with an into by Mitchel Cohen

With the indiscriminate spraying of toxic insecticides on the people of NY and the natural environment, this article — originally written in 1991 and updated in 1995 — becomes even more useful. In it, Richard Levins discusses, among other things, the use of ants and natural predators as a means to replace pesticides, based on experimental farms he and others established in Cuba throughout the 1980s. The details are fascinating, and my introduction locates this enterprise in its political context by examining what we mean by “natural”, and why the “Natural” is always a socio-political construct.

Richard Levins died on January 19, 2016.

He was the pre-eminent dialectical scientist, who taught the rest of our ecology and anti-imperialist movements. If you want to read what a dialectical inquiry looks like in practice, read The Dialectical Biologist by Levins and Lewontin. Dick Levins was a genius, a founder of Science for the People, and very supportive of the NY Marxist School and all of us younger activists (like me! ha!) over many years ….. In fact, the very first pamphlet the Red Balloon Collective published, on Agriculture in Cuba (below), was written by Levins — he’d originally written in the late 1980s a piece on Rosa Luxemburg and political struggles in the U.S. and Cuba, and I was so impressed with his footnotes — which were all about his real life experiences using ants in Cuba to protect crops from other insects — that I asked him if I could turn his footnotes into an essay and discard the rest! He said YES, we went back and forth painlessly a few times, and voila, a great pamphlet was born. Already missing Dick Levins!

An earlier version of this article appeared in Capitalism, Nature and Socialism. Mitchel, with Levin’s permission, edited and reworked it for Red Balloon Magazine (1992), and Richard Levins updated it for printing as a separate pamphlet in 1995. If you’d like a printed copy of that pamphlet, drop Mitchel a line at


Cyclones, Volcanoes, Crop Failures & Other “Natural” Disasters

By Mitchel Cohen

The cyclone that swept away more than 200,000 lives in Bangladesh in the early 1990s is hardly of consequence to most Americans, partly because it is seen as a “natural” tragedy over which we have no power. Says the left: “Nuthin’ we can do about it. Let’s talk about the war.”

“Thinking about ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ disasters gets complicated,” editorializes The Nation (June 3, 1991), “when there are so many tragedies to digest at the same time — not just Bangladesh and Kurdistan but also famine in Ethiopia and Sudan, earthquakes in Soviet Georgia and Costa Rica, cholera in Peru. Some no doubt still find refuge, like Pangloss when he contemplated the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, in the thought that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. Among humanitarian agencies, the phrase of the moment is donor fatigue: Americans, their consciences jarred and then numbed by bad news, have largely reacted by flipping the channel.

“Relief workers, politicians and editorialists will all agree that the best response to the cyclone in Bangladesh is not cure but prevention. That’s exactly the point. Those who died on the drowned islands and sandbars could have been saved by human decisions as conscious and controllable as those that unleashed the B 52s on Iraq or the Republican Guard on the Kurds.

“This is not a call to rehabilitate King Canute, who sat on the beach and ordered the waters to retreat; stilling the winds and waves remains beyond the reach of human science. But the roots of Bangladesh’s serial disasters are not hard to find. The floods that afflict the Ganges delta year after year are the direct result of the deforestation of the Indian Himalayas; topsoil is swept into the great river and causes it to burst its banks after the monsoon rains. The cyclone driven waves that roll in from the ocean can be blocked by coastal barriers. Or people can be protected by taking refuge in concrete shelters. Bangladesh has 300 of these shelters; almost every person who found one survived. But it needs 5,000.

“Whenever disaster strikes, the humanitarian relief agencies issue those familiar appeals that tell small donors what their dollars will buy. Help to Bangladesh’s food victims takes the form of plastic sheeting and water purification tablets, rice and molasses and intravenous drips. CARE says that $14 will purchase a ‘survival pack’ to support a family of four for five days.

“Here are some other ways of thinking about what larger donors might do with their money:

“An ATACM long range artillery rocket costs $55,000; $50,000 buys a concrete cyclone shelter.

“A GBU 15 precision guided bomb costs $584,000; $500,000 buys ten cyclone shelters.

“A C 17 military cargo aircraft costs $373 million; $235 million buys all the shelters Bangladesh needs.

“$1.4 billion is the total that Bangladesh says it needs to mop up after this cyclone — while doing nothing to stop the next one, which will come as surely as the sunrise.

“These figures should not be a cause for fatigue but a spur to start saving lives.”

Twenty years ago, China (which we then called “Red China”) was able to detect a forthcoming earthquake not through elaborate technological devices but by closely observing the changed behavior of animals for several days before the quake; millions of lives were saved by preparation and quick communication.

The Chinese observation of animals to detect earthquakes is but one of many ways people devise all the time to empower themselves over the conditions that affect their lives. We in the U.S., on the other hand, are rapidly losing knowledge not only concerning “what to do” about particular problems, but whole ways of knowing, and we cede more and more authority for imagining life to a relatively few “representatives” trained in narrow technological approaches, at which they are expert. And it all seems so … well … natural.

But the more we learn about the forms of knowledge people around the world have used in living their lives, often under horribly adverse conditions, the more unnatural becomes our own slavish cringing in the U.S. before this system’s profit seeking high tech magic bullet MTV approach to everything, especially nature — which is only fitting since capitalism promotes itself as a “natural” — in fact, the only natural — economic system. (Hey, and how about that “organic” composition of capital?!)

Framed in that way, that which keeps us from imagining differently — say, different ways of detecting earthquakes, or non invasive pest control methods in growing food, or natural childbirths at home with the aid of midwives instead of the false sterility of fluorescent stirrupped on-your-back-hospitals — are not only scientific, but highly charged (in both senses of that term) political problems. The storms that devastated the Caribbean (1994) were integrally related to the decimation of the Brazilian rainforest and the new wind and moisture patterns the clearcutting caused — a political battle. The tuberculosis epidemic in New York City — a disease of poverty — is a direct result of the Koch administration’s gutting of preventive care in the 1980s — a political decision. As we undertake to free our minds from the dead weight of all the generations weighing like a nightmare on the brains of the living, we can begin to imagine — and act to achieve — wholly different relationship to nature, to work, to each other, to our own bodies. As it turns out, today’s seemingly “natural” relationships not only have a cultural and scientific dimension to them but a political one as well.

