The Hundred-Year Plan

The Hundred-Year Plan

Written by Jim Merkel

By Jim Merkel

During Obama’s historic visit to Cuba, he called for a lifting of the embargo, along with a two-way exchange of ideas. Cuba’s forced isolation led to lifestyles and systems with dramatically reduced ecological impacts. I checked the box as “professional researcher” and promised not to enjoy the beaches and ventured to learn what Cuban women have to share from their decades of experience in family planning, life with scant fossil fuels and organic, small-scale food systems. 

To bring context to what Cuba might offer: according to Johan Rockström, author of Big World, Small Planet, industrial agriculture is “the world’s single largest contributor to climate change and loss of biodiversity… (and) the world’s single largest consumer of both water and land.” I wanted to find out for myself (and for a documentary film), if there is another side to the “failed state” analysis.  Could this opening be an opportunity for the over-developed world to have a “reality check.” We’d need four planets to have the world’s people adopt American lifestyles. Can we not “ruin” Cuba and instead learn?

Pedro Martin and I hopped off a trailer pulled by an old Russian tractor, paid the farmer and set off down a dirt track. We headed toward a windmill and a green oasis on a gentle hillside outside Sancti Spiritus, Cuba. The track became muddy and rutted through a cool hollow then rose into a sunny field of tomatoes.

We trekked past a small clapboard home, where a friendly couple was harvesting their February crop. They confirmed we were headed in the right direction: “See that gate up ahead?  The Casimiro farm.” 

Through strings of contacts of empowered Cuban women, we were directed here, to one of Cuba’s own permaculture giants, Leidy Casimiro Rodríguez, who returned to her family’s degraded tobacco fields at the age of ten during Cuba’s deepest recession, known as the “special period.”

Through the gate in a living fence of thorns and coppiced trees, we entered the shade of a tropical food forest. Leidy’s younger sister, Chavely Casimiro, greeted us and called off the pack of barking dogs. We walked past banana and mango trees up to the family compound of vine-covered whitewashed domes, amongst a permaculture playground including a large open cistern fed by a windmill-powered water pump, two biogas digesters and a rabbit house. We entered the dome used as a kitchen and dining area and met Leidy, now 35, who was working on her PhD in agro ecology in Columbia.

When I secured an invitation to their “finca” or family farm, I explained that our film, “The Hundred-Year Plan,” tells the story of empowered, educated women around the world, who are leading society toward a more sustainable future by having fewer children and learning to live well with small ecological footprints. Leidy, who has two siblings and is mother to one boy, Darío, let me know that almost any Cuban women from her generation would have something to say about this topic.

According to Cuban demographer Marisol Alfonso de Armas, the demographic transition in Cuba began in the 1930s — ahead of Latin America. An influx of immigrants, contraception and public health initiatives dealing with mosquito born illnesses, alongside the depression of the ‘30s, are thought to have instigated declining birth rates.

By 1978, fertility was below replacement levels and by 2008 it stood at 1.59, a rate comparable to the most developed social democracies in Europe. For more than 50 years, Cuban women have had universal access to education, healthcare, contraception and safe, legal abortion. These are the leading conditions demographers suggest improve the health and survivability of children, improve women’s health and lower birth rates. 

Leidy’s father and mother, Caridad and José, were raising two young children in 1989 as Cuba faced its toughest test. The dissolution of the Soviet Union amplified the impact of the U.S. embargo. Cuba had lost its primary trading partners in the Eastern Bloc. Without markets for its sugar and without imports of fuel, pesticides, raw materials, and food, all sectors of the economy screeched to a halt. During this “special period,” the average Cuban lost 20 pounds.

After Leidy’s father, José Antonio Casimiro González, took a permaculture course, they now saw the shortage of energy and pesticides as an opportunity. José left his job as a traffic cop and returned to their abused tobacco land. With few tools but new skills, he set to work with a deep commitment to not see his family go to bed hungry.

