Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Oh, How Little I Understand

        Its dark in the house even though its midday. Sunlight doesn't get far though the forest canopy and the only source of light is a little flickering candle propped upright in a divot on the dirt floor in the middle of the room. A few rays peek through the gaps in the wall boards or though the hole in the roof where the thatch-grass has fallen away and it is silent. The mother of the family sits in the corner, breathing slowly, strained. She is dying of a brain tumor, I have been told, and today is a bad day.
        “I have faith in God,” the father tells me. He works harder and is poorer than any person I have ever met in my life. He is a remarkable human being.
        This family can't afford meat and so for lunch we are having Yaku po'i (Rusty-Margrined Guan) that the oldest son called out of the treetops earlier that morning and shot dead. In the distance, unheard by me, a Tuca sa'yju (Toco Tucan) trumpets an alarm call. We go outside and the littlest one points out a gorgeous bird sitting in an enormous tree across a tobacco field. It has a wine-colored breast and a long, fat beak.
        “They are good luck,” she tells me, “If you can catch one.” This is a typical day with the Garcia family. Learning more than any textbook could ever teach me about the local birds—their calls, their meanings, where they like to roost at night. 
        Today, we are building a roof with the family. We have been working on a worm composing project aimed at increasing the production of their two gardens, one of which we started together. This composting unit needs a roof to protect it from the coming summer sun. With his wife so sick, Don Antonio, the father, worries about straying too far from the house to work in the fields. Instead, he sends his sons out to tend the crops while he cooks and cleans and keeps up the gardens and feeds the chickens and pigs and milks the cow and cares for his love. Improving the garden is a priority of his, not just for family nutrition, but because he is dedicated to being as personally productive as possible even when confined to the small sphere around the house
        The building of a roof from forest materials happens in stages. First, we searched out the right kind of trees for the horcón (main supports), with the correct height and forked branches at the right spot. We took two adolescent yvyra'rô trees and one kurupa'y and trimmed them down to size where they fell.
        “This wood is strong,” Don Antonio tells me (ha'taitere'i in Gurani), “No insects will eat it, it will not rot.” He is confident and I believe him.
        Next we search for our main viga (crossbeam); this as well needs to be strong, for it will be bearing the weight of all the smaller beams as well as many layers of thatch. We find a beautiful and sturdy ba'avy tree in a clearing but Don Antonio seems reluctant to take it. He explains that they have already felled many trees from this area and he doesn't want to take more, lest the encroaching amba'y, which grows like grass through these woods, take over and choke out other more useful plants and trees in the underbrush.
        In the end we cut it down anyway and trim it to size. It really is a beautiful little tree. The rest of the morning we spend searching out smaller beams, yvyra'pepe and onde'ymi saplings ideally, to lay perpendicular to the load-bearing ba'avy. Then the final piece in this sub-tropical collage, la señorita, tree-lings so called for their slender, pale form and the fact that they grow very straight from the forest floor. These are needed to provide the parallel supports onto which the thatch is lashed by forest vines called ysy'po. We gather several bundles of these, tied together with vines and head back home with our quarry.
        I tried to be as much a part of the construction process as possible, but in reality, I had no idea how everything went together and this family was already an efficient, experienced roof-building unit. In the end, I could do little more than just watch and marvel at the skill and speed with which a small hut materialized before my eyes. The thatch-grass called ka'pi'i was brought from along a path that runs from the house to the fields. They grow it there like another crop and as a perennial grass, even once it is harvested, it regrows in the next few months. They always have a supply on hand for repairs to the house if needed. The piglets as well enjoy hiding and romping through the dense clumps.
        The main supports and crossbeams are put up in only a few minutes and each piece seems to fit together like a puzzle. I get the strong feeling that there was far more to the process for selecting trees in the forest than I was aware of at the time. As the barefoot 13-year-old son Rafael scrambles up a tree and across these wooden tight-ropes like a monkey (ka'i in Guarani), the other brothers hand him small bundles of grass which he spreads out over the web of señorita and ba'avy supports. He weaves this whole organic mass together with vines like I have seen Parguayan señoras stitch together old blankets and shirts. It takes only a few hours and the whole structure is complete.
