Why get to the driest place and stay there?

A story on Madrugón, the driest place in Cuba

The World Food Programme (WFP) and the European Commission for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (ECHO) came to Cuba to track a severe drought. In the following two years, they discovered a municipality with an incredible capacity to transform.

Almost all Cuban rural communities share the same quiet atmosphere: people look each other in the eye and drink coffee in the doorway, offering a cup along with a break from the noon sun to whoever passes by. But “the driest place in Cuba” — experts say — is not like anywhere else in the country.

About 15 kms from the nearest municipality, and two hours from Santiago de Cuba, is Madrugón. It is accessible by a single path: a dusty road that crosses what used to be a river.

For families in Madrugón, the land no longer offers the opportunities that it did ten years ago, nor the same benefits.

During the last six or seven years, Madrugón has faced an extreme water shortage. Agriculture depends on the wells opened by the local farmers. However, due to the wells’ proximity to the coast, salinization poses a real risk.

ECHO funding has allowed WFP to increase resilience activities for food and nutritional security in this municipality and another 19 similar ones in eastern Cuba.

Local farmers and decision-makers now receive a tailor-made bulletin produced by the Meteorological Center. Issued every two weeks, it provides critical information for farmers such as when and where it is going to rain, the humidity of the soil and any potential risks.

The drought no longer surprises them.

‘We do not always have to lose because of the drought’

A voice like a radio announcer. Impeccable clothes. Farmer Osmay Tejeda, or “Mayito” as he is known, was born here. So was his son. Mayito is still in Madrugón. For now.

“Last year we lost a very large harvest because we had no idea how long the drought was going to last. The signs have changed and it does not rain when it should. Sometimes I get lost. And when I get lost, I lose,” jokes Mayito.”

When he “loses,” there is also a food and nutritional gap for those depending on Mayito’s crops.

“With this information in our hands, we can start again.”

He asks not to be recorded now. He wants to be calm when he speaks, so that what he says is “clearly understood.”

Mayito has become a natural leader of the project in the agricultural cooperative of Madrugón. He is in charge of receiving the bulletins from the Meteorological Centre and “translating” their content for the other farmers.

“With this information in our hands we can start again. We do not always have to lose everything because of the drought.”

Women in charge of resilience

Yuliet Silva could introduce herself as a “housewife” or “Anthony’s mother” — no one in rural Cuba would be surprised if she did. But she chooses to show the camera the confident and capable woman farmer that she is, responsible for the local cooperative’s finances.

No drought-resistant crop is missed from Yuliet’s bag — especially, ones that guarantee the family meal. That is why she not only wanted to get involved in the project from the beginning, but assumed the responsibility of sharing the bulletins with the community.

“I recently had my son. He is still very little, but I cannot be without doing anything. So I distribute the bulletins to the farmers in monthly assemblies, and help them understand what they say. I have been prepared for that.”

The WFP - ECHO project has brought to light stereotypes that are still holding back the contribution of rural women to risk management.

“We (women) are gaining space, step by step.”

Women are usually “seen” in private spaces like household water management and offices but not in public spaces or leading the work of cooperatives made up of men on resilience.

“It’s not that easy. But men need the information I give them. So we are gaining space, step by step.”

Two years ago, a “silent” drought brought WFP to Madrugón and it kept us here. Along the way, we have seen the transforming capacity of the municipality and the courage of its people.

More than 200 specialists in meteorology and water management, farmers and local authorities from 20 municipalities in Cuba helped develop the communication channels that connect information about drought with decision-making in communities in danger. The impact of the drought on food and nutrition security should be lower now — or at least, more predictable.

Find out more about WFP’s work in Cuba.

World Food Programme Insight

Insight by The World Food Programme