Land Leases, a “Half-ownership” / 14ymedio, Juan Carlos Fernandez

Juan José Muñoz, 83-year-old who leases land, in the doorway of his home. (14ymedio / Juan Carlos Fernandez)
Juan José Muñoz, 83-year-old who leases land, in the doorway of his home. (14ymedio / Juan Carlos Fernandez)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Carlos Fernandez, Pinar del Rio, 14 January 2016 – The earth and the man who works it end up resembling each other. The skin becomes rough and dark like freshly plowed earth, and the face is lined with furrows where seeds could be planted. So it is with Juan José Muñoz, who at 83 has merged with the land that he recovered a few years ago, through a usufruct lease arrangement, long after they took it from him decades ago.

The old man with lively eyes can be found at kilometer 8 on the La Ceniza road, near the city of Pinar del Rio. He is one of the 2,596 farmers who, since 2012, have received lands under the usufruct form of leasing, with a total of roughly 36,000 acres now managed by private farmers.

“Planting tabacco soothes my soul, I learned it from my father as far back as I can remember, and I like it,” says Muñoz. Despire his advanced age, he still has the energy not only for cultivating, but also for cutting firewood, cooking and even making the odd joke when someone passes by his humble home.

“I was born here and I grew up working with my father, my uncles and two brothers, in the same place,” he says. However, at the end of the seventies State Planning decided to use his to grow citrus. “They forbade us to plant tobacco,” he says with regret, but affirms, “They couldn’t take it all from me and they left me 2.5 acres.”

Losing what had been the center of life as he knew it, Muñoz working in the citrus plant located in the road to La Coloma, but, he says, “I wasn’t born to spend eight hours in a factory, so I asked to be released and went back to the fields.” On his only remaining land he raised chickens, pigs and even grew a little tobacco. “They couldn’t prevent me because it was my land,” he says, with a wild glint in his eyes.

“It was a long time until they again allowed the widespread cultivation of tobacco, because the citrus never paid off; after that they approved the usufruct arrangements and I asked for the 12 acres we had always planted with tobacco,” and, he stressed, indicating the land around his house, “all of this we’d had forever, since I was tiny.”

With the adoption in 2008 of Decree Law 259, replaced by Decree Law 300 in 2012, the government of Raul Castro permitted “the delivery in usufruct [leasing] the benefits of state property to natural or legal persons.” Those interested could, from that time, request a maximum of 33 acres for a period of up to ten years, renewable for additional ten-year periods.

That’s how Muñoz as an old man returned to working the fields that had been his family’s. Now, he plants rice, corn, tomatoes, sweet potatoes and fruits, especially for his own consumption. “Life is hard, and the land does not produce like before,” he says, while straining a little coffee on his wood stove.

Electricity has not officially come to the house of Muñoz or the 15 other farmers who live nearby. An illegal line provides them the service, but not without setbacks. “That has brought me problems, inspectors have come to threaten us with fines.” The low voltage only allows turning on “one light bulb,” and so he hasn’t bought a refrigerator or television, “because it would just go to waste.”

This year the drought has taken its toll on the octogenarian’s fields. “All the seedlings the Fructuoso Rodriguez Agricultural Production Cooperative gave me have gone to waste. Now the land is bare, completely bare” and he has to “buy seedlings privately,” he explains.

The problems he experiences are shared by most of his neighbors. The land leasing arrangement has not worked in the region as expected and by the end of 2015 the local press reported that it 3,504 individuals in Pinar del Rio who had taken advantage of this arrangement had lost their land. According to the official version, irregularities were found, such as “the abandonment of an area for more than six months and not dedicating the land to the purposes for which it was granted.

Muñoz sees the situation very differently. Although he has been able to continue to work his piece of land, he says that most of the time he cannot get fertilizer, the tractors are broken and there is no fuel. “This year the seeds didn’t sprout,” and he complains that he can’t rely on crop insurance against natural disasters. “Three years ago my tobacco harvest was diseased, and I applied for the insurance but I am still waiting.”

Across the province 116,000 acres remain available to be leased, especially in the districts of Sandino, Mantua, Consolacion del Sur and Los Palacios. However the land is difficult to farm and infested with the invasive and very hard to get rid of marabou weed, so even the boldest decline to apply for it.

Despite the few advantages that the stubborn farmer has been found in leasing his land, he says he appreciates “tranquility” of labor in the tobacco fields. This calm, however, could be about to end. “They came to me and told me that this year if I don’t fulfill my plan they’re going to cancel the contract.” It would be the second time they took away his land.

Cuba farmer working land with oxen
Cuba farmer working the land with oxen