Human Rights in Cuba

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Untimely Rains Hit Cuban Tobacco Harvest
By Ivet González

SAN JUAN Y MARTÍNEZ, Cuba, Mar 6 2014 (IPS) – Near the close of the
harvest , local people in the Cuban municipality of San Juan y Martínez,
which boasts the finest tobacco plantations in the world, are seeing
their hopes of a plentiful season dashed by unexpected winter rains.

“It’s been a bad year, a rebellious one as we call it. There was a lot
of rain, which rots the plants. Tobacco needs sun during the day and
cold at night,” 67-year-old Dámaso Rodríguez, a worker on the Valle
plantation in this municipality, 180 kilometres west of Havana, in the
province of Pinar del Río, told IPS.

“We are late with the farm chores,” said Yamilé Venero, a young tobacco
worker on the same plantation. “It’s not worth planting again,” added
María Teresa Ventos, a 54-year-old woman who comes every season to
string the tobacco leaves onto long poles for drying in this
agricultural industry which is a source of temporary jobs for women.

Since November, when the season started, there has been too much rain in
the province which was expected to supply 70 percent of the 26,400
tonnes of tobacco leaf forecast for the 2013-2014 harvest. San Juan y
Martínez and the neighbouring municipality of San Luis were severely
affected; between them they provide 86 percent of the tobacco for the
prized and costly Havana cigars.

Local sources reported the loss of 813 hectares in Pinar del Río and
partial damage in a further 1,000 hectares, out of the provincial plan
for 15,000 hectares. Many farms had to uproot their tobacco plants and
replant three times over.

Tobacco is Cuba’s third export, after nickel and medical products.

In 2013, the country earned 447 million dollars from tobacco, eight
percent more than in 2012 when the Anglo-Cuban corporation Habanos S.A.
made 416 million dollars. It is the sole vendor of Cuban cigars
worldwide, trading in 160 countries, with most of its business in
Europe, although cigars are doing well in Asia and the Middle East.

The storm clouds over Pinar del Río, in the west of the country, may
hurt sales this year, along with other problems like tough anti-tobacco
laws in Europe and the economic blockade imposed by the United States on
Cuba because of the of conflict between Washington and Havana that has
gone on for half a century.

To weather the damage done by the downpours, plantations in Pinar
extended their planting season, which usually ends in January, by 45
days, and delayed other major tasks of the current tobacco harvest. They
have also resorted to harvesting “capadura” (lower quality) leaf and
plant regrowth, in order to maximise production.

On the Valle plantation, 12 skilled men continue to harvest tobacco
leaves and take them to a high-roofed wooden barn at one side of the
estate. Inside, 12 women string the leaves in bunches and arrange them
on long poles which are then hung in tiers right up to the slanted roof
for traditional curing (controlled drying) in air.

“After all, the tobacco is good quality, but not as good as before,”
Rodríguez said. This veteran tobacco grower, the son and grandson of
peasant farmers, is concerned that the strange weather in his birthplace
“is no longer the same” as it was three decades ago.

The unique combination of temperature, soil and humidity in the Vuelta
Abajo region, in the west of the province, is essential for the
development of the best handmade premium cigars on the planet, a process
that involves close to 190 different operations.

Only here can all the types of leaf be grown that are used in making
cigars, the successors to the rolled leaves smoked by native people on
the island of Cuba when Spanish colonists arrived in 1492.

Dayana Hernández and Aliet Achkienazi, researchers at the state
Meteorology Institute, have forecast that this territory will become
warmer every decade this century, unsettling the conditions that give
Cuban cigars their exclusive taste, aroma and texture and have earned
them their protected designation of origin (PDO).

The PDO protects agricultural products that have a quality and
characteristics fundamentally or exclusively due to geographical factors
in their place of origin. In this case it is reserved for cigars of over
three grams, made in Cuba according to traditional methods from
varieties of Cuban black tobacco.

The study “Impacto del cambio climático sobre el cultivo del tabaco en
la zona de Pinar del Río, Cuba” (Impact of climate change on tobacco
cultivation in the area of Pinar del Río, Cuba) analysed particularly
productive districts in the province, including San Juan y Martínez and
San Luis.

On the basis of future climate scenarios, the authors forecast that
rising temperatures will not cause great harm in the next few decades,
but later on, as warming increases, crop yields will decline. However,
in the north of the area they studied, the climate will be more stable
and it is less likely that temperatures will exceed 25 degrees Celsius.

The study found that “the impact of climate change can be mitigated in
conditions compatible with the sustainable development” of the delicate
tobacco leaf. It recommended “further research” into the effects of
imbalances in the rainfall patterns on the plantations.

The experienced eye of Francisco José Prieto, the manager of the Valle
plantation, who owns 4.5 hectares that have belonged to his family since
his grandfather’s days, led him to take steps ahead of the inclement

He planted early, and was already harvesting “when the rains
intensified,” he told IPS. “I didn’t have to replant,” said this member
and president of the Tomás Valdés Credit and Services Cooperative (CCS),
which groups 50 farms in Vuelta Abajo.

The CCSs were created in the 1960s as voluntary associations of small
farmers who retain ownership of their land, and gain collective access
to technologies, financing and sales facilities for their products.

But in spite of his efforts, Prieto doubts whether this harvest will be
as good as the last, when his farm produced 158 quintals (7,272 kilos),
a record result.

Prieto uses soil conservation techniques on his land. He sprays the
tobacco only once, and after the harvest, he plants crop varieties that
improve the soil, like maize and jack . “They provide shade,
conserve nutrients that otherwise would be washed away by the rains, and
they are dug in as a green manure,” he said.

The 44,863 people living in San Juan y Martínez, on large estates dotted
with simple houses with light roofs, depend on the success of each
tobacco harvest. “We are paid fixed wages, with bonuses for
productivity,” union leader Celeste Muñoz told IPS.

Constantly working dry tobacco wrapper leaf from the last harvest on her
roller, Muñoz, employed for the last 17 years in a centre for tobacco
collection, selection and processing, said that her team of 50 women is
trying to “recover as much dry leaf as possible.”

She is not sure whether it is “because of the climate, the fertilisers
or the variety planted,” but she claims that the yield “is less than
before. We got as many as 1,000 quintals (46,039 kilos) of dry leaf in
one season,” she said nostalgically.

Source: Untimely Rains Hit Cuban Tobacco Harvest – Inter Press Service –

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