Electrification of the Viñales valley: forward or backward step?Posted: January 11, 2012
Off-grid heritage valley may soon be plugged in to mains electricity
The farms in Cuba’s Viñales valley, in countryside that UNESCO designated a world heritage site in 1999, have lots of history but no mod cons. There is no electricity supply to the small wooden cabins in which the farm families live. Our guide told us that government has taken a decision to bring mains electricity to the valley, even though this would mean the loss of world heritage status.
I can see how beneficial electricity would be to families who lack even solar panels, which appear scarce, although a factory in the nearby city of Pinar del Rio manufactures them. In kitchens like the one pictured, lacking mains services, household work is hard and continuous.
Yet I can’t help feeling that there are other solutions, short of festooning the valley with power lines. Providing solar panels for every family would be a good start.
Also, what about helping the farm families to develop new sources of income, even enabling them to offer working holidays to foreigners keen to learn more about low-input organic mixed farming in the tropics? This cannot happen without government approval because foreigners are allowed to stay in private homes only if the premises are registered, licensed and taxed.
We were on a country walk with our guide, looking at tobacco and other crops. We were not the only group: the trails around the town of Viñales are busy with parties of foreigners following each other. We were told that more than 350 households in the town, where there is mains electricity, rent rooms to foreign tourists, and that the tourism industry is the economic mainstay. We saw houses being repaired and extensions under construction – many people in Viñales can afford to buy building materials, thanks to the considerable income from tourism.
There is a big backlog of repairs because over 6,000 buildings in and around Viñales were damaged by hurricanes in 2008. They were, in effect, uninsured losses because Cuba does not have a commercial home and contents insurance industry, and even if it did, most Cubans would not be able to afford cover. Imagine the premiums in this hurricane zone!
Farm with solar panels
Juan Alonso’s farm in the hilly Ramón Gordo locality, near Consolación del Sur in Pinar del Rio province, also took a battering in the 2008 hurricanes. The 40-hectare farm has needed nursing since then, because of the efforts required to restore soil, vegetation and buildings.
The Alonso family, soon to be seven people including a new baby, grows maize, beans, tubers and fruits of many kinds, and keeps hens and pigs, but the soil is thin and only half to two-thirds of the farm is in production at any one time, because of the need to allow damaged and tired soils to recover.
Juan is 73, and has lived on the farm all his life. His father came to the holding in 1920, so the family has stayed in the same place since long before the 1959 Revolution. The farmstead has two solar panels, provided in a pilot programme before 2006, when I last saw them. The panels have survived hurricanes because when a storm approaches they are taken down and stored in a special shelter.
Two oxen supply the pulling power. One of their tasks is to pull a sledge carrying water barrels filled from the small reservoir below the farmstead. The nearby slopes are in recovery. Tall grasses, planted along terraces, form protective barriers, sheltering soil from wind and rain.
The solar electricity enables the family to have lights, a TV and other small appliances. Kerosene fuels the refrigerator. The main house is simply made of planks on a timber frame, and is carefully maintained inside and out.
The farm makes one rethink the notion of ‘progress’. We have come to expect continuous advances in efficiency and productivity, but sustainable farming is more of a cyclical than a linear process.
If and when electricity does come to the farms in the Viñales valley, I cannot imagine that farm mechanisation will be far behind, and we will see tractors replacing oxen. For individual farm families, electrification and mechanisation would ease their heavy workloads. Yet looking at the bigger picture of diminishing world resources, would this really be the best way forward? Power generation in Cuba depends heavily on oil. It is subsidised oil from Venezuela that underpins Cuba’s fragile economy.*
A more sustainable option might be to develop micro-generation projects similar to that on the Alonsos’ farm, so that farmers in an electrified Viñales valley would never have to depend on a permanent flow of oil from Venezuela.
* See ‘The Electric Power Sector in Cuba: Potential Ways to Increase Efficiency and Sustainability’, by Juan A B Belt, http://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/PNADO407.pdf, accessed January 10th 2012. The report is undated but appears to have been written in 2009 or 2010.