January 3rd, 2012

Life in the Paraguayan Campo

Guido Almada is a small community just inside the border of the department of Cordillera in central Paraguay. The nearest town of Cleto Romero, about 5 kilometers away, is accessible only by a twisting dirt road, as is the nearest city of Carayao, about 25 kilometers farther. Like much of the rest of Paraguay, Guido Almada is a farming town with almost all of its roughly 500 inhabitants practicing agriculture on a subsistence, if not commercial, scale. The main cash crops upon which most people derive their modest and often tenuous salaries are tobacco (petỹ in Guraraní, an indigenous language) and orange essence (esencia de naranja in Spanish), which must be processed in homemade distilleries. Large tracts of land are also devoted to growing sugarcane, which many farmers choose to sell to the local cane-ethanol production plant that operates out of Carayao.

A typical kitchen in Guido Alamada features a fire pit in the floor, walls blackened from years of smoke, and gaps in the plank siding for ventilation.

A typical kitchen in Guido Alamada features a fire pit in the floor, walls blackened from years of smoke, and gaps in the plank siding for ventilation.

For subsistence, there is nothing out of the ordinary about Guido Almada. Mandioc, the starchy root that is a Paraguayan staple, is often intercropped with field corn and sometimes beans (referred to by any one of five different names in both Guaraní and Spanish). This starchy trifecta forms a slight variation on the classic “three sisters” cropping system (beans, maize, and squash) used for centuries by indigenous tribes of North America. Regardless, the principle is more or less the same: The leguminous beans provide a valuable nitrogen source to both other crops while the heavy-feeding corn and the light-feeding squash (or mandioc in the Paraguayan case) are complementary. The soil-shading and weed-suppressing capacity of the broad squash leaves is also mimicked by the mandioc. Some families use small-scale home gardens to help supplement their diet with additional vegetables, but still, the diet is primarily and at times almost entirely carbohydrates.

Tomatoes are crated carefully for the trip to market on bumpy, treacherous dirt roads. Although this delicate crop can be damaged during transportation, it commands a higher price than other crops in the markets of Asunción.

Tomatoes are crated carefully for the trip to market on bumpy, treacherous dirt roads. Although this delicate crop can be damaged during transportation, it commands a higher price than other crops in the markets of Asunción.

Most residents of Guido Almada live at what would likely be considered a normal Paraguayan socioeconomic state. Typically, the houses are made of wood slats or mud bricks and bamboo with dirt floors. A few houses whose owners are slightly better off are made of cement brick with concrete floors. Food is cooked over open fires or, in the case of wealthier families, propane-fueled stoves. Electricity and water services are accessible to most Paraguayans at relatively inexpensive rates, however, with unreliable infrastructure, one is lucky if they are actually available half the time. Cars are almost nonexistent in Guido Almada, but most families own a motorcycle for when quick transport is needed, or an oxcart if large loads need to be moved.

Sugarcane is a common cash crop in Paraguay. This young field is about three months old. Eventually the cane—actually a perennial grass—will rise to 10 feet or more.

Sugarcane is a common cash crop in Paraguay. This young field is about three months old. Eventually the cane—actually a perennial grass—will rise to 10 feet or more.

The soccer field is groomed daily by herds of cattle, bringing about the great query of rural soccer games: Which is better, long grass or piles of cow droppings? Kids in Guido Almada hedge their bets on their fast feet and take the latter. I must say from experience that I would choose longer grass, but that’s just me.

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The local church and school are simple structures that seem to be visited only when deemed necessary—the church only on Sundays and religious holidays (in this predominantly Catholic country) and the school only during the academic year (from mid-February through the end of November). Otherwise, people pass hot summer afternoons drinking tereré, a cold tea, and sharing town gossip. In such a small and isolated town where a majority of people are either from the same family or have lived under the same roof their entire lives, one can only imagine the thickness of the drama that plays out here under the sweltering Paraguayan sun. As for me, being the first Americano to live in Guido Almada has been all sorts of interesting. Yes, interesting; I think that’s the best word for it. More on this in my next blog.

From Guido,

Mario

Mario dons work clothing in the style of Paraguayan farmers: long sleeves and a straw sombrero for sun protection, rolled-up jeans, and flip-flops. The machete is the all-purpose tool of choice for farming.

Mario dons work clothing in the style of Paraguayan farmers: long sleeves and a straw sombrero for sun protection, rolled-up jeans, and flip-flops. The machete is the all-purpose tool of choice for farming.


Mario Machado is a Peace Corps volunteer serving as an agricultural educator in the rural Paraguayan community of Guido Almada. The Allentown, Pennsylvania, native and 2011 Penn State graduate spent the summer of 2011 volunteering at the Rodale Institute and the Organic Gardening test garden.

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