“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
Some countries specialize in heavy industry and some in service industries. Some are tourist destinations. Still others mix and match all of the above to make a living. Paraguay is none of the above. This is an agricultural country, a primary producer at the heart of the global economic ecosystem. It grows things from the earth.
Many countries have a significant population of farmers (throughout Latin America referred to as campesinos), but few places are as saturated with agrarian culture as Paraguay. The countryside, the campo, is everywhere. The markets of all major cities—even the capital, Asunción—fill to bursting on a daily basis with goods fresh from the fields just a few kilometers down the rickety highways. Indigenous people peddle herbs and remedies freshly picked from the forest at every street corner of seemingly the entire country. Roosters can be heard calling in the early morning hours, even in the center of Asunción. This is a country of growers and farmers, a culture of soil mystics and weather soothsayers.
Paraguayan land is immensely fertile. Sometimes it seems as if everything imaginable grows here, and with an accelerated, almost supernatural velocity. The ground of this country, into which the roots of Paraguay are firmly sunk, is sediment from the mighty Andes. These soils have precipitated from the heights the South American spine, depositing their nutrients and their blessings along endless pastures and gently rolling hills. The country is green, showing its blood-red soils only when the thick carpet of forest has been cleared away.
There are some parts of the countryside that seem so flat that one can literally detect the curvature of the Earth as it extends toward the panoramic horizon. Other parts are mountainous corridors, rudely partitioned by rising spires of rock covered in forest. Then there is the dry, hot immensity of the Chaco desert, worked for centuries by Mennonite farmers who have coaxed and worked the parched earth into a brilliant, almost unbelievable amount of life. In the riparian lowlands, seasonal flooding converts vast stretches of grasslands into temporary marshes, sometimes feeling like temporary oceans with floating islands of rushes and reeds and flocks of ibis and egrets.
There are so few people here—only 6 million in a country roughly the size of California. There is just so much space to be had, or space to be left, space where things are still growing and decaying and re-growing at a pace that is matched in few places on Earth. And that is what earns this country the pride of sitting at the heart of the South American continent. —Mario Machado
The kumanda yvyra’i (“little bean trees” in Guaraní, the local dialect) I planted last summer as a living fence and green manure have finally begun to flower. They are quite large now and are really helping to keep the berms surrounding my gardens from washing away. Not only are they leguminous (and therefore, replenish the soil with nitrogen) but they can also be used for animal forage, firewood, shade, and human consumption. The beans are delicious and beautifully colored—pictures will be soon to come. I will likely let these few plants go to seed and use this year’s haul to plant some more in my garden or field for the next season. —Mario Machado
My garden has really taken off in the past few weeks. The relatively mild summer helped by keeping the frost away even if it also meant significantly less and unpredictable rainfall. The vegetables I planted came up with varying success. Squash, Swiss chard, onions, green onions, tomatoes, beets, carrots and peppers are all on their way, slowly but surely, to becoming delicious meal items in the next few weeks or months.
I have added several things on the technical side of my garden in order to help with future production. First, using recycled wood and brick, I constructed a worm bin (above), called lombricultura in Spanish. With an underlying bed of dry, leafy material and kitchen scraps for food, California red worms can produce wonderful organic fertilizer in the form of worm castings. These castings are rich in nutrients that are readily available for absorption by plant roots. In a month or so I should have excellent organic fertilizer to add to my plants.
Also, to increase the diversity of my garden, I have planted several banana plants and a line of pineapples along the outside fence. These will grow and produce fruit in about a year or so, but in the meantime, the flowering fruit trees will help attract bees. And thorny pineapple plants work wonders against curious chickens.
I was experiencing some problems with erosion during large storms and watched several of my meticulously formed raised beds wash away. To prevent this I have used old soda and wine bottles, as well as scrap wood, to create more permanent sides for the beds. So far this seems to have helped hold the soil in place. —Mario Machado
Winter has been mild so far here in Paraguay, where seasons are reversed from those in the northern hemisphere. Usually, temperatures hit lows in the mid 30s to upper 40s on a regular basis; this year, we’ve seen only a few scattered weeks like this. Right now, in the dead of the Paraguayan winter, some days are hot enough to wear sandals, shorts, and a T-shirt out in the sugar-cane fields. This is not necessarily a bad thing, seeing as we have had only one night of frost this season so far, but the noticeable changes in the weather underscore a profound climatic issue.
