March 8th, 2013
Mango Paradise

Mario-peace-corps-blog-80It wasn’t an apple that tempted Eve, it was a mango. I can just see it now: that immense fruit, in all of its sun-kissed glory, sitting in her hands, barely fitting between her two palms. All the while, a calm serpent, whispering from its perch, coiled around bunches of leaves and plump fruits. Who could resist those yellow-and-red hues painted on firm, purple-green skin? The tremendous fruits, so easily plucked from low-hanging branches, as attractive in their accessibility as in their shear abundance, each one seductively voluptuous and tender. Each bite gashing open new veins that bleed with sweet, warm juice. Descended from heaven, surely—wrapped up and offered under the deliciously cool shade of heavy, twisted trees. It was a mango for sure, and she never stood a chance.

This mango, one of the variety that Paraguayans call a Brazilian mango, is about one or two weeks away from harvest. When fully ripe, its color will be more yellow and red, less purple. Brazilian mangos are prized for their superior fruit.

This mango, one of the variety that Paraguayans call a Brazilian mango, is about one or two weeks away from harvest. When fully ripe, its color will be more yellow and red, less purple. Brazilian mangos are prized for their superior fruit.

The more common type of mango in Paraguay is smaller and yellow with a much more fibrous texture. Too numerous to be all eaten, these fall to the ground and rot by the hundreds.

The more common type of mango in Paraguay is smaller and yellow with a much more fibrous texture. Too numerous for all to be eaten, they fall to the ground and rot by the hundreds.

Paraguay in the summer seems to ferment in mango juice. The air is thick with the sickly smell of it as the locals collect and consume as many as possible, discarding the skins and pits like bread crumbs along windswept roads as they walk to and from the fields. Still, untold numbers of the succulent fruits are missed, picked apart by bees and insects on the ground. Hundreds are left to rot, to fertilize the soil and sow another generation of the world’s finest shade tree. For every person in Paraguay, there must be a million mangos or more each season. Money might not grow on trees, but mangos do, and on the hottest of summer days, nothing could be better.

There two kinds of mangos in Paraguay. Fruits of the more common variety are small and yellow and have a tough, fibrous flesh. These typically can’t be chewed easily—instead, one simply sucks out the juices and masticates the insides of the fruit to a mushy pulp before spitting out the rest, bit by fibrous bit. Delicious as they may be, they are undoubtedly quite a menace for people in a country that doesn’t seem to floss, although that doesn’t appear to stop anyone in the slightest.

Then there are the Brazilian mangos: brilliantly colored and radiant, textured yet smooth, their flesh like soft orange butter with only enough fiber to remind you that nothing is quite perfect. Everything that these mangos boast in taste and beauty they match in size—they are enormous, some barely fitting between two hands. Watching a little barefoot Paraguayan child with a full mango is like watching a mouse trying to swallow a soccer ball. Try as they might, they still struggle, giddy with all of their big-eyed, childish delight as rivers of juice run down their chins and onto their bare, protruding bellies.

As if to add to the bounty, there are enough passion fruits, peaches, pineapples, and bananas in Paraguay to feed armies, to cure the scurvy of a million wayward sailors, to drown the entire world in sweet, juicy surrender. Such plenty is one massively redeeming quality in a country that is otherwise suffocating in unbearable summer heat. That’s the trade-off, I guess—torrents of delicious tropical fruit, the product of incredible photosynthetic production, for mind-numbing afternoons. I’ll take it. I don’t really have a choice anyway. Here’s to summertime in South America. —Mario Machado

Overripe mangos are a favorite food for bees, spiders, flies, and any number of other insects.

Overripe mangos are a favorite food for bees, spiders, flies, and any number of other insects.

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January 10th, 2013
Back to the Campo

Mario-peace-corps-blog-80The temperature was flirting with 100 degrees when I landed in Paraguay—more than a tad hotter than the frigid, snowy northeastern United States I had left just 13 hours before. It never ceases to amaze me how humans can traverse such incredible distances, such a vast spectrum of climates, in such a short period of time; that’s just the modern world, I guess. I was returning to my Peace Corps assignment after having spent more than 2 weeks in Pennsylvania, my first extended trip stateside since I landed in South America about a year and a half ago. My time home was amazing: the cold winter season, the holiday atmosphere, good food, better beer, and my friends and family.