The systems of permaculture originated in indigenous and pre-green revolution agrarian societies around the world.  Dozens of fruits and vegetables are interplanted and assisted by intelligent interaction into a food forest that restores soil and ecological health.  As José deconstructed the former extractive and poison “green revolution” practices, the land slowly responded.

Harnessing neighborly support with bulldozers, they built a sizable pond below the old clapboard home site and installed a homemade hydraulic ram that pumps water without fossil energy to the top of their site.

Leidy walked us down to the pond, a human-made natural paradise budding with wildlife and Tilapia – fish that wind up on the dinner table. After reveling in the stillness, Chavely led us further down the spillway and switched on the ram pump. With sprays of water and rhythmic clicks, the diaphragms began miraculously pulsing water uphill. Chavely explained that the water is piped to the land’s height into a giant tank that overflows into a deep round cistern. Chavely, the family mason, helped to build the cistern while in her teens.

As we walked back up the hill, the keyline design, which slows and directs the water flow laterally across the slope, was apparent, with gently terraced fields alternating with fruit trees and annual crops, all watered from above.

Before heading to Cuba on this “scouting” trip, my last visit was in 2009. I was nervous about how my topic of small footprints would be perceived and received. After all, billboards around Cuba then and now show a hangers noose, with the caption “Blockade, the longest genocide in history,” calling for an end to the U.S. embargo. The intent of this American policy has been to make ordinary citizens suffer to such a point as to call for a regime change toward free market capitalism. 

I intellectually get the severity of the strongest and longest embargo in history. And, having had a top-secret clearance in the 1980s, I’m not naïve to the hundreds of covert assassination attempts and terrorist acts on Cuban soil, funded and supported by the U.S.  So, to be from the U.S. and making a film about their small footprints seems thorny. Just as the developed nations complete their most consumptive and destructive 50-year period in all of human history, of which Cuba was left out, a North American comes to Cuba to glamorize their suffering in a film.

My 25-year exploration of “Radical Simplicity” inspired by my travels to Kerala, India was voluntary — a reaction against our imperialism and ecological exploitation. It was also around action — creating and living inside my wildest dream of a sustainable future.

Now, after weeks of hitchhiking, making friends and experiencing real people’s lives, homes and daily decisions, I see the embargo’s effects up close. Personal. Their involuntary simplicity, with all its creativity and austerity, might, after 50 years, feel “normal” to them, but to me, the sheer scarcity of income and availability of goods is shocking. 

Like a thorn in a sock, the irritation and frustration of the noose comes and goes. Nonetheless, a rural generosity and hospitality is present, similar to Kerala or Mexico or rural Maine. Most Cubans know that our incomes are 20 times theirs, and when in popular tourist areas, a gringo like me can become a walking dollar sign. This radical inequity is painful to witness and takes time to digest. 

The night I left Havana for the countryside, I visited the home of Mabis Dora Álvarez, one of 300,000 literacy volunteers, who trekked off to the countryside armed with a backpack filled with pencils and notebooks in 1962, on the eve of the U.S. invasion at the Bay of Pigs. As the U.S. stood up for the rights of the United Fruit Company to exploit another nation, Castro was delivering on his promise of education and health care for the most underserved.

Now in her 80s, Mabis tends her ailing cat and dozens of vibrant plants covering her veranda in the Vedado district of Havana. I ask about her plants. She explained that she was trained in Russia as an agronomist and spent her life working with women farmers across Cuba from the time the first agrarian reforms were signed into law on May 17, 1959.

When I explained my film project to Mabis, she responded that the agrarian reforms of Cuba were, in her mind, the most important beginning to improving the lives of women and children. 

The Agrarian Reform Law limited land holdings to 993 acres and distributed the expropriated lands to the peasant farmers and the government. Families were encouraged to grow food for their family and produce for the market. Expropriated lands were to be compensated by bonds based upon assessed values used for taxes. The U.S. was not happy.

