Droughts, rising sea levels, Cuban agriculture threatened

BATABANO, CUBA — Yordán Díaz Gonzales pulled weeds from his fields with a tractor until Cuba’s summer rainy season turned them to feet-deep red mud.

Now it takes five farmhands to tend to Díaz’s harvest. This squeezes Diaz’s profit margin and diminishes Cuba’s agricultural productivity, already burdened by a US embargo and an unproductive state-controlled economy.

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

“We’re producing a lot less because of the weather,” said Diaz, a 38-year-old father of two. “We are going to have to adapt to eat less because with each harvest, we harvest less.”

Diaz produced black beans, a staple of the Cuban diet and its most profitable crop. His production of black beans has dropped by 70%, which he attributes to climate change. A month after Hurricane Ian hit Cuba, Diaz was growing malanga root, a Cuban staple more resilient to climate change but less profitable than beans.

“We just live in the present,” Diaz said. “My future does not look very good.”

Diaz used to buy supplies a year or two before he needed them, but his income is so unpredictable now that he buys his supplies just before harvest.

Agriculture has long been a relative 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 plants and feed animals. However, by altering the way nature works in the Caribbean, climate change alters the raw elements of productivity.

When Ian hit Batabanó, about an hour south of Havana, it flooded the home of fisherman Orbelis Silega and destroyed his fridge and television. It was already struggling due to dwindling fish stocks.

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

Cubans have been leaving the island in greater numbers for decades.

U.S. authorities encountered nearly 221,000 Cubans at the U.S.-Mexico border in fiscal year 2022. That’s a 471 percent increase from the previous year, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. .

As with everything in Cuba, the exodus is driven by a complex mix of domestic politics and economics, and relations with the United States 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, or 9% of its total GDP, according to Dartmouth College.

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

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

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

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

Cuba was already in one of its worst economic, political and energy crises in decades, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic and Russia’s war with Ukraine, among other factors.

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

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

Around Batabanó, the coastal town hit by Ian, storm-soaked mattresses still hang from rickety wooden houses.

“You try to salvage what you can,” said Silega, the fisherman.

Life was already difficult for him largely due to climate change, he said. Rising global temperatures are ravaging coral reefs, key marine ecosystems.

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

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