In The Urban Gardens of Havana: Seeking Revolutionary Plants in Ideologized Spaces, Ola Plonska and Younes Saramifar explore the poetics of gardening and narrate everyday life under the gaze of the Cuban state through conversations with urban gardeners in Havana. This is an insightful, detailed, theoretically rigorous and imaginative account of the relationships between urban farmers, the state and non-human entities in Cuba, writes Sahib Singh.

The Urban Gardens of Havana: Seeking Revolutionary Plants in Ideologized Spaces. Ola Plonska and Younes Saramifar. Palgrave Macmillan. 2019.

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The small-scale urban gardens of Havana are contested spaces with both control and resistance existing cheek by jowl: on the one hand, they are continually monitored by Cuban state institutions; on the other, they offer opportunities for resistance for the gardeners themselves that might otherwise be next to impossible. In this fascinating and moving short read, Ola Plonska and Younes Saramifar explore the poetics of gardening and narrate everyday life under the constant gaze of the authoritative Cuban state through the experiences of urban gardeners, simply by way of conversing with them in between the pruning and harvesting. Their ethnography highlights the relationships between humans and non-humans within the blurred boundaries of nature and culture, pointing out that the urban gardens ‘are more than just ideological or political reflections of Cuban culture and history: they are the realms in which meanings are constructed and worlds are imagined’. Simultaneously, the book is the captivating story of Plonska’s own physical, mental and spiritual journey as she spends time with Marcelo, a revolutionary and gardener, during her fieldwork in Havana.

The atmosphere Plonska recreates in the opening lines of the chapter ‘Intervening, Correcting, Rewarding’ is so life-like and cinematically vivid, one feels one is right there inhaling the fresh air of the garden with her. The contextual narrative then begins with the authors deftly weaving Cuban history, describing the US dominance over the domestic economy in the 1920s and the revolutionary coup orchestrated by Fidel Castro, which sprung out of generalised opposition towards US imperialism and the tyrannical government of Fulgencio Batista (in tandem with the book, I recommend watching the documentary The Cuba Libre Story for history buffs). In the 1960s, under Castro, Cuba adopted the industrialised and highly inefficient Soviet agricultural model, and the country remained dependent on imports from other socialist countries, despite Castro’s many attempts at achieving self-sufficiency in food production. The collapse of the Soviet Union beginning in the second half of the 1980s had a calamitous impact on Cuba’s food security, triggering enormous food, oil and pesticide shortfalls. To cope, the state began promoting self-reliant, small-scale, organic primary food production practices in urban centres. Today, Havana produces up to 100 per cent of its fresh vegetables and is often touted as a world-leading example of stellar practice in urban food cultivation.

Setting the backdrop for why these food-growing green urban spaces are so contested, the authors lay out the forces that led to the rise of state communism and social control, and the emergence of a collective identity predicated on civic participation. Cuban national identity and its political/ideological radicalisation stem from a gnawing desire for constant protection of the country given its turbulent past: Spanish colonisation and US occupation and its subsequent invasions. State control has become an all-encompassing part of daily life and a key feature of Cuba’s social fabric. Plonska’s conversation with Stefano, one of Marcelo’s friends, gives the reader an insight into the nature of this ‘control’ when he tells her that she ought to be careful talking about sensitive issues as there are ‘eyes and ears everywhere’: they cannot just say whatever comes to mind. By interweaving the contextual/factual elements with narrative exposition, the authors give the reader a sense of the dynamism and ideological undercurrents in everyday Cuban life.