Fidel Castro commented, "They (the United-States) are practically telling us that if we go ahead with agrarian reform, they will strangle us economically... No country can have political independence if, when it issues a law, it is told it will starve to death.”

The Casimiros returned to their 17-acre farm, determined not to starve. They had a vision of building a beautiful and sustainable subsistence life, swearing off growing sugar cane and tobacco or using chemicals.

We regroup in the communal kitchen as Leidy’s brother, José, now 34, comes in from his work with a bunch of ripe bananas. He quietly joins the conversation.  Behind him, stacked on the counter, are sacks of rice and dried beans — several hundred pounds. Behind the counter, the hiss of the pressure cooker and the quiet preparing of dinner goes on while our team sits down and describe our documentary film project to the family.

As we explained the small footprint part of the film, they told us about their 25 years of work and transformation. They break out the before and after pictures — from a barren grassland to a food jungle. 

As they described their process, the father José strayed quickly from the practical to the philosophical and global, providing a context for the diverse motivations and contributions they see their lives offering Cubans and the world. Subsistence farms offer tremendous food security, but also healthy and creative work when done sustainably.

My worries that the small footprint topic would be thorny evaporated as we discovered our shared synthesis and understanding of humanity’s peril and the power of putting forward a practical demonstration of the possible. Pedro Martin, the young filmmaker who hitchhiked around Cuba with me, insisted that I show them some of my slides of building my home from the trees on site in Belfast, Maine and my own permaculture gardens. He translated my story of how I limited my income to world average, at the same time they were entering the special period.  As we recognized our kinship at a deeper level, we dove deeper into the tougher conversations, doubts and opportunities for creating a sustainable future. 

After 25 years of working to promote small footprints in North America, in the last five years I’ve noticed a heightened recognition that we must create the alternative reality, both in our families and communities. And more people understand that if the world’s lived American lifestyles, we’d need five planets.

The Casimiro family clearly conveys both agency and sustainability.  Against all odds, their resourcefulness, artful functionality, serious research and dexterity unite this family. Their biogas digester, built by young Chavely, produces methane to cook their food, provides light and refrigeration and the effluent fertilizes the crops.

Where locavores in the U.S. argue over favorite “wildcards” of coffee, chocolate, bananas and olive oil — items that we cannot produce in our climate — I wondered what this family was not able to produce.  They had dozens of fruits and vegetables, sacks of rice and beans, raised chickens, pigs, rabbits, fish and dairy cows, pressed their own oil, made soap, and yes, ground their own coffee. 

     The Casimiro family was one of half a dozen families we were invited to share rice, beans, and yes, homegrown coffee with, who might contribute to our documentary film. 

Osmany’s family were peasant sharecrop farmers before the revolution. They now live in an extended family compound and grow the bulk of the family’s food. Their daughter Madaysi is studying medicine in the nearby city. 

Marielys Dias Simon is a 26-year-old family doctor in a clinic in the Republic of Chile, one of the first cooperative communities formed by the revolution under Castro. The families she serves all live within several kilometers and they have free and easy access to her services. 

Yeny works in a health clinic conducting tests during pregnancies in Playa Larga, deep into the Bay of Pigs. She couldn’t recall when the last child or mother died in the birthing process. Her daughter Roxanna competes in national math competitions and enjoys time with her friends. The younger daughter, Rosaly, loves art and dance. Rosaly’s teachers, Lazaro and Suzana, work as popular educators teaching art, song and dance in the school. Rosaly is among the many children they feel lucky to learn from.

Yuliet lives in La Conchita, a town centered around a food processing facility.  She forgoes jewelry to purchase bricks and mortar for the house she is building, while teaching at a university.  Speaking of her relationship with her 17 year-old daughter Alexandra, she says they share everything. Then emphasizes, “everything.” Alexandra has gotten national attention for the documentary and fiction films she makes, along with a team of neighborhood friends, that delve into the social issues of their community.     

