-working and resilient farmers.

In Cuban terms the farm staff are well-paid, working six hours a day for a total of 27 pesos a day in 2010-11, so for 24 days worked in a typical month they receive almost 650 pesos or 27 cuc, just over £18. If the flower crop received a Fairtrade premium, co-op members like Nardo would be even better placed to develop their farming enterprises, but I was told that at present there are no Fairtrade flowers from Cuba.

Can roses come to the rescue after the plague of Huanglongbing? Nardo Brito certainly hopes so.

Fairtrade certification itself is no small hurdle. Apart from the agricultural and social welfare standards that must be met, the certification process is a big cost. ANAP currently pays €40,000 a year to certify 25 co-ops as Fairtrade producers. This is about 10% of the annual premium income. Administration uses up €20,000, and the remainder, some €340,000, is distributed to the co-ops,  an average of  €13,600 per co-op. This does not amount to very much per member.

The yield damage wrought by Huanglongbing curtails the impact of Fairtrade premiums in Cuba. The Fairtrade label, applying to some of the products produced by eight CPA co-ops and 17 CCS co-ops out of a combined total of over 1,000 co-ops across Cuba, needs to apply to more products if premium income is to revive.

Apart from citrus, the Fairtrade label applied in 2011 to small quantities of Cuban mango, guava and pineapple juice, and a little sugar and honey. ANAP is keen to increase the premium income on these products. The costs of certification are a barrier, because each separate crop or livestock product has to be individually certified. ANAP is negotiating with FLO-CERT, the certification body for Fairtrade products, for approval to act as a co-operative in its own right, rather than as a representative organisation. If successful, this change should make certification simpler in Cuba, but perhaps with the risk of reducing non-partisan oversight of standards on the ground.

Around 350,000 farmers are affiliated to ANAP. They are the buffer between Cuba and starvation. Their holdings average 8 to 13 hectares and account for 24% of all farmland, on which they produce almost 60% of the food originating within the country, according to Cuba commentator Marc Franc, writing on the website www.internalreform.blogspot.com (‘Land leases extended plus inheritance rights’, December 22nd 2011).

Cuba is far from self-sufficient in food, importing between 60% and 70% of the total consumed, depending on the quality and quantity of home harvests. Were it not for the small farmers, Cubans would often be very hungry. The large state-owned farms, which were supposed to be the key to agricultural prosperity after the Revolution, have not lived up to expectations, and huge tracts of land are uncultivated.

Each private farmer is allowed to own and bequeath (but not sell) up to 67 hectares (165 acres). In 2008 the government began to offer 10-year leases of uncultivated state land, and from January 2012 farmers who take on state land can apply to take on up to 67 additional hectares, on 25-year leases. They will be able to improve and put buildings on the leased land.

Despite the considerable problem of Huanglongbing for the important citrus industry, these land reforms brighten the outlook for domestic food production. Fairtrade certification for a greater range of products, from a larger number of co-ops, could also contribute to the revival of Cuban agriculture.

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