“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