Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Other Side of the Climate Debate

    The winter has been mild so far here in Paraguay. Usually, temperatures hit lows in the mid 30’s to upper 40’s on a more regular basis; this year, we’ve only seen 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 fields cutting sugar cane. This is not necessarily a bad thing, seeing as we have only had one night of frost this whole season so far, but the noticeable changes in the weather underscore an even more profound climactic issue.
    The farmer’s here in Guido Almada notice it; they can tell the weather is changing from year to year. Average temperatures are increasing overall. The rains are coming later, or earlier, or not consistently, or all at once. The pulse of the seasons, the pace by to which the life of a Paraguayan campesino is set, has been gradually thrown off beat. For now, the changes seem manageable. My neighbors will grumble and complain as we pick tobacco leaves or cut cane, but they have so far managed to get by. Still, even the slightest changes in their crop yields can effect 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 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, the fishermen--their livelihoods sway in lockstep with the fluctuations of the seasons. These are typically people with small carbon footprints and whom bear little responsibility for the environmental neglect that has lead our world to the precipice of climactic disaster. Regardless, these are the very people who will shoulder a brunt 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, further damage may not always be so noticeable. Sometimes, it may be as subtle as a family forced to skip meals because the mandioca 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 it were part of a campaign strategy or bid for political leverage. The science, even at its best, cannot adequately convey in humanistic terms the social impacts of rising global temperatures. To grasp this properly, sit in a field with a farmer somewhere in the third world, ask him about his family and 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. Over diner, look at their calluses as they handle their fork and 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 and of this world are proving infinitely smarter and wiser than any of our knowledge and all of our elected officials; they see what is happening to our planet, they feel the changes in the seasons, they can understand better than we the true gravity of our collective future in question.

From Paraguay,
little hupo

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Paraguayan Festival of San Juan

    To the casual observer, the Paraguayan festival of San Juan appears to follow the typical Paraguayan paradigm for parties and holidays--loud Paraguayan polka music, lines of people dancing, drinking and playing card games, and traditional foods such as sopa Paraguaya, chipa guazú and asado. On second glance, and especially as the evening gets moving, things seem to 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 (the classic and aptly dubbed ‘campo calls’)--”What in the world is going on here?”

    Paraguay is a predominantly Catholic country. The festival of San Juan, like many other Paraguayan holiday’s, is Catholic in origin (celebrating Saint John, one of Jesus' twelve 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 precise reasons for this strong indigenous tradition, especially while most other such traditions in Latin America were wiped out during the conquest, is a history in and of itself. For now, it is suffice to say that modern Paraguayan culture is a strange mix, a sort of hybrid that is neither fully Latin American or 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 to this festival are the name and the typical mass and/or prayer session that occurs the morning of. I have had the privilege of seeing this festival twice this year and in different parts of the country; what follows will be a mixed summary of the events that transpired at both.
    The main event of the festival 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 (roughly the same age), 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.
    The cambâ then engage in a variety of other activities involving fire and a sort of slap-stick comedy routine. For example, before the festival, a large post about 5 meters tall is sunken into the ground, topped with an array of traditional Paraguayan food. This post is then greased up 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 dried cow skin, donning a cow skull with flaming horns in their front, 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 (called ŷ’sŷ’po in Guaraní) is doused in gasoline and then lit 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 and is then lit on fire. This ball is 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 otherwise be described as a sort of Paraguayan drag-show. The very cambâ who before were playing with fire, demonstrating their comical masculinity by taunting a bull and stealing women, change into female costumes, stuffing their buttocks and chest with cloth to represent exaggerated parts of the female body. What commences is then a dance where the male 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. As you can surely see, I would hardly call it an entirely Christian tradition (but then again, I haven’t been to church in awhile). The reality is that such phenomenon, 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 and 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--nothing like dancing Paraguayan polka with my Guaraní neighbors into the wee hours of the morning.

From Paraguay,
little hupo