Is the Cuban cigar an example of a centuries-old practice of sustainability, both in ecology and economy?   This hypothesis was the core motive for my recent research trip to Cuba.  To help flush out this hypothesis I studied the tobacco growing valley of Piñar del Rio, one of Cuba’s nine World Heritage Sites.  This valley was protected by the Constitution of the Republic of Cuba in 1976 and again by the Cultural Property law in 1977.  In 1979 the valley was declared a National Monument and has had a management plan in place by the Councils of Municipal and Provincial Administration since 1999. The risks that threaten the integrity and authenticity of this tobacco growing valley, and the Cuban cigar, are similar to that of many other of the world’s ecologies and associated economies; frequent natural disasters, reduction of water supply due to climate change, and the increasing pressures of urban development.           

            On the road into the valley I was flagged down by the driver of a broken-down bus intent on finding rides for his passengers.  I gave a ride to a man who coincidentally worked in the valley’s agricultural protection.  As we drove he attempted to answer my onslaught of questions.  I wanted to know about the valley’s ecology, their methods for growing and processing tobacco and the effects of hurricane Irma on the region.           

            In an effort to repay me for the ride he took me to a local tobacco farm to see if I could get all my questions answered. As an ecologist and a master gardener I have grown tobacco myself, with a special license to produce it.  My numerous questions quickly exhausted the farm’s manager.  He then gladly obliged my request to go into the field so I could continue my questions with the man harvesting tobacco. As the sun was setting, the worker graciously answered my questions.           

            Virtually every leaf is harvested from the plant on two separate occasions before the plant is done.  On this day the man was finishing the second harvest and cutting down the plants entirely, separating the robust top leaves from the milder bottom ones as they were hung. The harvested leaves would be left hanging on a rack in the field for two days before being moved inside to complete the drying process. Traditional palm-thatched drying houses not only utilize the palm as an abundant natural resource, but the palm fronds themselves help to naturally mitigate the fluctuations in humidity during the drying process. This drying and curing process can take from 6 months to 3 years.           

            In this protected valley there are no tractors used for tilling, only oxen. Nor do they use chemicals or the practice of field burning. Burning would conventionally be done for vegetation and insect clearing, as well as for obtaining carbon nutrients. Instead, after the tobacco is harvested, a crop rotation of corn, beans and/or sweet potatoes is planted. The fields are not otherwise amended in any way.  Tobacco, a natural insecticide, has little threat from insects beyond slugs and does not need to be sprayed with insecticides; manual integrated pest management is used for slugs. Beyond the Karst Mountains that protect this valley, the absence of chemicals, burning practices, and tractors on the production of this fine tobacco suggests that natural laws are combining to aid in the growing process.            

            It is argued that the best tobacco is grown just west of this protected valley. While the commercial production takes place in the West, like with sugarcane, small personal plots of tobacco can be found throughout the country.  Small local farms tend to grow, dry, age, roll and sell their own cigars but the major brands, like Cohiba Partagas and Montecristo, age and roll the tobacco in factories located in Havana.  This allows them to utilize the world’s finest and most experienced craftsmen and sommeliers.            

             For 20 years Cuba’s world-famous cigars have been celebrated at the Habana Cigar Festival.  I was specially invited to attend by the Habanos Company Director of Communications and Marketing Operations, Daymi Difurniao.  Daymi welcomed my research of the Cuban cigar hypothesis with all access, enlisting the support of the Cuban Embassy, Consulate, and International Press Agency on my behalf.  I greatly appreciate and respect the support I received from Daymi and all of the involved agencies.  

The festival’s base was a convention in Havana where Cuba’s finest cigars, rum, and humidors were displayed, paired, and auctioned.  In addition there were field trips to farms and factories, and red-carpet galas to rival any other. While the paring events focused on the sophisticated layers of flavors, other forums focused on tradition and aspects of expertise. 

The amazing climax of the festival is an internationally star-studded humidor auction, with proceeds going towards Cuban healthcare programs. The proceeds raised this year no doubt exceeded two million Euros, thanks in part to donations from generous bidders like members of the United Arab Emirates, who, conducive to their forty-year enhanced commitment to the promotion of healthcare, purchased three humidors for over $200,000 each. The night’s highest bid, $340,000 for the Cohiba humidor. Who says cigars can’t be good for your health? 

          So what of my Cuban cigar hypothesis?  The centuries-old sustainable environment practices are not only used, but they are promoted and protected, which in turn protects the economic sustainability.  In addition, the fundraising element of Cuba’s cigar celebration helps to further sustain the healthcare of the people producing the cigars.  The production, process and people involved in the creation of the Cuban cigar can all be seen as great examples of sustainable practices, practices that can be applied to geographical locations, products, and people the world over.  This is a clear example of my ecology-economy theory; if we protect these forms of ecology, we protect the associated economy, thus exercising the core meaning of economy, the knowledge of the ecology.

 My further hypothesis in the sustainable production of Cuba’s tobacco, is that it is more than the regional climate, hands on production techniques, or absence of chemicals or petroleum pollution, but possibly that the oxen-tilled fields are leaving behind big chunks of dirt which allows the relationships in the soil’s microorganisms to remain more complete, making the associated nutrients greater and more available. This will be next years research. 

For more information on Cuban tobacco, or international sustainability issues, please contact Ecologist Boyd Smith @ ecogardening@hotmail.com

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From the Field to the Festival
the Cuban Cigar