But that remains conveniently hidden when we believe these forces to be “natural” and thus beyond our control. From the moment we come splashing into our very own blue or pink nuclear families — no! even before, in utero: the sounds the fetus senses, the rhythms, the food, the immune system’s antibodies; in that way, even the womb has a view — our daily lives, our very ways of framing the questions are drenched in politics, but we don’t see it as such. Instead, to account for the ways people interrelate and for the degrading and alienating conditions of daily life, we are inculcated with the false (and from the system’s vantage point, ideally self serving) idea that man [sic] is blessed with an inherently greedy, jealous, gender coded and selfish human nature; and we’re also taught to view attempts to counter greed, jealousy, sexual conditioning and selfishness as somehow hopelessly idealistic and na?e (unless we’re in a charitable mood, and we find them quaintly anachronistic, nostalgic and romantic — either way, disempowering) and therefore not worthy of our efforts … and certainly not political!

But, contrary to most of the Official Left’s tedious annual exhortations to subsidize Washington bound bus companies, revolutionary politics has little to do with the organized whining and begging that passes for protest against the slimy gyrations of sad eyed colonels in the lowlands of congress. Politics is about countering the ways we reproduce the dominant ways of seeing in our daily lives, the ways we relate, the metaphors through which we perceive the world, and the strategies we devise to fight back.

If oppression, exploitation, domination and greed are indeed natural, as most of us are taught, then so must be our helplessness before them. Thus, we become doubly victimized — first by the conditions we’re born into, which are maintained by the society around us, and second by their affect on our minds, shackling us to the dominant modes of conceptualizing and channeling our own potential, and preventing us from even conceiving of alternatives outside of the ruling class’ “ideological hegemony,” as they say in the old country — even during those heady moments when, with consciousness raised, we march to the barricades, fists flailing, hearts pounding, a song on our lips!

Recent anarchist and green pundits, too, are in danger of failing to imagine what hoops people are forced to jump through, and what happens to them when they refuse to jump. Especially when it comes to Cuba. Not only to imagine what could have been (and perhaps what could still be), in which case criticisms of various Cuban governmental policies, the hierarchy and the like would be very much apropos, but of what Cuba actually is: contested space where contradictory efforts and policies wash over it, back and forth, waves coming in and receding with the vast ocean surrounding it, a little island alone in a sea of capitalist sharks. It is no coincidence that it is in Cuba (as it was in Nicaragua when the Sandinista revolution was in full bloom), that most highly politicized of countries, that important ecological dreams are being born: its new solar energy manufacturing industry promises to become the cutting edge, especially for countries now dependent on expensive foreign oil, and explorations into new non intrusive agricultural techniques, producing quality foods at higher yields per acre without using pesticides, lift high the green vision of a different, non destructive relationship to nature, and are publicly funded and promoted. Should Cuba’s experiments in natural agriculture blossom, it will pose a threat to U.S. agribusiness, fertilizer, petroleum and other related industrial domination, for it imagines the possibility of countries, now caught up in the vicious cycle of producing cash crops for export while their own people go hungry, creating a way out of the IMF/World Bank “developmental” trap — the revolutionary implications of what is best in a green vision of an ecological world.

Many leftists, though, have bought into the U.S. government’s demonization of Cuba. The Greens’ Left Green Notes, for one, has printed vitriolic condemnations of Cuba for building a nuclear power plant that go far beyond any legitimate critique, while failing to offer a realistic alternative energy approach — proposals that would be welcomed by most Cuban agencies, some quite independent from the national government, who are eager for skilled international input. Fortunately, revolutionary scientists like Richard Levins and others have been working steadily in Cuba to put into effect just such a vision, and the following essay sketches some of that work. Anarchists, marxists, socialist feminists and greens (O my!) need to move beyond the academic critiques we’re so good at from afar and offer coherent alternatives, working with others to put them into practice, by helping to form communities of resistance and nurturance that alone can give rise to and sustain the required struggles over long periods of time. Had we been able to work more closely with revolutionaries in India and prevented the deforestation of the Himalayas, with indigenous people in the Amazon and saved the rainforest, the regular flooding of the Ganges river and the storms that tear through the Caribbean with such devastation — and all the consequent loss of life — could have been avoided. Had we even been able to construct cyclone shelters in Bangladesh, or prevented the U.S. bombardment of Iraq — all of which involve a political dimension that too many ecology minded people shun — hundreds of thousands of lives would have been saved, and horrible “natural” catastrophes averted. When we fail to take direct action to build up the kind of world we can only occasionally imagine, we allow the ruling class, and particularly Western science, to purse its profits with our lips, and spin its final solutions out of our golden desires.

As Richard Levins writes in the following essay, solidarity with the Cuban revolution does not mean passive endorsement of all present conditions and practices in Cuba, but an active, critical and supportive engagement with (and through) the revolutionary process. Through that engagement, we’ll find suprising new ways of framing the questions that will not only help the Cuban people but generate conditions that enable us to liberate ourselves! Radical ecologists, greens, must support and involve ourselves in the experimental agriculture and alternative energy projects going on in Cuba, and keep U.S. imperialism out of there, for it is in such communities that our hopes for a new relationship to nature and an ecological future are being worked out and made to yield fruitful harvests.

– Mitchel Cohen, 1995

The Struggle for Ecological Agriculture in Cuba

By Richard Levins

Richard Levins, who died last week, was a professor of Biology at Harvard University who continued to work extensively in Cuba and who, with Richard Lewontin, is the author of The Dialectical Biologist (Harvard University Press, 1985).

