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HAVANA (Reuters) - After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba planted thousands of urban cooperative gardens to offset reduced rations of imported food.
Now, in the wake of three hurricanes that wiped out 30 percent of Cuba's farm crops, the communist country is again turning to its urban gardens to keep its people properly fed.
"Our capacity for response is immediate because this is a cooperative," said Miguel Salcines, walking among rows of lettuce in the garden he heads in the Alamar suburb on the outskirts of Havana.
Salcines says he is hardly sleeping as his 160-member cooperative rushes to plant and harvest a variety of beets that takes just 25 days to grow, among other crops.
As he talks, dirt-stained men and women kneel along the furrows, planting and watering on land next to a complex of Soviet-style buildings. Machete-wielding men chop weeds and clear brush along the periphery of the field.
Around 15 percent of the world's food is grown in urban areas, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a figure experts expect to increase as food prices rise, urban populations grow and environmental concerns mount.
Since they sell directly to their communities, city farms don't depend on transportation and are relatively immune to the volatility of fuel prices, advantages that are only now gaining traction as "eat local" movements in rich countries.
In Cuba, urban gardens have bloomed in vacant lots, alongside parking lots, in the suburbs and even on city rooftops.
They sprang from a military plan for Cuba to be self-sufficient in case of war. They were broadened to the general public in response to a food crisis that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba's biggest benefactor at the time.
They have proven extremely popular, occupying 35,000 hectares (86,000 acres) of land across the Caribbean island. Even before the hurricanes, they produced half of the leaf vegetables eaten in Cuba, which imports about 60 percent of its food.
"I don't say they have the capacity to produce enough food for the whole island, but for social and also agricultural reasons they are the most adequate response to a crisis," said Catherine Murphy, a U.S. sociologist who has studied Cuba's urban gardens.
In Alamar, the members get a salary and share the garden's profits, so the more they grow, the more they earn. They make an average of about 950 pesos, or $42.75, per month, more than double the national average, Salcines said.
The co-op, which began in 1997, now produces more than 240 tons of vegetables annually on its 11 hectares (27 acres) of land, which is about the size of 13 soccer fields.
The gardens sell their produce directly to the community and, out of necessity, grow their crops organically.
"Urban agriculture is going to play a key role in guaranteeing the feeding of the people much more quickly than the traditional farms," said Richard Haep, Cuba coordinator for German aid group Welthungerhilfe, which has supported these kinds of projects since 1994.
When the Soviet Union fell apart, Cuba's supply of oil slowed to a trickle, hurting big state agricultural operations. Chemical fertilizers were replaced with mountains of manure, and beneficial insects were used instead of pesticides.
Unlike in developed countries, where organic products are more expensive, in Cuba they are affordable.
"We have taken organic agriculture to a social level," said Salcines.
Some experts fear that rising international food prices along with the destruction of the hurricanes will return Cuba to the path of agrochemicals. The government is planning to construct a fertilizer plant with its oil-rich ally Venezuela.
But Raul Castro, who replaced ailing brother Fidel Castro as president in February, has also borrowed ideas from the urban gardens as he implements reforms to cut the island's $2.5 billion in annual food imports, much of it from the United States.
Castro has decentralized farm decision-making and raised the prices that the state pays for agricultural products, which has increased milk production, for example, by almost 20 percent.
And, in September, the government began renting out unused state-owned lands to farmers and cooperatives, measures that met with approval of international aid groups.
"Decentralization and economic incentives. If those elements are expanded to the rest of the agricultural sector, the response will be the same," said Welthungerhilfe's Haep.
Reporting by Esteban Israel; Editing by Jeff Franks and Eddie Evans