Each family is ordinary and extraordinary. Each graciously opened their life to me, a stranger from the “evil empire.” Each held no grudge. Each offered a sacred piece of their humanity to my consciousness. My most profound moments in Cuba were of being on the receiving end of generosity and hospitality by warm people with a fraction of the income, assets, diversions, and stuff that my country folk and I take for “normal.” What is most clear, as I am back and again swimming in a sea of excess, is that this excess isn’t making us any happier.

What else is clear is that the 1001 ways that the U.S. is attempting to dominate the world are truly upsetting and they hurt real people. I could analyze and critique Cuban policy, systems and culture, its shortcomings and mistakes. However, I’ll leave that for the Cuban people. Don’t worry, they actively discuss all that and more and get on with their lives. The biggest fear I heard from the tourists I met in Cuba is that the island will quickly be spoiled by consumerism and the decadence of modernity if the U.S. corporations come there. My biggest hope would be that the tourists return home inspired to live more simply, play more music, and lighten up.

I’d hope too that they’d return home and work for the embargo to be lifted and for Guantanamo Base to be returned to Cuba. Let the Cubans direct their own destiny. When I asked people if they thought Cuba could avoid the mistakes of the “developed” world’s last 50 years, many could visualize that path, but also internalize the complexity and uncertainty of our moment in time. 

One thing the embargo did teach Cubans is how to live well at a fraction of the footprint of the developed world. If the world’s people birthed at the Cuban rate of 1.5 children, on average, in 100 years, world population would retreat to 3.8 billion. And if the world’s people consumed at the Cuban 4-acre ecological footprint, humanity would consume 15.2 billion bioproductive acres of the 30 billion acres available worldwide, leaving half the planet for nature. 

Currently humanity consumes 1.5 planets. Those in Africa, Asia and Latin America, stuck in the grips of poverty, could glean a few ideas around universal education and healthcare from Cuba — healthy, educated people on a shoestring. Those whose stomachs ache from too much and whose spirits sag from not enough of what matters might find Cuba offers a breather, along with 1001 practical ways to live lightly and still have fun. 

Our film, “The Hundred-Year Plan,” lays out the essentials for diffusing the population bomb, easing climate change and averting the "sixth great extinction.” It tells the quietly dramatic story of educated and empowered women around the world who choose small families, while creatively living with small ecological footprints. These two conditions, played out over one hundred years, could return a healthy balance between humans and nature.

The film’s Cuban production is a cooperative effort between The Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC) and the Arthur Morgan Foundation for Community Solutions from Yellow springs Ohio. The team of filmmakers include: Producer, Panchito Álvarez, Oscar winning Producer Deborah Shaffer, Emmy winning Director of Photography, Robert Maraist, Editor, Eric Johnson, Associate Producers, Susan Jennings and Pedro Martin and Advisors Julia Reichert, Tony Heriza, and Catherine Murphy. Jim Merkel is the director. The film’s production begins in April.

Biologist E.O. Wilson explains, it is not an asteroid or volcano that will cause this extinction, rather human impact —“a death of a thousand cuts—a little bit taken here, a little bit ceded to an oil company there.” Added together, we are losing about 30,000 species a year, where fossil records indicate background rates of 10 per year.

On the side of hope, Wilson adds, “Our species might just luck out, with enough dropping population, improved production, and shrinking ecological footprint, that we can win the race to save the rest of life.” Wilson’s new book, Half Earth, suggests that by leaving at least half of the earth’s areas intact, we could avert the 6th great extinction. “The Hundred-Year Plan” seeks to show how Wilson’s “Half Earth” solution could come about by taking control of two things that you and I actually have control over: How much we take and how many children we make.

Jim Merkel is the author of Radical Simplicity and founder of the Global Living Project. He lives in Maine, volunteers, writes, lectures and consults with campuses and municipalities on sustainability initiatives.