A quarter of a century after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, pesticides remain a serious hazard to our health, agricultural production and the environment in general. In some parts of the world, pesticide use is increasing and still regarded as an index of progress, while in a few places the expansion of chemical pest control has been stopped or even reversed.

I have followed and participated in the struggle for an ecological agriculture in Cuba since 1964. It is a struggle: science is not the smooth illumination of darkness by light, or a natural process of the unfolding of knowledge. It involves conflicts over priorities, uncertainties about what is necessary or possible, disagreements among different outlooks — in a word, politics.

For a society like Cuba’s, poor but bent on eradicating poverty, there exists an urgency to increase production, sometimes in just a matter of months. Under such circumstances, and especially in the face of uncertainty that accompanies agricultural production, neither farmers nor planners can afford the risks — mass starvation, disease, and dislocation — of switching to new technologies. Nor do they have the resources or the time to conduct the research necessary to develop alternative, ecologically sound production methods.

Additionally, throughout the Third World there is ignorance of the dangers of a chemicalized agriculture and of the existence of alternatives. But ignorance is not the passive absence of knowledge. It is structured into a belief system with areas of information, misinformation, and lack of information that allow people to be dazzled by the promises of progress and blind to its seamy side. In the Third World, this ignorance is organized around the ideology of “developmentalism.” [See “The Debt Crisis: Africa and the New Enclosures,” by Silvia Federici, also in the Winter/Spring 1992 issue of Red Balloon Magazine].

Consequently, in many areas of the world there are no alternative networks able to compete with the chemical industry’s sales efforts. And even planners and administrators with a strong commitment to serving the people can be so preoccupied with production and costs that they leave themselves vulnerable to the sales efforts of the chemical industry that promise quick fixes to long term problems. These forces are pushing their poisons throughout the world; Cuba is one of the few countries in which it may be possible to break that chain in the immediate future, if circumstances (and the U.S.) allow it.

What A Difference A Revolution Makes: Formation Of The Cuban Ecology Movement

The first major factor in the shift toward ecological agriculture in Cuba was the growth, maturity and self confidence of an articulate community of ecologists enjoying public support. Popular interest in ecology was growing. The press carried articles on biological pest management, Jorge Ramon’s wildlife program appeared on television for many years, and amateur groups like the Speleological Society and associations of amateur botanists were part of a national commitment to science and development growing out of the post revolutionary enthusiasm for the nation’s own plants and animals, which seems to accompany the winning of national independence in all countries.

As in most colonial and post colonial societies, Cuban biology was dominated by systematic biology (the description and classification of plants and animals), medicine, (1) and agriculture.(2) In 1959, the revolution brought a strong commitment to science but scarce means for acting on that commitment. Cuba’s small group of systematic zoologists, botanists, and biogeographers (3) felt overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task of describing the biota of Cuba and its geographic distribution before new economic development would alter the habitats beyond recognition. Although there was interest in ecology and evolutionary biology, there was a strong sense that description must precede experimentation. Instructors did not feel capable of teaching in these areas and the library lacked books and journals.(4)

The International Biological Program was a major turning point for Cuban ecology. UNESCO sponsored intensive long term biome studies around the world through the “Man and the Biosphere” projects.(5) Cuba’s contribution was a study of the montane rainforest in the Sierra del Rosario.(6) Collaboration with the Polish and Czech academies of science and individuals from other countries created an international environment within which Cuban botanists and a few zoologists emerged as ecologists. The rainforest project paralleled a reforestation program which included monoculture and clear cutting. As a result, the Institute of Botany came into conflict with the foresters around the ecological irrationality of the scheme, its first foray into ecological policy questions.

At the site of the old Agricultural Experiment Station, the National Institute for Fundamental Research in Tropical Agriculture (INIFAT) was organized. In the new institute, research projects were chosen for both their practical importance and their value in training biologists.(7) Other ecology minded researchers promoted biological control in the Instituto Nacional de Sanidad Vegetal and laboratories of the citrus subministry. In 1980, at the first national ecology meeting, it became clear that ecological interests were emerging in biology, plant protection, fisheries, the tourist industry, and even the food industry.(8)

During the meetings, erosion and deforestation were identified as the major ecological problems, but pollution was expected to increase in importance.(9) In 1987, the Institutes of Botany and Zoology merged to form the Institute of Ecology and Systematics of the Cuban Academy of Sciences, and the first international symposium on these topics was held in Havana in 1988. Ecology was now a respected and legitimate branch of biology with public visibility.

There is now a growing ecological movement in Cuba. But it is not an ecological movement in the sense of those in Europe or North America. It is not a distinct political movement such as the Greens, nor is it an opposition movement confronting a resistant government and corporations; nor is it yet an “official” movement of the sort set up by governments to say yes. Cuban ecology activists are political, committed revolutionaries who see their struggles for ecologically sound policies as part of the duty of communists in building a new society with its own relation to nature.(10)

In their view, ignorance, developmentalism and economic urgency are their main adversaries. But unlike the situation in the United States where vested interests prevent alternative “development” because it threatens profits, the problem in Cuba is not a systematic drive towards chemicalizing agriculture for profit, nor lack of channels for expression, but resistance from developmental ideas which still hold sway. In one stunning recent victory for ecologists, the planning board of Havana has begun to set aside land for restoring mangroves — a hotly contested proposal over the years because of the needs of other sectors. (The government had encouraged “development” along the coast in order to promote tourism and obtain desperately needed foreign exchange, which could have ruined the offshore cays. Recently, however, one section of the stone causeways built to an offshore cay for tourism development was torn up and replaced with a bridge span after ecologists argued that it would harm the mangroves by interfering with the circulation of water.) Similarly, where substandard housing is being demolished in areas of old Havana, they are being replaced by parks, and new housing will be built elsewhere. In the absence of greed as a major interest to be overcome, discussions are not confrontational in the same way as they are in the U.S., and the honest clash of ideas towards common goals replaces the purchased loyalty of privatized industry’s public relations firms and grant agency scientists.