But as I sit here, once again at home in my little brick shack in Paraguay, I am having trouble getting a grip on it all. These two lifestyles—that of middle-class, suburban America and that of rural Paraguay—could not be more different, yet I feel at ease and comfortable within both. Perhaps humans really aren’t meant to travel so far so fast; perhaps our psyches aren’t adapted to make sense of such complete and rapid change. Whatever it is, 2 weeks of culture shock is beginning to take its toll as I find myself enveloped in a sort of personal existential crisis. In reality, there is no time for such nonsense; the fields need tending, my garden is a mess, and now is the time to prepare myself for the myriad of projects that will get underway in March with the transition to fall.

On my first night home in Paraguay, we lost electricity. Such events are a commonplace and expected part of my daily routine here. My community finds itself powerless (and during these times, also without water) with increasing frequency. Just a few weeks in the States had spoiled me with a seemingly infinite supply of electrical energy, continuously available running water, and even the novelty of a clean indoor fireplace, serving mostly aesthetic purposes but consuming large quantities of natural gas nonetheless.

And as crazy as all of this is to consider from my perspective here in rural Paraguay, I cannot deny that American comforts are just as much a part of my life (if not more so) as the South American campo. I must admit, I might have stutter-stepped at first, but I quickly found my footing in the States, all too nimbly taking to Starbucks coffee and nice restaurants with microbrews on tap.

It’s like being two different people—not that either one is more honest or genuine than the other, but just that I have molded myself to fit into two seemingly polarized sets of conditions. The whole thing seems surreal, like an in-body, out-of-mind experience. But I am sure Paraguayans have a cure for that: a few leaves from the forest to sprinkle into a steaming cup of tea and sip slowly in the warm evening air.  —Mario Machado

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December 7th, 2012
Summer in the Southern Hemisphere

Mario-peace-corps-blog-80This week was a rude awakening—or maybe it was more like a sweaty, sticky, how-could-I-ever-forget sort of shock that brought me back to the reality of summertime in Paraguay. With temperatures consistently over 100°F, the world seemed to stop. Once-productive workdays have, in a span of two weeks, become endless afternoon hours spent sitting under mango trees, sipping slowly at tepid tereré (for any ice to be had melts faster than it can cool), mumbling little nothings in Guaraní with my neighbors. The only thing punctuating this monotony is the animated reference to our collective, obvious reality, the oppressive million-tons of atmosphere and sun weighing down upon people and animals alike. “Hakuiterei, chera’a” (It’s really, really hot out, my friend).

I have been a Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay for over a year now (14 months) and have run the gauntlet of all four seasons. I use the word “seasons” loosely: Each year can more accurately be separated into incredibly hot summers followed by cold, wet winters with an awkward and unpredictable few months on either end. Still, it’s funny how easy it is to forget the burning intensity that comes with a noonday sun in the Southern Hemisphere. When you spend the winter months in front of a space heater, sipping maté, looking for every excuse not to shower in frigid water and a wind chill around freezing, one’s perspective gets a little confused.

In the States, life proceeds normally from season to season. Some people salt their driveways and put different tires on their car for winter, or prep their lawn mowers and clean the air conditioner filter for summer, but to a large extent, the pace of life remains the same. There is always talk of the “dog days of summer,” but Paraguay’s peak summer months make those look like a vacation. The reality here in the heart of South America is that it simply gets too hot, too dangerous to do anything. Farmers wake up at first light and get into their fields for a few hours, but by 9:30 they turn in for the day. Working any later is not smart and Paraguayans know it.

The pulse of life in my community is strictly set to the weather. This is most evident when a big storm rolls up and whole families huddle together under their thatch roofs to watch the rain. But it goes beyond that: Each farmer knows exactly when to plant what, what winds are favorable for what crops, the cycles of the moon, the number of possible mornings with frost in winter, the prospects of good rains. I guess that when you live so directly off of the land, when your livelihood and well-being are intimately tied to the natural world around you, the need to be keenly aware is inevitable.

