Learning Permaculture in Cuba and Visiting Che Guevara's Bedroom!

Chris Bird
Monday, 13th January 2014

Chris Bird shares his experience of a Permaculture Design Course in Cuba, where he says the mix of nationalities, ideas, music and Che Guevara's bedroom, make it the best PDC ever!

"There aren't many permaculture design courses that start with a tour of Che Guevara's bedroom," said Ron Berzan as we peered into the dark cave where Che Guevara slept during the Cuban missile crisis and returned to train before his ill fated journey to Bolivia. 

The location was Cuevas de las Portales in Cuba, the site for the International Permaculture Design Course (PDC) organised in the run up to the 2013 International Permaculture Convergence, also held in Cuba, during November and December 2013. These enormous caves looked down over the Campismo where 43 students gathered to study permaculture under the hot Cuban sun and occasional tropical storm. The teachers were Ron from Canada, Brock Dolmen from the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center in the US, Paolo Mellett, originally from the UK but now living in Brazil, and Roberto Perez from Cuba. Roberto will be familiar to many from The Power of Community, a film about the Cuban response to their own version of peak oil.

I’m sure that many PDC students regard their course as life changing and the best ever but when you combine the knowledge of these teachers with the experience of students from over a dozen countries, some undertaking a second or third PDC, and the fantastic location then I really believe this course has a claim to Carlsberg status!

So what was so special? Where to begin? How about the numerous permaculture projects around that world that teachers and students were involved in. This solid foundation meant that everything we learnt was grounded in solid working examples – water retention systems in Ghana, California, Peru, Mexico, Portugal and the UK is just one example. Then there was the buzz of participating in a tri-lingual course where teachers and many students switched between English and Spanish while a small group from Haiti had simultaneous translation into Creole. Although this stretched the normal 72 hour course into around 85 hours it also added another level of interest and excitement.

Of course there is a lot to be said for cooling off in the river after a long hot day but when you add hummingbirds to the setting during the day and bats hunting just above your head as the sun goes down, then you really have something special. A change of teaching location always helps but running a workshop in the shade of a 100 metre long rock arch with a river running through takes some beating.

Each day started with a summary of the previous days learning presented by a small group of students and each performance set the bar higher. Memorable moments included poetry, rapping, mime and excellent impersonations of our four teachers but the highlight was a new version of Twister. Perma-Twista left participants in a hilarious tangle of bodies illustrating the interaction of zones, sectors and key elements of permaculture designs. Perhaps you had to be there!

All PDC’s have an element of hands on experience. During two weeks we created superb compost from a mix of green and brown materials, our own urine and crushed charcoal from the fire-pit where we later roasted a pig. A banana ring was dug and planted to handle overflow from a leaking septic tank and provide a permanent example to Campismo staff that problems can be turned into solutions while simultaneously providing a yield.

And, of course, we created our own permaculture designs. The Campismo comprised around twenty cabins along with a central eating / teaching area, kitchen and outbuildings. Ten acres of poorly utilised agricultural fields were surrounded by teak forest, a banana plantation and Zone 5 forest. Towering above the site was a huge limestone outcrop riddled with enormous caves and home to thousands of bats as well as Che Guevara and the headquarters of the Western Army in 1962. Thousands of visitors come to this beautiful and historic location for a day or longer every year and the site is part of a national network of campismo’s throughout Cuba.

We mapped the site with a little help from Google Earth, observed sun and shade, investigated predominant wind directions, occasional hurricanes, floods, slopes – all standard fare to permaculture designers. More difficult was interviewing the staff to establish how the site functioned and what improvements they would like. It soon became clear that the flow of day visitors through the site was a key sector and most design teams designed ways to ‘slow, spread and sink’ this stream in the same way we would exploit a flow of water.

Self-guided walks through forest gardens and deep-bed vegetable systems and a café selling locally produced food and drinks were elements in many designs. Solar water heating, a micro-hydro scheme on the river, chicken and pig tractors to prepare land for cultivation, swales to maximise water retention and bio-gas systems fed with human waste were also common.

The prize here was not just a permaculture design for one Campismo but the opportunity to showcase permaculture to thousands of visitors from Cuba and around the world and kickstart the use of permaculture at other sites in the government run Campismo network.

Staff watched our design presentations with interest but whether any of them are implemented probably depends on future support from the Antonio Nunez Jimenez Foundation for Nature and Humanity who organised the PDC and the International Permaculture Convergence and facilitate permaculture in Cuba.

What else? It’s impossible to mention Cuba without talking about music. Music; loud, vibrant and insistent, that sets your feet tapping and hips swaying, is everywhere and our PDC was no exception. On several evenings, a band arrived from the local village on the back of an ox cart, set up on an outdoor dance floor and played until the early hours. Sometimes local people would come along and join in. Music and dance was combined with comedy cameos from campismo staff shadowed by PDC students attempting to translate Cuban humour into English. I laughed until my stomach ached but I still have absolutely no idea what was going on!

If you measure per capita income, then Cuba is a poor country, but those evenings reminded me that those of us living in countries like the UK so often forget how poor we really are.

Photo credit: Brock Dolman, Occidental Arts & Ecology Centre 

Further resources

The benefits of a PDC course in Kenya: Permaculture in action! Creating a permaculture island

Permaculture education in Malawi: taking practical skills to rural communities

Permaculture courses in Costa Rica: Punta Monta - Costa Rica's alternative farming

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