Ants vs. Pesticides: Demonstrating the Effectiveness Of Ecological Pest Management

Higher oil prices and the collapse of its trading partners in eastern Europe have forced the Cuban government to promote energy conservation measures that will cut state energy expenditures by half and private use by 33 percent, as well as alternatives to reliance on foreign non renewable energy sources. The government has already imported hundreds of thousands of bicycles from China to replace reliance on costly automobiles, and farmers have also recently introduced oxen to replace some tractors. In addition to saving on fuel, oxen are better for the soil and their use encourages integrated field crop and pasture. Most daily papers have gone to weekly schedules to conserve paper and energy, and the precarious economic circumstances have even forced some of them to suspend publication. All enterprises have been cutting back on staff, especially on administration. But unlike in the U.S., people left without work are given alternative jobs, retrained at government expense, or receive unemployment insurance at 70 percent of previous wage. And a new industry centered around the manufacture of solar energy devices, which are required on all new construction in Cuba, holds some promise for the future.

The need to economize on foreign exchange, combined with the growing sophistication of the ecological community, has also been a major incentive for the government to seek non chemical pest management strategies. Although natural pest deterrence and control was already being used in a number of areas, ecologists needed dramatic successes to convince the Cuban government to put a major effort into ecological pest management. The first successes came with ants; many of them proved to be voracious predators of agriculture pests. The species Pheidole megacephala is especially versatile in reducing the costs of pest management of a number of crops.

One example: The beetle Cylas formicarius causes significant damage by boring into sweet potatoes while they are forming. Pheidole can form colonies around the sweet potato itself; if the ants get there first they keep the beetles away.

But since Pheidole does not tolerate direct sunlight very well, nests have to be planted in the field after the vines have grown for about 45 days and produced sufficient shade. So the ants are cultivated in pieces of banana stalk and set out into the field at the rate of nine nests per hectare. Even with the labor of propagating and caring for the ants this system of biological pest management cut in half the direct costs of protection. And in bananas, the ants provided long lasting protection compared to chemical methods, which had to be repeated every few weeks.

As the benevolent role of ants became widely known, the recognition of the possibilities of biological methods increased. Cuba now has 14 centers for ant production, probably the only place in the world where ants are propagated for pest management.

The ant project began through a convergence of two independent pathways. I had been agitating for the use of ants because my own studies in the theory of ecosystems convinced me that generalized predators such as ants could play an important role as a first line of defense against pests.(11)

Meanwhile, people at INIFAT were looking for methods of retarding the almost inevitable decline of banana production in old plantations. Across the road from one of INIFAT’s experimental stations was a private farm which had been able to sustain high yields for some 20 years. The farmer did not know why he had this success except that he never had allowed entomologists onto his property with sprayers. A brief investigation revealed the presence of Tetramorium ant nests at the base of each banana plant, protecting them from insect larvae of many kinds, an observation later quantified by Juan Torres working in Puerto Rico.

The success with ants has made it clear that ecological criticism of pesticides was more than a theoretical critique; it could be turned into explicit practice, and in a reasonable amount of time.

Three years ago, the Ministry of Agriculture adopted biological pest control as one of its national priorities for the new five year plan, which included the expansion of the present pesticide free areas by about 30 percent. As a result, the Hermanos Nuñez farm in Pinar del Rio, for instance, is raising earthworms for humus for itself and other farms. The beds lie under a light shade of palms where ants are being raised. The farm also recycles pig residues to feed geese, goose residues to fertilize the pond, and fish residues to enrich the feed for pigs. In addition, they are experimenting with free running native chickens as an alternative to factory style poultry production. Under the national plan, citrus will shift completely to natural control over the five years. As of 1990, 15 percent of the non sugar cane farm land was already under natural control. And in sugar, no insecticides are used, although herbicides are still standard practice.

There are currently four major programs for biological control: the use of ants in bananas and sweet potatoes; the use of trap crops such as corn to divert fruit worms from peppers; the application of Bacillus thuringiensis in vegetable crops; and the cultivation of the parasitic wasp Trichograma on an artesanal scale on farms throughout the country. (12)

In addition, there is active experimentation with fungi, nematodes, wasps, and ants for pest control and at a citrus farm we are designing an ecosystem for multipurpose use. The program includes the selection of plants to improve organic matter in the soil, house beneficial predators and pathogens, attract wasps to nectar sources, fix nitrogen, and increase the rate of decomposition of citrus leaf litter in order to interrupt the life cycle of the greasy spot fungus disease and for other purposes. Local farmers, both individually and cooperatively, have been eager to adopt methods which avoid pesticides; on their own, they have developed innovative techniques for testing additional predator species.

Cuba’s Commitment To Social Benefit

We know from the dismal environmental conditions of eastern Europe and the Soviet Union that socialism [or what has attempted to pass for it — ed.] is certainly no guarantee of ecological approaches and that the advantages of social planning can be overwhelmed by other factors. Indeed, they were overwhelmed in Cuba, also, during the first decades of the revolution.

But today several aspects of the socialist organization of Cuban society favor ecological rationality. First, there is no strong commercial interest in selling pesticides. This is not entirely absent, since Cuba is part of a world capitalist economy and foreign producers would like to sell more pesticides to Cuba. But, unlike other countries, Cuban government officials do not invest in the import business, nor do they have other personal economic interests in purchasing pesticides.

Second, commitment to planned development for the benefit of the whole society means that the health impact of a technology and its effect on the environment cannot be dismissed as irrelevant. Awareness of pesticide toxicity has not only led to health protection measures for farmworkers, but has also empowered the Ministry of Health to have a voice in pesticide policy. And in response to demands from ecologists, the National Commission for Natural Resources and the Environment (COMARNA) has been elevated from an organ of the Academy of Sciences to cabinet level.

