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2010 Goldman Prize Winner

Humberto Ríos Labrada

Food & Agriculture
Islands & Island Nations

Humberto Ríos Labrada, a scientist and biodiversity researcher, worked with farmers to increase crop diversity and develop low-input agricultural systems, encouraging Cuba’s shift from agricultural chemical dependence toward sustainability.

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Meet Humberto Ríos Labrada

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Humberto Ríos Labrada, a scientist and biodiversity researcher, worked with farmers to increase crop diversity and develop low-input agricultural systems, encouraging Cuba’s shift from agricultural chemical dependence toward sustainability.

Understanding Cuba’s Agricultural History

Cuba’s history is inextricably linked with its fertile soil, abundant rainfall, and crop-friendly climate. Indigenous peoples thrived on the natural food sources on the island before Spanish colonists established some of the New World’s most infamous plantations in the late 1700s. Cuban sugar fueled New World expansion. Spanish laborers and African slaves were brought to Cuba to work the fields, with the island devoted mainly to producing sugar that was sold primarily to the United States. Following Cuban independence, agriculture remained the country’s key economic engine.

For more than 30 years, the Soviet Union served as Cuba’s key trading partner. Cuba, with its long agrarian history, developed a modern agricultural system with the help of chemical fertilizers and pesticides supplied by larger socialist countries. Like many countries during the latter part of the 20th century, Cuba adopted a chemical-intensive, highly-mechanized mono-culture that initially produced high yields and reduced labor needs, allowing the country to be an important provider of sugar cane to its trading partners. At one point, Cuba was the highest per-capita consumer of agrochemicals in Latin America.

While the system served the country’s economic needs for several decades, the chemical usage and single-crop dependence soon took its toll on much of Cuba’s farmland, which makes up about 30% of Cuba’s total land area. More than half of the farmland was devoted to sugar cultivation. On the remaining land, Cuban farmers had little choice about which crops or varieties they could plant, using only a small selection of seeds developed to produce high yields within a fertilizer and pesticide-intensive system. Thus, much of Cuba’s environment was inundated with agrochemicals, threatening biodiversity and, over time, reducing crop yields. With the fall of communism in Europe, Cuba lost its chief trading partners along with its purchasing power and access to fertilizers and pesticides. As a result, Cuba’s agricultural sector ground to a halt, and food shortages ensued.

To address this crisis, the government distributed large tracts of arable land to small farm cooperatives. By necessity, farmers began cultivating semi-organic harvests, using little to no pesticides or fertilizers. Farming cooperatives turned to crop rotation and beneficial insects to encourage healthy yields. As a result, some of these smaller farms saw their soils begin to regenerate.

Farming in Cuba (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)

A Return to Pre-Industrial Agricultural Practices

During this time, Ríos, a folk musician and then a doctoral student in agricultural sciences at the Higher Pedagogical Institute for Technical and Professional Education, stumbled upon the cooperatives while doing research in the field. Traveling to farms that had not adopted the sugar cane monoculture model, Ríos witnessed farmers using pre-industrial practices, including crop rotation and experimentation with seed diversity.

Ríos watched as individual farmers tested different seed varieties of particular crops, selecting seeds that would thrive naturally in a particular environment. In each of these different locations, he realized that small farmers were contributing to a larger, nascent revitalization of the island’s agriculture. Ríos saw that this method was based on sustainable, ecological practices led by farmers themselves. He recognized these emerging transformations as opportunities and possible solutions to Cuba’s agricultural and food crisis, and he committed to expanding sustainable farming by forming partnerships with small farmers.

In the late 1990s, Ríos and his team of young scientists sought to catalyze this farmer-led experimentation, creating teams of researchers and professors across the island to establish agro-biodiversity learning centers with farmers to broaden sustainable agriculture and seed biodiversity efforts. He viewed this work as having strong potential to improve Cuba’s food security.

Encouraging farmers to continue experimenting, Ríos helped to organize farmers to promote and enhance crop diversity with one another, sharing their knowledge and best practices, as well as their seeds. Ríos spearheaded “seed fairs” in several farming communities across the island—gatherings where mutual learning and sharing of seed and crop biodiversity could take place regularly.

Humberto Ríos speaks with community members in Cuba (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)

Traditional Practices Take Root

While holding official teaching and research positions at the National Institute of Agricultural Sciences for more than 10 years, Ríos continued his work with farmers, slowly gaining the attention of the Cuban decision-makers and the international community. By 2007, Ríos noticed a significant shift. His core belief—that agricultural scientists must work with and learn from the farmers whose families have passed down traditional knowledge about crop cultivation—began to take root.

Fellow researchers and senior officials at the National Institute of Agricultural Sciences began taking notice of the results of Ríos’ efforts. They observed that farmers were now planting hundreds of varieties of crops without using chemical pesticides. In communities that once harvested only a few crop varieties, farmers were now cultivating many varieties of beans, rice, maize, and other crops. Not only did food production increase through this approach, but the organic methods used also contributed to the sustainability of the land. Today, more than 50,000 farmers participate in seed biodiversity initiatives and carry out the farming practices promoted by Ríos and the national network of universities and researchers supporting agro-biodiversity.

Rios has served as coordinator of the National Institute of Agricultural Sciences’s Program for Local Agricultural Innovation, and he continues to focus his time on developing Cuba’s sustainable agriculture sector. He has engaged in similar farmer-led biodiversity projects throughout Mexico and Bolivia. He often uses his music as a means to engage communities in biodiversity, performing songs that celebrate sustainable agriculture.

Humberto Ríos and community members in Cuba (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)