The farmers here in the village of Guido Almada notice it; they can tell the weather is changing from year to year. Average temperatures are increasing overall. The rains come later, or earlier, or not consistently, or all at once. The pulse of the seasons, the pace by which the life of a Paraguayan campesino is set, has been gradually thrown off beat. For now, the changes seem manageable. My neighbors grumble and complain as we pick tobacco leaves or cut sugar cane, but they have so far managed to get by. Still, even the slightest changes in their crop yields can affect their ability to provide for their families in the coming year. As global climate change continues on its dismal trajectory, it is only a matter of time before the typical yearly agricultural gamble for impoverished families becomes more like a bid to stay or leave, to invest in their land or sell it, to eat or starve.
For those of us who live in developed countries, climate change might seem little more than no more “white Christmas” or slightly higher produce prices at the local food market. But for the people of the developing world, especially those who subsist directly from the land—the farmers and fishermen—their livelihoods sway with the seasons. These are people with small carbon footprints who bear little responsibility for the environmental neglect that has led our world to the precipice of climatic disaster. Regardless, they will shoulder a share of the burden that a gradually warming planet will bring.
This year, Paraguay was hit with a one-two punch of severe drought followed by intense rains, which then combined to cause massively destructive flooding in the northern and western parts of the country, displacing thousands of peasants. While this made national headlines, other climate-related damage is not as noticeable. Sometimes it is as subtle as a family forced to skip meals because the mandioc crop is failing. It may be higher instances of anemia, malnutrition, and other diseases among children. It may be a quiet depression among parents who, despite their sweat and toil and love, cannot feed their families.
On a large scale, the issues surrounding climate change, its causes and effects and its potential fallout, are continually debated by politicians and global leaders as if they were part of a campaign strategy or bid for political leverage. Science, even at its best, cannot adequately convey in humanistic terms the social impacts of rising global temperatures. To grasp this properly, ask a third-world farmer how his crops have been in the past few seasons. Ask his wife how far she must walk for water or what she does to care for her sickly child. Notice their calluses as they pray that their hands will always feel as rough as sandpaper, for the day these scars of the trade have faded is the day that the land has nothing left to give.
In this sense, and perhaps many others, the campesinos of Paraguay are proving wiser than our elected officials; they see what is happening to our planet and feel the changes in the seasons. They understand better than we the true gravity of our collective future. —Mario Machado
In Monday’s post I described some of the antics of youthful celebrants, called cambâ, at the Paraguayan festival of San Juan. The cambâ engage in a variety of activities involving fire and a sort of slapstick comedy routine. For example, before the festival, a large post about 5 meters tall is sunk into the ground, topped with an array of traditional Paraguayan food. This post is then greased with pig fat. In an intentionally comical manner, the cambâ compete to scale this post. After their humorous conquest of the post, a pair of boys draped in a cow’s hide, donning a cow skull with flaming horns, charge at the group of triumphant cambâ. The masked men then run in feigned fear, only to return moments later to taunt the fake bull.
A series of other events will then occur. A hoop made of forest vines is doused in gasoline and set on fire. The cambâ proceed to dive through this loop with varying success. Another common part of the festival is called tata pelota in Guaraní or pelota del fuego in Spanish—in English this translates to “ball of fire.” A ball is wrapped in gasoline-soaked rags, ignited, and then used in a game of soccer between the cambâ. Needless to say, all of these practices tend to be fairly dangerous, however, I should mention that the dried banana-leaf costumes are not worn everywhere and many of these events take place with the cambâ wearing masks and regular clothing only.
The last part of the festival is something that could only be described as a sort of Paraguayan drag show. The very cambâ who before were playing with fire and demonstrating their comical masculinity by taunting a bull then change their costumes into female clothing and stuff their buttocks and chests with cloth to represent exaggerated parts of the female body. What commences is a dance in which the cambâ imitate female dance moves (which takes the form of “grinding” in our modern age) with other male cambâs. Again the idea here is comedy, a sort of mockery between the sexes that is equally as irreverent to males as it is to females. The fluidity between the genders and the gender roles represented here is especially fascinating given the overt machismo typical of Latin American cultures.