With economic concerns pressuring Cuba, the need to protect the 30 percent of Cuban secondary school students who attend schools in the countryside from pesticide exposure becomes increasingly prohibitive. Unlike in the United States, where environmental degradation and health costs are not included in the costs of production that generates them, in Cuba the health related expenses caused by chemical methods in agriculture, and the need to protect people from the dangers, are figured into the composite social cost and weigh heavily in all cost/benefit analyses. There was never any question of ignoring the health impacts of pesticides, so that these issues became part of the balance sheet from the start.

Third, large scale socialist agriculture allows for coherent land use patterns that benefit the whole society, including the adoption of ecological pest management strategies. It may seem that large scale production is inimical to ecological sensitivity to local conditions and to the imperative for diversity. Indeed, in capitalist societies this is all too often the case; but for societies that have rejected economic cutthroat competition between producing units — and with it the systemic drive towards monocultures, maximizing profits, and mechanization (run on non renewable fuels) — large scale planning can implement programs of natural pest control over a large enough area to be effective.(13)

Here’s an example: In capitalist agriculture it would be extremely difficult to get some farmers to forego planting their most lucrative crop (and relinquish their competitive edge) in order to create gaps in its distribution, which would slow down the spread of pests. Nor would they volunteer to grow guavas instead of citrus so that some pests can be sustained on guavas all year round, thus maintaining a permanent reservoir of food for predators which would then move over to the citrus when the pest population increases after the spring rains. With large scale planning in a socialist society, however, such a program of natural pest control can be extremely effective precisely because there is no systemic push toward monoculture. The unit of planning must be large enough to allow precisely for the integration of diverse conditions,(14) while the unit of production will be much smaller and reflect the need for mosaic, alley, and polyculture patterns.

Sugar And Foreign Exchange

The sugar industry, however, is a special case. Because of its importance in the Cuban economy, sugar is under a separate ministry from the rest of agriculture. This is certainly an impediment to mixed farming enterprises. The future of sugar in Cuba depends on a number of factors. Sugar is still a major source of foreign exchange for an economy that badly needs it. But prices have been falling and future markets are uncertain. Cuban planners are coming to see sugar, increasingly, as a raw material for industry, including paper, chemical, fuel, and feed for cattle. As the crisis deepens, alternative sources for cloth, such as hemp, are also being developed.

The sugar cane plant is still one of the most effective solar energy collectors we know. It is expected that the industrial products of sugar will gradually replace raw sugar as a prime contributor to Cuban foreign commerce. However, this will create new problems. The very efficient use of the whole cane plant for fuel in the mills as well as for sugar means that there will be less residue left in the field. Therefore, more fertilizer will be required, and under present conditions the best source will be nitrogen fixing plants. This would encourage a step toward diversification through crop rotation.

The same pest control ecologists who work in other branches of agriculture also attend to sugar. Insecticides have never been used extensively in sugar cane, and new problems are being approached ecologically. On one Cuban cooperative farm, a bale of hay recently fell off a truck along a road next to a cane field. Ants living in the hay invaded the cane and within a few months have cleaned the sugar cane borer from several hectares. The ant is now being propagated deliberately by the cooperative. I expect the ecological methods of pest control can be introduced easily into cane, but that the diversification of sugar land use will require more fundamental changes in the planning of agriculture.

Finally, national planning of research makes it possible to establish priorities for ecologically sound pest management and thus to allocate limited resources where they are most needed.

These general favorable factors have been reinforced by recent economic events. Unequal exchange, the disparity between the prices of industrial products that Cuba imports and the agricultural produce that is exported, has been growing in recent years and can be expected to increase even further as Cuba’s major trading partners adopt world (capitalist) price structures as the standard for their own commerce. The problem of the balance of payments has become especially urgent in the last few years and is perhaps the decisive influence making economists receptive to ecologists. Thus, both the long term structure of the economy and the economic constraints of the world recession are acting in phase, for the time being, to encourage biological control of pests and ecological approaches to agriculture.

These factors do not guarantee rational environmental behavior, however. The desperation to produce, whether to maximize profits or to eliminate scarcity, can, and often has, overwhelmed broader and more long term considerations. Administrators whose success will be evaluated by production or profits may be afraid to try something new — especially measures such as refraining from spraying, a crucial factor in allowing wasps, which feed on many pests, to return. But the society’s political and ideological commitment to seeing the whole and working for social benefit makes it possible to win victories by discussion and education, unencumbered by having to bang up against resistance from the system’s fundamental economic interests as well.

The Shift Toward The Left

In recent years, there has been a general leftward shift in Cuban politics that has contributed to the development of ecological rationality in agriculture, whereas most “socialist” countries have adopted rightist “solutions” to the stagnation and alienation created by their command economies and bureaucratic states, including:

  • the promotion of private economic initiatives;
  • management of public enterprises based on the same criteria — profitability — as capitalist firms;
  • adopting capitalist forms of organization and job definition;
  • conventional approaches to science and learning;
  • reliance on the old motivations, such as private marketing of produce and other personal economic incentives;
  • a managerial technocratic approach to development;
  • reliance on experts;
  • putting of economics in command;
  • acceptance of national chauvinism and sexism as well as environmental destruction — all in the name of progress.

Cuba has, in many ways, gone against the recent trends and has challenged capitalist ways of doing things. Instead of giving in to the market pressures, it has innovated new forms of organization to resist them, emphasizing collective and social motivations through which people empower themselves and gain their own expertise, aspire to change human relations, and place politics, not economics, in command.

