I am not going to lie, and hopefully this won’t sound like a complaint, but sometimes work in development (especially as a Peace Corps volunteer) seems completely unfeasible, mind-fuddling, and just absurd. Communication is an obstacle in almost every job or human endeavor, but here in Paraguay, it seems to be the Achilles heel of not only every developmental effort, but even daily interactions. It is an unavoidable challenge of cultural and linguistic boundaries. With time, however, the picture usually gets less hazy and I have at least begun catching glimpses through the fog.
In the village of Guido Almada, I have been working with many neighboring families one-on-one in the past few months, specifically with implementing organic techniques in the garden and the field. The work I do with these family seems to really “take” about 50 percent of the time; that is to say, people are able to demonstrate understanding and repeat the processes on their own in the days or weeks following our initial session. In some cases, I am amazed with their grasp of complex ideas and proud of their enthusiasm and willingness to accept new things. Other times, I realize that many people just want me around as an extra hand of free labor (and I can’t blame them).
The other day while drinking tereré with a neighbor after working in the garden, he shared with me an incredibly insightful and profound perspective. “Mario,” he said, “It’s not that we don’t know the stuff you are teaching us. We’ve seen all these practices in the past from extension workers from the government and non-governmental organizations. The problem is that it is difficult for rural Paraguayans, who are already doing so much, to find the motivation to put in the extra effort to actually implement these changes. Your coming to our homes to work with us, that makes the difference.”
In a way, I think most people already know the truth of this statement. Surely this is one of the major problems with development work anywhere. What my neighbor offered was not a revelation for me, but an acknowledgment of self-reflection. The foundation of knowledge already exists in Guido Almada and in so many other impoverished rural communities across the world. The difference between progress and the status quo is just being able to be there to work with the people, to offer motivation and support. It’s an unconscious economical analysis for them, but one that is tipped favorably when someone shows up with a shovel in hand.
Ideally, however, these things need to be self-sustaining enough to last when there are no Peace Corps volunteers or extension agents there to break that initial barrier. In the end, there is a need for communication to connect the dots between resources and individuals within the community. That way, even when there are no external motivators, community members can self-catalyze by finding that force in the neighbor next door or down the street.
These people are smart—incredibly intelligent in so many ways that most Westerners might not appreciate fully, but could never deny. With a lack of financial means and governmental support, Guido Almada’s greatest asset is its people. If you can tap that reservoir properly, the potential is unlimited. Which leads me to discussing my newest project for Guido Almada—but I’ll save that for next week. —Mario Machado
“Ese sequía es muy mala, muy grava”—so my neighbors have repeated to me continuously for the past few weeks. “This drought is very bad, very serious.”
Now is the time for sowing crops in Paraguay. As the mild winter peters out, it is essential to get all of one’s crops, both cash and consumption, into the ground before the southern sun parches the earth and withers up any straggling seedlings in the next few months. Summer temperatures regularly soar past 100°F down here, so crops must be well established by then in order to survive between the cooling rainstorms that act like small meteorological oases to temper the effects of oppressive, almost paralyzing heat.
Still, the typically wet winter has been drier than expected. Right now, some farmers have had to sow and re-sow seed as the seedlings have withered and died before they could sink their roots deep enough to reach the still moist soils several inches below the dusty surface. Tougher crops, like mandioca and sugarcane (a perennial grass), have been persistent, growing slowly and cautiously underneath the gaze of an already heavy sun. Others, especially the local corn varieties, are stunted and starved as this small drought has made their naturally heavy-feeding demeanor difficult to sustain.
Sometimes, when out in a field with a farmer, I am asked to diagnose issues with certain crops—whether a disease or pest or something else is affecting (and sometimes crippling) the field. Often it is a combination of factors. Drained soils are common, empty of nutrients from overuse and lacking organic material. Sometimes fields lack a good crop rotation schedule. Add the problems of erosion, pests, and lack of crop diversity—all of these things can conflate smaller issues and seriously affect crops. However, a problem that I see all too often is simply lack of water.
Irrigation systems are too expensive, too unpractical, and too difficult given the nature of small-scale agriculture. But without water, what else can be done? The crops here in Paraguay tend to be hardy and fairly drought resistant. Still, persistently bone-dry soils sap even the toughest of these varieties. The outlook for a drier future looks bleak. Water, something that the river-laced web of Paraguay’s eastern region has never seemed to lack, is slowly becoming a more and more precious resource.
Yesterday we received our first relief in almost a month: a morning thunderstorm that kept me in bed for an extra hour followed by on-and-off spells of moderate rain throughout the day. Luckily, the clouds have hung around, letting the water soak into the ground without being immediately burned off by the sun. It’s funny how the rains seem to relieve the tension—the subtle, brow-furrowing anxiety that seems to hang over the community when the sky is too clear and open for comfort. “Por Dios, que venga la lluvia” is what I have been hearing all day today: “By the grace of God, may the rain fall.” It’s a welcome change. —Mario Machado
Part of any good extension work is demonstration. Especially in the field of agriculture, nothing speaks more clearly or effectively than showing someone the concrete merits and/or downfalls of any particular practice. So, as a Peace Corps volunteer and agricultural extension agent, I have worked hard in the past few months to develop my own garden, using biointensive and permaculture techniques, as well as a demonstration plot of field crops. My demonstration plot (what the locals call my kokue’i or “little field”) is finally beginning to grow—and with it, the curiosity of my neighbors as to what I am doing.
Paraguayans are used to hand-planting small areas (less than 1 hectare or about 2.5 acres) in monocultures of staples such as mandioca, corn, beans, or sugarcane. Such small plots are worlds away from industrial monocultures, but they still contain their own set of drawbacks, albeit to a much lesser extent than typical agribusiness. While my community uses largely organic practices (in many ways the exception, not the norm for Paraguayan agriculture), farmers here engage in other activities that limit production and are harmful to the soils and the environment, such as yearly field burning and small-scale monoculture.
In my demonstration plot, I have implemented a variety of techniques while integrating local crops to hopefully show some viable alternatives in crop management. First, instead of burning off the brush to clear the land, I “chopped and dropped” all the organic material right on my field. This organic debris serves as mulch to conserve soil moisture and maintain the natural cycling of nutrients. I pushed back the mulch to clear rows for the corn and mandioca seedlings, at least until they are a little bigger, and then I plan on filling in the gaps between plants with more organic mulch.
Also, I have created a hodgepodge of intercropping. On one end, I started with alternating rows of a local variety of corn and mandioca. Between the rows I planted zucchini squash and bush beans. On the other end, I intercropped within the rows themselves, mixing corn, beans, and mandioca; these rows alternate with cucumbers and a local pumpkin-sized green squash. Where the two sections meet, I have planted a line of tobacco, which is one of the most important commercial crops, along with sugarcane.
In a separate area I have planted the traditional “three sisters.” My version combines yellow summer squash, sweet corn, and either regular peas, snap peas, or yellow beans. After digging an approximately 8-inch hole, I planted the corn in the middle, flanked on each side by a climbing variety of bean, and the squash. This is an excellent companion-planting system that conserves space, time, and labor, while benefiting crop diversity and health. I am also currently growing some sunflowers for transplant into my field in order to attract more bees and further increase plant diversity. —Mario Machado