In short, that is the festival of San Juan. I would hardly call it an entirely Christian tradition. The reality is that such a mixing of religious belief systems is more the norm than the exception in the world. This type of hybridization occurs almost invariably along with colonization, conquest, and cultural interaction. Perhaps it is particularly evident here in Paraguay because of the strength and prevalence of the indigenous culture, but less obvious examples can be seen almost anywhere if one has the mind or eye to look for it. From an academic perspective, it is extremely interesting; from a personal perspective, it is a really good time. There’s nothing like dancing Paraguayan polkas with my Guaraní neighbors into the wee hours of the morning. —Mario Machado
To the casual observer, the Paraguayan festival of San Juan appears to follow the typical Paraguayan paradigm for parties and holidays: loud polka music; people dancing, drinking, and playing card games; and traditional foods. On second glance, and especially as the evening gets moving, things take a surprising and curious turn. By the time young masked men can be seen jumping through flaming hoops made from forest vines, a little voice inside one’s head can be heard in the midst of the hooting and hollering: “What in the world is going on here?”
Paraguay is a predominantly Catholic country. The festival of San Juan, like many other Paraguayan holidays, is Catholic in origin. It celebrates Saint John, one of Jesus’ 12 disciples in the biblical New Testament. In this country, however, the story does not end there, as the unique cultural history of Paraguay comes into dramatic play. While Paraguay may be mostly Catholic and a part of the largely Christian Latin America, it also stands alone for its thriving and ubiquitous Guaraní Indian tradition. The reason for this strong indigenous tradition, especially while most other such religious customs in Latin America were wiped out during the conquest, is a history in and of itself. Suffice it to say that modern Paraguayan culture is a strange mix, a sort of hybrid that is neither fully Latin American nor fully indigenous. The Guaraní language is still the first language of most Paraguayans and is even more widespread than Spanish. In regards to holidays and celebrations, the situation is much the same.
From an anthropologist’s standpoint, the Paraguayan festival of San Juan represents a textbook example of how ideologies and beliefs interact when cultures clash. The nominally Catholic festival has been combined with ancient Guaraní celebrations that venerate fire and the fluidity of gender roles. In reality, the only really Catholic elements of the festival are its name and the typical mass or prayer session that occurs in the morning.
I have had the privilege of seeing this festival twice this year in different parts of the country. The main event involves characters called the cambâ, played by teenage boys dressed up in masks (traditionally of local wood, but also commonly of cloth or face paint) and wearing costumes made of dried banana leaves. While these boys perform a sort of exaggerated dance around the outside of a circle, young girls dance in the middle around a fire wielding torches of dried grass. One by one, the masked cambâ rush into the center to grab one of the girls while the girls attempt to ward them off with their flaming torches. This is, of course, incredibly dangerous given the open fire and dried banana-leaf costumes. The exact performance of this ceremony varies slightly, but the idea is usually the same: fire, masked men, and animated dancing. I’ll describe more of the festival and its gender-bending aspect in my next post. —Mario Machado
I have been working a lot recently with individual families in my community to introduce organic methods into household gardening as a means of creating sustainability, increasing production, and helping household nutrition. So far I have worked with about eight families, doing things from bed preparation to companion planting to homemade, organic insecticides and fertilizers. This week, I had my first great success story that really made me realize how small ideas can sometimes change how people think and work.
Last week, I was showing some families how to double-dig garden beds and add organic matter to the soil in the process to help with soil recuperation and nutrient availability. After working with one family, I proceeded to demonstrate how to make a homemade insecticide using garlic, onions, and leaves from a local tree called paraiso gigante. These ingredients are mixed together, steeped in water for about 2 days, and then applied to the plants. The smelly garlic and onions deter pests; the paraiso leaves have a strong odor as well as other natural insecticidal properties.
A few days later when I revisited the garden, the mother of the family proudly told me of her newest horticultural conquest: As she double-dug a new raised bed in her garden, she found if full of ants. Using leaves from the paraiso gigante tree as her organic matter, she mixed the material into the soil. The next day when she returned to plant the bed, the ants had all left and the soil was ready for planting.
As she told me this story, I couldn’t help but smile. Here was a local mother who not only learned well enough to be able to repeat the whole process on her own, but she was also willing to experiment and try new things. Such willingness is rare for people who usually have little room for error. Without much financial backing, with little capital, and often faced with the problem of providing enough food to survive, impoverished farmers often hesitate to try new things, lest they jeopardize their ability to provide for their families.