The resurgence of the leftward trend in Cuba began in the late 1980s. It is referred to as “rectification” and, especially utilizing the ideas of Che Guevara, includes:

1) Exposure of corruption and bureaucratic behavior at all levels of society;

2) Criticism of “economism,” the reliance on capitalist type incentives for production. This includes: restriction on the private marketing of agricultural produce; criticism of the practice of using excessive bonuses to achieve fulfillment of production goals; an appeal to administrators not to look only at meeting production goals but also at how their decisions affect the whole socialist process; revival of the microbrigades (construction brigades recruited from different enterprises to build housing, daycare centers, family doctor clinics and other social construction); the popularization of Ernesto Che Guevara’s economic ideas (including multioficio, the practice of having people do whatever is necessary rather than being confined within a narrow job definition and consagracion, or dedication to one’s job); and reinforcement of egalitarian values with increases in the minimum wage;

3) A general increase in criticism at public meetings and conventions, such as the secondary school students’ federation, the Communist youth, teachers’ meetings, etc.;

4) More vigorous, tenacious and independent investigative journalism;

5) Expanded reliance on mass mobilization (in addition to the central army) for defense;

6) A general increased interest in political questions.

The leftward trend favors an ecological approach to agriculture because it encourages looking at the whole picture rather than narrow economistic goals, criticizes narrow specialization and encourages initiatives. Municipal governments have even been encouraged to develop systems of municipal gardens, where the objective is continuous year round production of a diverse range of vegetable crops. Indeed, in following up on suggestions by ecologists, the food program now requires each province to be as self sufficient as possible in food as a protection against the uncertainties of weather. Each farm is also encouraged, at the very least, to supply its own lunchroom.

This decentralized approach favors widespread innovation and polyculture, and the overall political direction provides a counterweight to the pressures of the world market which makes earning or saving foreign exchange a top priority.

Countertendencies, and the Relationship of Ideology and Material Conditions

But there remains a strong developmentalist current, too. Its major tenet is that progress, including technological progress, proceeds along a single axis from less developed to more developed. Therefore, the task of the less developed is to adopt, adapt, and even surpass the “advanced” countries along this axis using the same technology and basing themselves on the same science.

Such naïve “progressivism” has become part of some marxist traditions, in which science and technology are viewed as “objective” processes, outside of human control and free of class content.

They are seen as essential to generic human progress and needed to solve the major issues of production and society through the expansion of production — especially of cash crops — to meet world market needs and generate foreign exchange which can then be, so they argue, reinvested. This becomes a top priority in a technocratic view of development and social change.

The major elements of developmentalist beliefs in agriculture are: 1) Labor intensive agriculture is backward, capital intensive is modern; 2) Diversity is backward, uniform monoculture is modern; 3) Small scale production is backward, large scale is modern; 4) Subjection to nature is backward, an increasingly complete control over everything that happens in the field or orchard or pasture is modern; 5) Folk knowledge is backward, scientific “expertise” is modern; 6) Generalists are backward, specialists are modern; 7) The smaller the object of study (a reductionist approach), the more modern the investigation.

Determinism and Freedom

Although this outlook is criticized by many marxists as economistic, it nevertheless arises again and again under urgent pressure to meet a country’s consumption needs, and it is often the dominant current where Communist parties are in power.

This sense of urgency is paradoxical. On the one hand, it emphasizes the backwardness and lack of choice of the society struggling to survive in a hostile world. On the other hand, it manifests a tremendous confidence that “we can do anything,” including avoiding the pitfalls of adopting the products of capitalist progress without suffering the same destructive impacts.

Those of us who oppose developmentalism start from an emphasis on the wholeness, historicity and contradictoriness of the world — key components of a truly dialectical materialist analysis. “Science” is not an “objective process outside of human control and free of class content” but is a social process, an instance of the division of labor in which activity aimed at organizing experience for the purpose of finding out is separated from other labor. It is given institutional form (the University, research facilities and corporate think tanks); it develops its own tools (reductionist science); and it adapts its own self conscious ideology from the prevailing ideologies of the broader society (change comes through the management of technocratic and academic elites).

The development of science and technology is the result of a strong interaction between the social structure as a whole, the condition of science, and the natural objects it attempts to study. Therefore, there is not any one inevitable and necessary pathway for the development of science and technology. We are not limited to a choice between stagnation and the high tech pathway that has prevailed over the last half century. We are not predetermined to take the technocratic road. But there are conditions that need to exist, and be strengthened, for that free choice to be possible.

The ‘Greening’ of Socialism in Cuba

Marxists, greens, and other radicals need to approach science differently; for a long time now, as pointed out earlier, science has been seen to be independent of class forces and as an objective force standing outside of human control, and therefore outside of history. We need to begin to see the particular form of conventional agricultural science in its historical context — as the convergence of the commodification of knowledge, the needs of agribusiness, and the dominant reductionist philosophy of science, which sees problems as fundamentally separable and soluble by independent “magic bullets.”

In an agricultural context, developmentalism, in Cuba, is being challenged in many areas:

First, the present high tech, specialized agriculture is a transient developmental stage which fairly rapidly undermines its own productive base through soil depletion, erosion, compaction, salinization, loss of diversity, and the creation of new pest problems. It increases vulnerability to natural and economic disasters and harms the health of the agricultural workers and eventually the whole society and the rest of nature. In capitalist countries, this developmental stage increases class differentiation and undermines the status of women because access to the new technologies is available only to those who can afford it, generally men.

Its successor should be a gentle and thought and knowledge intensive technology that nudges rather than bludgeons nature.(15) This technology makes use of minimum inputs, depending as much as possible on processes already at work in the land:

  • Instead of choosing irrigation as the best way to moisten soil, it first looks to how to increase the moisture holding capacity of the soil.
  • Before building dams it considers forests as the best reservoirs.
  • Before relying on chemical fertilizer it looks to improvement of the soil.

The search for new commodity inputs to sell farmers must be subordinated to the design of agroecosystems that are as self operating as possible.