Image Credit: An pink orchid inside a fenced and netted enclosure at the La Yoandra Estate, an urban farm and botanical garden that is privately owned (Dan Lundberg CC BY SA 2.0)

One way in which the state exercises its control is by organising a competition, in which gardens are rated vis-à-vis an array of characteristics (recycling practices, use of non-chemical pesticides and environmentally friendly methods, diversity in cropping patterns), and thereby monitored in the process (a form of soft power). For Marcelo, however, the competition means little as he despises the way people have been subjugated in Cuba. Despite being on Castro’s side during the revolution, he subtly resists the state’s policies today by not actively engaging in the competition, and by not ascribing any meaning to the state grading his work. The authors conclude that the ‘power of resistance lies not in doing something but, rather, in doing less of it’, which then becomes a political act, even inconspicuous in the collective. The very nature of being a gardener and carrying out urban farming because of one’s own proclivities and via one’s own way of doing things itself embodies symbolic resistance. To me, the strength of the monograph lies in Plonska’s inferences and her analysis of Marcelo’s contradictory relationship with the state, backed up by relevant theory as the authors draw on excerpts from James Scott’s seminal 1989 piece, ‘Everyday Forms of Resistance’, amongst others.

In the chapter ‘The Garden’, the authors trace the networks through which the gardens constitute a much larger whole, with subjectivities that are generated through ‘acts, intentions, actions, thoughts and performances’. In the process, they delineate the Garden (a network of all small gardens in Cuba) with a capital ‘G’ from the garden as an enclosed space. Employing Actor-Network Theory (ANT), and with arguably the most rigorous and creative theoretical exploration of the book, the authors explain how the Garden transcends physicality, becoming ‘an active imaginary and performativity across socialist Cuba’. The network suggested by ANT comprises of people, plants and material objects, the mutual relationships among them, a mesh of interactions and the poetic configurations that are produced. Importantly, this network is not static and is constantly evolving. In the descriptions of the relationship between gardens and the gardeners, ANT is used as a tool to explore rather than theorise per se, an attitude (‘network thinking’) that helps in seeing the world from multiple perspectives.

Marcelo’s garden transforms into a place through the ‘human-non-human’ relationships of care. The sense of belonging that both he and another urban gardener, Samuel, experience is nurtured by the intimacy they share with their non-human companions: experiences that are sensory and embodied in nature. Drawing on the humanistic geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, the authors highlight how humans ascribe meaning to spaces based on their lived experiences, implying that any space can personify a multitude of stories ‘depending on the cultural definitions of those living it’. As Baviskar writes:

There are multiple realities, constructed by people in different ontological positions; inquiry into these multiple realities does not seek to discover a unified truth but is aimed at enriching our understanding of divergent, socially-situated truths.

While this idea of socially constructed meanings, stories and realities has been written about time and again, the authors add immensely to this body of work by critically engaging with the discourse on society, space and meaning. In addition, they go on to write at length on the garden’s visceral, yet intangible, energy, or reverberation, and the enchanting encounters that occur as a result, which I found rather poetic and dreamlike. They contend that moments of freedom come to life by means of this configuration of experiences.

In sum, The Urban Gardens of Havana offers an insightful, detailed, theoretically rigorous and imaginative account of the relationships between urban farmers, the state and non-human entities in Cuba, and the ways in which meanings and subjectivities are crafted under social control. Although the book is sufficiently broad in scope, and touches upon a number of interrelated ideas in cultural anthropology, human geography and political ecology, the authors do seem repetitive at times: for example, when pointing out that the garden is not only the physical entity where gardening takes place but also a platform that contributes to the larger political agenda. This idea, paraphrased of course, has been regurgitated and seems overdone. One is also stretched thin when trying to assimilate the numerous theoretical digressions, which while interesting and substantive in their own right, unfortunately also tend to detract from the larger narrative in an otherwise highly accessible and well-structured book. That being said, the themes the book engages with are important for burgeoning environmental anthropologists interested in situating human/non-human relationships within the nature-culture debate, and have value for those in search of poetic and microscopic elements with the aim of understanding what it means to be human in politically charged biospheres.

Sahib Singh is an Adjunct Researcher at the Centre for Ecology, Development and Research, based out of Kumaon/Delhi, India where he is working with forest-dwelling communities on issues of internal struggle in the face of ethnic cleavages, demographic transitions and commoditisation. His interests include the cultural politics of environment and development, inequality, subaltern movements and traditional ecological knowledge. Sahib holds an MPA in International Development from the LSE and is an incoming PhD student in Anthropology at University College London (UCL).

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 

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