Farmers and gardeners in the States must evoke this to a certain extent, but it is also very different. A typical U.S. farmer relies on crops for income; successful harvests translate into financial stability in the following year. For my Paraguayan compañeros, this can also be true, but on an even more fundamental level of subsistence. Successful crops mean a steady flow of calories into the bellies of the farmer’s family. Failures spell disaster for household nutrition, livestock, and prospects for saving seed to plant the following year. For that reason, it seems as if life in the Paraguayan countryside moves in lockstep with even the slightest changes in the weather.

And so as I sit and sweat, as I will be doing for the indefinite future, I am trying to appreciate the days for what they are: a break after a long season of sowing and clearing land, a chance to rest, relax, be with family and friends, read, write, and catch up on community gossip. At times like these, you really learn to understand the value of a good shade tree in your front lawn.  —Mario Machado

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November 21st, 2012
Big, Hard Sun

Mario-peace-corps-blog-80The seasons are changing. The mild winter has long since passed and the fickle months of spring—one day boiling hot, the next crisp and chilly—are now on the wane. Here in the southern hemisphere, what comes next is a brutally hot summer. For those plants and crops already in the ground and well established, the summer months are like a hedonistic binge of photosynthesis, so long as the rains keep up, rushing in to break the tension of the heat just before things start to wither and die. Sugar cane sprints towards the sky, mandioca persists in its slow yet steady trajectory, and tobacco makes the most of those beautifully sticky, broad leaves.

Late November through March are typically months of rest for Paraguayan farmers. They have already put in the hard work of clearing land, preparing fields, and sowing crops. As the average temperature slowly rises, peaking sometimes at the unbearable, unworkable highs of 110°F or more, the only thing to do is wait out the heat in the shade with ice-cold tereré (an herbal tea) and chilled watermelon—never together, of course, for Paraguayans believe wholeheartedly that the combined refreshment leaves one liable to explode.

Mario’s ill-fated herb garden sits alongside his house, behind a bamboo fence.

Mario’s ill-fated herb garden sits alongside his house, behind a bamboo fence.

Needless to say, this is not an ideal time to start a garden (in my case, an herb garden). Almost anything that is planted now needs a media sombra (a half-shade structure), ample watering, and almost continual vigilance. But clearly, even after spending more than a year in Paraguay as a Peace Corps volunteer, I still find the need to push the envelope. Maybe this heralds to my inherent propensity to rebel against authority that my mother always scolded me for, or maybe I just want to spice up my food a bit. Either way, the takeaway lesson from this horticultural experiment is that the sun is no force to be ignored. I stand humbly corrected.

A few weeks ago, I began digging a bed along the side of my little brick house for an herb and flower garden. The moment my spade hit the soil, however, challenges seemed to emerge. The soil is unusually porous and sandy, the sun/shade ratio caused by my tin roof is far from ideal, and the chickens—those darned chickens! It soon became evident that this small, simple project would require a fence if it were to succeed (if for no other reason than keeping out lots of curious chickens). So I cleared the small parcel, double-dug and formed the bed, built the fence (this alone was a week-long effort that involved bringing bamboo from 5 kilometers away via ox cart), and constructed a gate.

One of the few surviving plants in the garden is a red pepper seedling.

One of the few surviving plants in the garden is a red pepper seedling.

Of all the herb seeds Mario planted, only the basil germinated.

Of all the herb seeds Mario planted, only the basil germinated.

After a few weeks, the garden was ready. I transplanted some basil and cilantro that I grew from seed, as well as a hot pepper plant and a few sunflowers. Everything, save for the hot pepper and basil, proceeded to promptly die. The other herbs I planted—thyme, lavender, rosemary, chives, spearmint, parsley, and more—have yet to germinate in their containers (it’s been over a week already) and I am beginning to lose faith. I have tried using some wonderful compost from a pile that has been going since I arrived here in Guido Almada, but so far, to no avail.