Second, the spatial patterning of agriculture should be neither the random diversity of the minifundia as determined by land tenure nor the homogeneity of agribusiness, but a mosaic of planned heterogeneity on different scales. This will allow for a more or less uniform need for labor throughout the year, provide products for local consumption as well as for the market, take advantage of the existing variability of the land in soil, exposure and topography, and allow for advantageous agronomic and microclimatic interactions of different kinds of plants and their associated faunas. Among the important interactions are the effects of plants on wind (which thereby modulate the microclimate to a distance of about ten times their height), weed suppression, changes in soil texture depending on the pattern of root formation, retarding erosion, fixation of nitrogen by legumes, accumulation of organic matter, attraction of pests’ natural enemies to sources of nectar and nesting sites, and the confusion, diversion or repulsion of pests.

Alley farming is one way to get the benefits of scale and mechanization but also the interactions between adjacent plots. Strips of crop are long enough to make mechanization feasible and useful but of a width that both allows for machinery and for interactions between crops. Polyculture provides advantages for pest control and soil improvement as well as a hedge against climatic uncertainty. And, on a larger scale, the land use pattern can include non agricultural formations which preserve natural diversity, store water, prevent erosion, modulate climate, and serve as reservoirs for beneficial wildlife. The integration of field crops, pasture and forestry allows for strong recycling pathways.

Third, we distinguish between the unit of production and the unit of planning. The unit of production should be small enough to take advantage of the microclimate heterogeneity of a farm and permit interactions between habitats while being large enough to take advantage of the economies of scale. But the whole patchwork of plots should be coordinated to allow for the management of even highly mobile pests, the recycling of residues among field, orchard and pasture, and the coordination of many different operations. The subunits allow for a detailed intimate knowledge of very local conditions while the whole enterprise allows their fitting together in the service of larger societal goals.

Fourth, we recognize that nature is inherently variable. That variability is harmful if we have very narrowly prescribed targets, but an advantage when we learn to ride with it. For example, small temperature differences can alter drastically the synchrony of populations of pests, their host plants, and their predators. If we depend for plant protection on a single predator or parasite it becomes necessary to monitor the microclimate quite precisely. But if we build an insect community of many species, when one does poorly another does better and we can achieve crop protection without controlling the complex dynamics of all the interacting species. In the face of uncertainty we can select ensembles of crops for their tolerance to change and use diversity as a buffer against the unexpected.

Fifth, the gentler the technology, the more site specific it has to be. The adaptation of a technology suited to every microsite is beyond the capacity of even the most affluent extension service. Rather, the technology has to be developed on the farm through a collaboration of the farmers who have a detailed, intimate, local knowledge of their own circumstances and the off farm scientists who can provide the general, theoretically based and abstract knowledge that requires some distancing from the particular. This interaction is only possible when the parties meet on terms of equality and mutual respect. In class divided societies this is extremely difficult to achieve. In Cuba, the fact that many of the agricultural scientists come from peasant backgrounds makes it easier.(16)

Sixth, many of the most dramatic failures of agricultural or public health or development programs have come about not because of a failure to know the details about the parts of the system but because of a failure to look at the whole. Each specialist invents a contribution which works given the results of the other specialists: engineers design machines for monoculture because agronomists recommend monoculture because the varieties have been selected for their performance in monoculture because that is how farmers plant because the machines are designed. … Each party makes choices that seem rational given the choices the others made so that the whole process gives the appearance of necessity and inevitability. What we are seeing in reality is a contradiction between the growing rationlity in the particular and the irrationality of the enterprise as a whole. Therefore, it is essential to place specialized knowledge into a broader context where we are aware of its source and limitations and always look at the whole.

Finally, the enthusiasm for genetic engineering has reinforced the reductionist bias which sees molecules as more basic than cells which are more basic than organisms which are more basic than populations which are more basic than ecosystems. The term “modern biology” is used to refer to molecular biology, ignoring modern systematics, population genetics, ecology, bioclimatology, etc. Yet the processes on the level of populations and communities determine directly the outcomes of interest to us and are not deducible from the behaviors of their components. Whole system study is the weakest area of agricultural science and must become a top priority.

These arguments are derived from a dialectical materialist marxist approach to science in general and agricultural science in particular. This does not mean that they can only be reached in that way. Some of the same conclusions have been reached by others from different perspectives. But they are easier to reach from a point of view which self consciously calls attention to complexity, process, historicity and contradiction. Nevertheless, the phrase “are derived from” does not mean “arise spontaneously or receive unanimous welcome.” They are a particular reading of marxism which has to confront the developmentalist interpretations.


The struggle for an ecologically sound agriculture is not over in Cuba but progress is being made. This came about through the convergence of several lines of causation: the maturing of the community of ecologists and of worldwide ecological mass movements, the economic pressures to reduce imports, the demonstrated success of several biological pest management programs, the political shift towards the left in the last few years, and active educational campaigns by particular individuals creating both a public awareness of ecological issues and building support within the research institutions and the Ministry of Agriculture.

All of this happened against a background of a socialist economy in which there is no profit oriented chemical industry pushing pesticides, and in which the conscious goal of planning is a better, more abundant and healthier life. Difficulties arise when intermediate goals towards these ends take on a life of their own, become the measure of an enterprise’s contribution to society, and seem to conflict with the long term goals. Although socialism is all too obviously no guarantee that intermediate goals will not obstruct ecological wisdom, it does practically eliminate vested economic interest in perpetuating harmful practices. Therefore, a debate over technological directions is only an argument, a confrontation of opposing beliefs, but not a confrontation of opposing interests.

This gives a different feel to argument even against stubborn ignorance. It makes strong argument effective and makes convincing the other party more important than the simple exercise of power. It also affects the style of the struggle, which starts from the premise of comrades struggling with each other for a shared goal and is more educational than oppositional.

My own participation has been exclusively through a battle of ideas. I hold no power at all in Cuba (or in the United States, for that matter). Yet, when I raised criticisms of particular projects, those who disagreed with me thought it necessary to attempt to convince me of their position, urging that I visit the sites, and discussed the issues at length. The debate also takes place within a marxist theoretical framework, with its emphasis on the historical contingency of science and technology, the importance of looking at the whole, and the recognition of complexity, process and contradiction. This provides the tools for challenging technocratic developmentalist assumptions.

