Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Farm Life

For a city girl, I´m learning a ton about the campo and Paraguayan farm life. Paraguay is known for the quality of its produce (a fact not known by the rest of the world because it doesn´t have the infrastructure or the regulations to make it a major exporter like Argentina or Brazil). As part of my technical class, we visited my host dad´s chakra (kokue in Guarani). He grows a little of everything: mandioca (yucca), corn, tomatoes, sugarcane, and pasto camerún. He also raises cows (we have 12 including 3 milking cows), chickens, ducks, rabbits, and pigs. His farm is a microcosm of the spectrum of Paraguayan farms, which is a good thing. Most farmers will only grow one or two crops, a cash crop and mandioca. Everyone grows mandioca, despite the fact it has no nutritional value and is all starch, because it’s easy to grow and is a traditional crop. When I visited Guayavbi in San Pedro, I saw mostly bananas and pineapples. In my village they grow sugarcane because of the sugar factories nearby, this despite the fact that sugarcane is not a profitable crop. It’s labor-intensive and takes a while to harvest, so the farmer lands up working for six months to a year to harvest a crop and in the end gets paid a low price which doesn’t adequately compensate him for all his months of work. Mainly farming families squander their income in a matter of weeks because it’s a large amount of cash all at one time (more than they see for the rest of the year). Paraguay doesn’t have a functioning system of credit and survives mainly on cash, meaning that rural families often have to turn to loan sharks that charge anywhere from 10-50% interest per day to get by the rest of the year. This is where cooperatives come in. Savings and loans cooperatives aim to provide Paraguayans with access to affordable credit, while production coops can provide education about better farming practices, better the quality of goods, provide access to expensive technology, provide access to the world market (exports), and so on. My host dad is the ideal farmer because he does the things most Paraguayan farmers don’t. He rotates the crops from year to year to cut down on the number of insects (it also prevents against soil erosion). He diversifies his crops (meaning he doesn’t just grow one crop) because he understands that if his tomato crop fails or if he gets a low price for sugarcane, he always has other crops to fall back on. When you talk about diversification here, most farmers will agree with you but then go back to doing the same old thing. I met another farmer in Guayavbi who was impressive because he saw a Dole banana plantation in Costa Rica where they were growing the bananas in circles instead of lines, so he said, “I’m going to experiment and grow my bananas in circles.” Experimentation and change is natural to the American mind, but not so much to the Paraguayan mind. My host dad raises animals because if he needs cash in a hurry (because of a failure of either his crops or a sharp drop in the price of commodities) he can always sell one of them. That doesn’t mean that he treats his animals badly though; he treats them like his own children, not like animals that he’s just taking care of for a little while. My mamá and I often make fun of him actually: “Where’s papa?” “He’s with his cows.” So my host dad is the ideal farmer because he 1) works hard, 2) works smart, and 3) works in groups. Paraguayans, in general, do not know how to work in groups. This is because while Americans have been taught since grade school how to work in groups, for 35 years Paraguayans lived under a dictatorship in which a gathering of more than 2 or 3 people was prohibited or repressed. That’s the beauty of coops, teaching them the benefits of and how to work in groups. My host dad is a relatively well-to-do farmer (he’s certainly not rich, not even middle class, but he’s not subsistence level either) and he has workers that help him harvest his crops. But he has taught these farmers everything he knows about farming: his methods, about his fields. Most farmers are afraid of doing this because they view other farmers as competition, and this is in fact what happened to him when he was learning how to be a farmer. But he’s smart in that he realizes the fact that if he gets sick, his workers need to know how to farm his land in order to take care of his family. Besides the economic rationale, he cares about their well-being. His family used to live in a much bigger house with two-stories and a modern bathroom when he worked as a day labourer farming and as a night watchman at the hospital. They moved because he didn’t like that style of life where he wasn’t at home and couldn’t spend time with his son. He told me that he could have a modern bathroom now, but he doesn’t because (for one thing he built the house from scratch a couple of years ago) “How can I have a modern bathroom if my workers don’t even have food to eat?” My host dad is very impressive. He’s the guy who my technical trainer said he would teach so that he could be a leader in the town and teach others. I’m really lucky to be the only volunteer living on a farm with a smart farmer who encompasses all of the ideal qualities that RED volunteers hope to teach to other Paraguayans in our sites. As we’ve learned, it’s not about helping people have more, it’s about helping them be more.

Pictures from my visit to a banana farm/coop in Guayavbi in San Pedro

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