FOR months now, my neighbourhood association has grappled with the very disturbing problem of empty plots. These are plotted pieces of land on which buildings have not yet been erected and that, therefore, attract unsavoury characters with undesirable, distasteful habits.
For various reasons on top of just the pain of looking at them, the empty plots are particularly irritating for the residences that occupy the spaces closest to them. One reason is the tendency some characters have of haphazardly dumping garbage on such plots, which besides the offensive smell leads to an accumulation of vermin that gets pursued by snakes.
Another reason is the shrubs and bushes that thrive on the putrefaction and grow annoyingly healthily to heights that serve only one purpose – providing cover for criminals of varying degrees of danger and menace, including those misguided young fellows that gather in groups to take turns puffing away at rolled up herbs rarely found in domestic kitchens.
And, linked to that, are the swarms of mosquitoes and other insects that breed within these plots.
Our problem was so serious that we fired off letters to the city authorities and have kept pushing for something to be done, short of claiming the plots ourselves and putting up buildings thereon.
We identified a couple of the plot owners and one of them agreed to keep his plot clean and cleared, but the other went silent knowing our reaction would be muted (one day he will be shocked to find activity on his plot, as you will see later).
This problem exists in many more than just my neighbourhood, and as we were on the verge of forming an association for ‘People Irritated By Empty Plots’, I fell upon a television programme that introduced me to the Huertos of Cuba, and have re-aligned my approach.
I believe that Huerto, in Spanish, means something along the lines of “kitchen-garden”, or “small vegetable garden” or “market garden”.
The story goes that after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Cuba found its most powerful economic partner was no longer in a position to provide the support it needed. The country was faced with its own economic collapse, in the face of serious difficulty being such a close neighbour of the United States and at the same time its most rooted enemy.
The most urgent problem the country faced, at that time, was a looming food shortage because food agriculture was generally quite low as the country had focused on industrial agriculture for export mainly to the Soviet Union.
The country declared an economic crisis and introduced food rationing, which led to the malnutrition in families.
At the same time, because the economy was doing so badly, there were hundreds of empty or disused plots within the city – in particular, the capital, Havana, where businesses had shut down and buildings had been abandoned.
The Cubans put two and two together and started to plant their own food on those empty plots, and before long the government took up the task of officially supporting these efforts, creating a system of agriculture that is to this day feeding the country on healthy, organic vegetables.
It has been so successful that the Cubans have introduced a new word into agricultural lingua: “organoponics” (organoponicos, in Spanish) – the use of organic materials from crop resides, household waste and animal manure, to grow domestic crops.
It is not awkward, in Havana, to find a commercial building standing tall next to a neat and lush garden of vegetables along a high street; or a home with soil bearing healthy vegetables all growing on the roof of its garage.
By 2013, according to some official accounts, half of Havana was under agriculture. One Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) report states that in 2012 these ‘Huertos’ produced 63,000 tonnes of vegetables, 20,000 tonnes of fruit and 10,000 tonnes of roots and tubers!
THIS is what is going into our neighbourhood’s next letter to the city authorities here.
Rather than attempt to confiscate the empty plots that make life so difficult and uncomfortable around us, we will be asking for permission to turn them into neat, flourishing and highly lucrative gardens.
Besides, our soils here are much, much better than the Cuban soils, so we will need even less work on the organoponics, even though it will help us dispose of our organic waste more productively.
And the fellows who converge amidst the bushes on those plots to smoke weed will most likely happily converge there amidst shorter plants to earn money
doing some weeding instead.