Working with farmers in this capacity means that I must be understanding and cautious and always remain cognizant of this fact. It is important to impart knowledge in a way that manages and minimizes risk and optimizes benefit. This is not always perfectly possible and there are always unknown variables, but hopefully (if this situation is any indication) the work I am doing will have a tangible impact both in the gardens and in the thought processes of my Paraguayan neighbors. —Mario Machado
After returning to Paraguay from my trip to Cuba several weeks ago, I had an entirely new perspective on the issues facing my community and the issues that I address as a Peace Corps volunteer. The first thing I came to realize is how absolutely possible it is to produce almost all the food one needs to survive (and thrive) in a home garden. Not only that, it is completely possible to do so organically.
In the past few weeks I have been working with families in their home gardens to introduce, bit by bit (poco a poco, as my neighbors say in Spanish), some organic techniques to improve production and also introduce some different types of veggies that will hopefully contribute to overall household nutrition. I have thrown myself into a school gardening project, which I have been part of for some months now and where we use many of the same growing techniques.
First, I have been helping families to understand the idea behind deep-bed systems for growing vegetables. These methods have been used for centuries, sometimes called “French intensive” or the “Chinese method” or simply “double-digging.” Deep cultivation in raised beds loosens up hard soil for improved root growth, introduces organic matter directly into the soil, and provides for better water infiltration. The method is explained in detail in John Jeavons’ aptly named book, How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine. The idea here is that, with a little more work up front in bed preparation, your plants will grow better, grow healthier, and produce more, and your soil structure will be maintained for years to come.
The next idea I have been introducing to families is plant associations. In other words, instead of planting large sections of one veggie, a gardener can intercrop (but on a small scale). This creates a sort of mosaic of plants that is aesthetically appealing and helpful in reducing the spread of pests and diseases and maximizing nutrient use. Certain plants do very well next to each other and the characteristics of some plants are complementary and/or beneficial to others. Onions, garlic, marigolds, and other smelly plants are good as pest deterrents; certain plants like Swiss chard can act as pest “barriers,” or in the case of squash and cucumber, weed suppressors.
In the past week, I have been working with homemade organic fertilizers with several families. Once again, I should point out that living in a community in the middle of rural Paraguay that already puts an emphasis on organic techniques is quite rare. I am lucky, given my background, but also given the attitude of my neighbors—willing to experiment, try new things, and in general, take my word for some of these seemingly crazy ideas. I really hope they work out (fingers crossed)!
In the end, this is all part of a process—a long and drawn-out process—to hopefully increase nutrition, household productivity, and general livelihood for the members of my community, Guido Almada. I will keep you posted! —Mario Machado
Santa Clara’s streets are narrow, flanked by single-story homes built so that no room is left for alleys or porches. It is horizontal space conservation to the extreme. Even in this tiny car, in which I am riding with my grandfather and father, it feels a little claustrophobic. We arrive in front of 84 Martí Street—a house that looks almost identical to all those around it except for a roof that has long since collapsed. Standing in front are two older women and several younger adults, roughly my age. We park the car on the street and step out. Within seconds I am smothered in repeated and unrelenting hugs; I am being kissed on the forehead and cheeks; I feel hot tears as they are dropped haphazardly. This is my family. They have been waiting for my grandfather to come home for almost 60 years. They tell me that I look like a Machado.
The following interactions seem strange to me. We fall easily into a familial atmosphere: welcoming, inviting, loving, accepting, and comfortable—as if we have known each other our entire lives. In reality, we are almost complete strangers, but strangers bound by something infinitely more profound than the politics, cultures, and countries that had separated us. Although I need to continually be reminded of names, the smiles and laughter of familiarity fill the small house to its capacity, straightening the old, wooden columns and raising the sagging roof for the first time in a long time. It is as if the walls and the rooms and my aunts and cousins and father and grandfather can all breathe a huge sigh of relief, 60 years in the making. “Home at last” sounds quietly on the breeze, lazily meandering its way through the halls.
My grandfather walks slowly through the home, here and there relating a story of things that he remembers from his childhood. The tile floors are the same; the room he used to sleep in seems so much smaller; the mango tree still curls its gnarled, prolific arms towards the courtyard’s square window of sky. It is a living artifact and yet a home still, being occupied by a family—our family—just as it was when my grandfather was a child.
I spend the night sleeping in the room that my grandfather once shared with my uncle Hilberto. I sleep in one bed while my aunt Marucha and cousin Yanet doze in the other. My cousin Yandy sleeps by the door. Someone snores all night, but I don’t know who. I dream about the past that surrounds me. —Mario Machado