At a time when ecological issues are becoming major political concerns throughout the world, the Cuban struggle should be watched closely and actively supported. The different texture of the struggle in Cuba from that in capitalist countries reveals the intensely political character of human ecology. Its victories under difficult circumstances show just a little of the potential of socialism and of marxism in negotiating a new relation with nature. If it can keep the U.S. and market forces from skewing its socialist development, Cuba may yet be able to overcome some of its contradictions, destructive residues of previous stages of development, and the commandist state form that has plagued all of the so called “socialist” countries; Cuba can become a world ecological power as well as a medical one. Therefore, Cuban ecology needs allies.

Allies of Cuban ecology can support this struggle for ecological rationality in two main ways. Some of us can participate directly by helping the development of Cuban science, providing scientific information that opens up alternative pathways, participating in Cuban scientific meetings, subscribing to scientific journals for the Cuban Academy of Sciences, ordering Cuban journals and, in general, breaking the blockade.

All of us can help by working against the political and economic pressures the United States is applying against Cuba. These pressures reinforce the urgencies that promote short sighted developmentalism and thwart efforts to insist on the big picture and the long horizon. Solidarity with the Cuban revolution does not mean passive endorsement of all present conditions and practices in Cuba but an active, critical and supportive engagement with (and through) the revolutionary process.


  1. Systematics and medicine were possible because they were low cost fields in which individuals could work in relative isolation. And indeed there were outstanding researchers such as Carlos Finlay in infectious diseases and Filipe Poey in systematic biology. Foreign biologists also used Cuba as a field site, enriching the museums of Spain and the United States but without creating an indigenous scientific community.
  2. The agricultural experiment station was established by the sugar producers in the early years of this century to serve their industry. Although individual staff members attempted to direct the research agenda more toward Cuban needs, their efforts were limited by the agenda of the administrators, corruption and lack of resources.
  3. The availability of biologists had been reduced by the emigration of opponents of the new government and by the recruitment of some of its enthusiastic supporters into the tasks of organizing science instead of doing research.
  4. Under these conditions, my advocacy of advanced work in ecology and population biology probably made more stark the contrast between what was necessary and what was possible.
  5. A biome is an ecological formation such as rain forest, long grass prairie or desert.
  6. Ricardo Herrera, et al., “Ecologia de los Bosques Siempreverdes del la Sierra del Rosario, Cuba,” Proyecto MAB #1, Academica de Ciencias Cuabana, 1988. Montane refers to mountains. The Sierra del Rosario was an upland rain forest. Sea level rainforests were all pretty much destroyed long ago.
  7. The first results of the use of ants for pest control were obtained at INIFAT, working with Tetramorium bicarinatum as a protector of bananas, as discussed later.
  8. Representatives of polluting industries came to call the attention of ecologists to the pollution they were causing with the piles of husks beside the rice mills and fruit pits where juices were being canned or bottled. They asked for help from ecologists in ameliorating the impact. This was a unique experience for me, since in the United States the representatives of industry play a quite different role in such discussions.
  9. The criticism of pesticide use was raised several times but also resisted by a plant protection station staffperson who argued that pesticides could not be all bad since the Soviet Union produced them.
  10. Some struggles will be more difficult than others. Cuba’s dependence on imported oil makes arguing against nuclear energy more difficult. And the crucial economic role of sugar and its institutionalization in a separate ministry will make the shift to multipurpose farming in the sugar areas more traumatic.
  11. Unlike the more specialized parasitoids, their populations can be maintained even in the absence of the pests we want to control so that they do not lag behind the pest in an outbreak. Ants have another special property: more than one possible community of ants can live in a particular place since the outcome of ant competition depends in part on the age of the colonies, on which got there first. Therefore, if we could introduce ants to a habitat they are capable of occupying, they could maintain themselves in the face of later invasions. Aside from all theoretical arguments, I confess to a special affection for ants which attracted my attention to their practical possibilities and added enthusiasm to my advocacy.
  12. Artesanal as in artisan, small scale craft production rather than industrial.
  13. While relatively immobile pests such as mites and scales can sometimes be controlled on the scale of a single tree, the highly mobile secondary pests (pests that emerged as problems because previous pesticide use destroyed their natural controls, a kind of agricultural iatrogenesis — the provocation of disease by physicians — present a different sort of problem. A moth lays eggs on a plant and the emerging caterpillars eat the leaves, moult, and emerge as moths which fly away. Next year’s pests will not be the offspring of moths from a particular small area but from the whole region. Therefore, the killing of the moths after they have emerged does not protect a small farm. But on a large scale, such measures can reduce the population of pests for the region. This allows additional options for pest control such as the use of birds and bats whose area of activity is relatively large scale.
  14. Eighty percent of Cuban farm land is divided into 400 large state farms. Some three quarters of the remaining land is organized into cooperatives. The small number of enterprises is an advantage for the extension activities of researchers. Fifty one local centers of plant protection service an average of eight state farms each, meet with the cooperatives and individual farmers and cooperate with the small farmers’ association (ANAP) in promoting more suitable methods.
  15. There is nothing romantic or sentimental about the notion of a gentle technology even after George Bush gave gentleness a bad name. Whereas 19th century thermodynamic technologies romanticized the employment of vast quantities of energy to move vast amounts of matter, modern scientific interest emphasizes information, the achievement of big effects with small efforts. The energy of a nerve impulse or the mass of hormone molecules are trivial compared to their impacts. The same applies to ecological management.
  16. In our citrus project on a large state farm, work is being done by scientists from Havana, the science staff of the farm, and secondary school students in an ecology interest circle. We maintain close contact with the state farms and cooperatives, as well as the private sector, networks of innovators meet regularly and cooperatives usually have a member assigned for liaison with scientists.


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