Watering is a constant concern. Considering that I travel to other volunteer communities and the capital of Asunción as part of my work, getting a reliable neighbor to take up the extra work in my absence is a must. Unfortunately, despite my lavish offerings of compensation to neighborhood kids (money, food, and candy), this has proven difficult as well. I am not sure if this speaks more strongly to the neighborhood children’s adversity for watering my garden or to the unfortunate quality of my food. Regardless, I now have a garden with almost nothing growing in it. The stubborn part of me wants to keep pushing and see if I can trick some of these seeds into bloom. The rational part of me knows that this is an endeavor that is best served by waiting for the cooler autumn months. Perhaps I should take the Paraguayan high road and just sit under a mango tree sipping some tereré in the meantime.  —Mario Machado

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November 5th, 2012
Building a Bed for Worms

Mario-peace-corps-blog-80Of the many projects that comprise the Peace Corps volunteer’s agriculture extension handbook, one of the strangest and trickiest to sell is lombricultura (worm composting in English). On the surface this might seem like a bit of an esoteric endeavor, seeing as the worms need to be of a particular species and the conditions under which they must be kept tend to be rather specific, but the reality is that lombricultura is perfectly suited to helping poor, rural farmers get a quick and lasting boost in production.

The concept is as follows: Certain species of worms (in this case, California red worms) can live entirely within organic material. While other species require soils containing varying quantities of organic material, the good old California red is snug as a bug (or a worm) in a bed of 100 percent organic matter. This means that its digested product—worm excrement, or as it is more scientifically called, worm castings—is itself entirely composed of organic matter. This creates a sort of supercharged compost that can be used in a household garden or, if the operation is big enough, with field crops.

Worm compost has several advantages over regular compost. While both are wonderful and can complement each other greatly, worm castings package the nutrients in a way that is more readily available to plants. The process of worm composting can also be faster than regular composting (this, of course, depends on your methodology and zeal for both).

So the question becomes, how do you sell this type of project to rural, impoverished Paraguayan farmers? In a country where governmental health agents have been warning for years against the harms of intestinal worms, the first challenge is to convince my Paraguayan neighbors to distinguish between parasitic worms and earthworms.

Don Garcia and his five kids all pitched in to mix and run buckets of concrete, carry bricks, and build a fence out of forest vines and trunks.

Don Garcia and his five kids all pitched in to mix and run buckets of concrete, carry bricks, and build a fence out of forest vines and trunks.

Luckily for me, I have several neighbors who have taken to the concept like fish to water. In particular, Don Garcia, with whom I have been working for quite some time, is enthusiastic about raising worms. We have begun constructing a worm box, a long trough made of recycled brick, concrete, and wood protected by a fence to keep out pests. Soon, a thatch roof will guard it from the sun and excess rain. Upon seeing the care and effort he was putting into this worm project, I joked that his worms were going to have the nicest hotel in all of Paraguay, to which he responded with his typical hearty and soul-lifting laugh.

The worm-farming project won’t change Don Garcia’s life. It won’t help him escape from poverty, something that seems to have a particularly strong grip on him and his family. Still, it will help him improve his daily situation. From helping boost the production of his garden, to helping him increase his livestock quality (worms can also be used as a protein-rich animal feed), to increasing household income (through marketable garden produce and direct selling of worms for fishing bait, a common pastime in my community), this project will help Don Garcia prepare for the future.

The concrete base and the start of brick walls that will make up the worm composting structure. A roof will protect the worm box from sun and excess rain.

The concrete base and the start of brick walls that will make up the worm composting structure. A roof will protect the worm box from sun and excess rain.

Pipes will drain water and maintain ideal moisture conditions for the worms. The worm box is built on an angle so that excess water will drain downhill.

Pipes will drain water and maintain ideal moisture conditions for the worms. The worm box is built on an angle so that excess water will drain downhill.

The other day he said to me, “People have been asking me ‘Why are you doing this, why do you want worms?’ and I tell them, I am not doing this for me now, I am doing this while I am young so that when I am old I will be able to receive the benefits.” As always I am astounded at his wisdom and perspective, which is rare among Paraguayan campesinos. And so, with that in mind, I continue to plunge knee-deep into smelly worm castings as we endeavor to make his humble vision a reality.  —Mario Machado

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October 12th, 2012
Getting My Neighbors to Talk

Mario-peace-corps-blog-80I have started a new project here in Guido Almada. This project is coming from a newly gained perspective: I realized that the key to successful development (at least here in my community) is through encouraging shared experiences and support among members of the community.

My neighbors are incredibly knowledgeable and unbelievably capable, but their reluctance to pursue change comes largely from lack of tangible motivation. Therefore, I have decided that whatever project I implement next, it would be best served to tap that potential within the community itself—an “auto-catalyzed” process of internal development.

To do this, I want to stimulate communication and ideas between my Paraguayan neighbors. They all have experiences with a variety of organic techniques (partly from working with me, but also from years of farming and work with other governmental and non-governmental groups). The goal is to create a forum and a platform for them to engage with these experiences, share them, and motivate each other to implement them.

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This page from Mario’s manual of organic techniques explains how to double-dig.

I am currently developing a manual that covers a variety of organic and sustainable gardening and farming techniques. As opposed to being a detailed technical manual, it is a very general reference packet that is written in Spanish (most of my neighbors, though they speak Guaraní, cannot read Guaraní) and relies primarily on illustrations to communicate basic organic techniques and principles. After I complete this book, with help from Peace Corps friends who are far greater artists than I, the plan is to hold a community workshop to teach and demonstrate the basics of the manual. The manual will include topics such as deep-bed methods, companion planting, homemade pesticides and herbicides, composting, worm composting, crop rotation, green manures, and several others.

After the workshop, my idea is to give every neighbor a copy of the manual. I will then spend several months working with many of them on a variety of these techniques. Using the manual as a communication platform and their personal experiences as a sort of currency for them to share, I hope that the notion of cultivating these practices will be automatic among community members.

Mario has been teaching a computer class to Paraguayan students—another project aimed at increasing communication within the community and to link with outside resources.

Mario has been teaching a computer class to Paraguayan students—another project aimed at increasing communication within the community and to link with outside resources.

Of course, it won’t be perfect, and I am going to continue spending the next year of my Peace Corps service working with families one-on-one and trying to convince them that my ideas aren’t crazy. Hopefully, as this collective community experience grows, more and more will be willing to accept and attempt such organic practices—especially when the encouragement and stimulus comes from their own neighbors instead of some long-haired, strange-sounding North American in desperate need of a meal and a shower.

This is the plan at least. I have learned enough by this point in my experiences with development (and life, for that matter) to know that the reality will likely not be even close to this ideal. Still, I hope that this project and the concepts I will try to instill along with it will create some sort of dialogue among my neighbors. Maybe that is the key to getting though this communication barrier: to side-step it altogether. Jahechata (which means “we will see” in Guaraní).  —Mario Machado

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September 28th, 2012
Developmental Queries

Mario-peace-corps-blog-80I 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

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September 17th, 2012
Little Drought, Big Consequences

Mario-peace-corps-blog-80Ese 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

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September 6th, 2012
My Little Field

Mario-peace-corps-blog-80Part 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.

Mandioca, shown just emerging from the ground, is grown from buried sections of stem. It is also called manioc, cassava, or yuca and is the starchy root from which tapioca is made.

Mandioca, shown just emerging from the ground, is grown from buried sections of stem. It is also called manioc, cassava, or yuca and is the starchy root from which tapioca is made.

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.

These seedlings are a local variety of squash called zapallo kururu (“frog squash” in Guaraní).

These seedlings are a local variety of squash called zapallo kururu (“frog squash” in Guaraní).

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.

Peas germinate next to sweet corn in a “three sisters” companion planting. The third “sister,” a yellow summer squash, has not yet emerged.

Peas germinate next to sweet corn in a “three sisters” companion planting. The third “sister,” a yellow summer squash, has not yet emerged.

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

Organic mulch helps to maintain soil moisture and keep down weeds around bush bean seedlings.

Organic mulch helps to maintain soil moisture and keep down weeds around bush bean seedlings.


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August 27th, 2012
A Campesino Country

Mario-peace-corps-blog-80Some 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

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