        Afterward, we sit for a few hours and sip tereré and bullshit about the local fútbol clubs and the weather. It is calm and relaxed and I can hardly tell that night is falling around me. The jujos (herbs added to the yerba for medicinal reasons) are soothing and subtle. Fresh from the forest, I watched the youngest daughter grind them in a pestle, a mix of flower petals, mint, leaves, stems and fat, juicy roots. It tastes like earth and spice and greens and they say it will make my head feel better. They seem confident and I believe them.
        As always with this family, the conversation, in its effortless blend of Spanish and Guarani, gradually drifts towards more serious matters—the world, the future, the sad prospect of politics for the Paraguayan campesino, the tranquility of life for those few farmers who can still make a decent living off the land and the forests. It is sobering but also inspiring to hear the thoughts and feelings of a family who is living such an enormous cultural, political, and economic battle on a day to day basis. They are not under siege, but they can see that their world, isolated though it may be, is changing in ways that will soon threaten their already precarious livelihoods.
        Among this group, this small family, the most educated person has never even finished high school and yet I, with my bullshit college degree and my pretentious vocabulary, feel like the ignorant child. I have struggled little in my life and compared to these people, never had to work particularly hard just to survive. I have a college education, sure, but drop me in the middle of the Paraguayan jungle and I wouldn't last a week. 
        The sun is still shining, but barely; night is coming and so is a storm. You can feel rain here hours before it comes. The whole jungle world around you seems to turn upside-down. Maybe its subconscious at this point, but even I can feel it in my bones when a storm is imminent. The insects hum, the birds call differently, the winds blow with a temper, not their usual calm, and the air smells like earth, sometimes the ocean, depending on the direction of the winds. A cool wind blows up from the east and I know it is time to head home.
        I say goodnight, thank you, jajajopata. It is dark by the time I get home. The lightning is still far away and flashes without sound like fireflies on the horizon.

        I have realized something profound in these past few months working with my Paraguayan counterparts: what these people know, their knowledge of the forest and what it offers, what it can take away, their knowledge of crops and moon cycles and the seasons, these things are not written anywhere, but they are the culmination of thousands of years of indigenous wisdom that long predates Western culture and the associated paradigms that come with it.
        These people are not entirely indigenous in ethnicity, but almost everyone in Paraguay, especially in the campo has some indigenous blood in their veins. Regardless, their culture is abundantly indigenous in origins, a fact that becomes more evident the farther you wander into the countryside The historical isolation of Paraguay as well as it self-sufficiency for hundreds of years even after Spanish conquest, has allowed the survival of an entirely different source of knowledge about the world: that of the precolonial native populations. This can be seen in many parts of the world where indigenous cultures still exist, where they haven't been annihilated entirely, but it is here in Paraguay that it has entered the backdoor of the otherwise intolerant halls of Western tradition and established itself in the few empty corners.
        As Peace Corps volunteers coming from the great America, we are all initially taken aback by culture shock. In Paraguay, just like any other country, there is an adjustment period. We all find the ubiquitous rules of Paraguayan life and diet tedious and funny; I would be lying to say that we didn't all mock these guidelines at times. As Paraguayan insist that, certain plants will cure this illness, or that certain foods shouldn't be eaten together lest you explode, or that one shouldn’t mix hot and cold foods in a short window, of time or that one can acquire a deep muscle pain from particularly strong winds (golpe de viento), all of us Westerners sit back and laugh in our heads while we nod and agree. This does not fit into our carefully constructed parameters of reality, of scientific causality, of things you can read about in books and online.
        But I have slowly realized over the past few months: these rules and knowledge aren't arbitrary or borne out of ignorance, they are part of the indigenous tradition, a tradition that kept native populations across the American continents alive and thriving for literally thousands of years before us Westerners arrived at their shores. It may seem silly for us sometimes from our science-based cultural perspective, but how could we ever hope to understand and appreciate the wealth of knowledge and wisdom that Paraguayan campesinos possess without first analyzing and critiquing our own cultural baggage. If we are unwilling to let go of any of that, we will never fully appreciate the depth what Paraguayans and Paraguayan culture has to offer.
        I know I am stuck with the weight of my own cultural heritage, I know that my home is my home and my country is my country. No matter how much I may disagree with it or reject it, I will always be a Caucasian male born and raised in the cradle of suburban America. Sometimes, I yearn desperately for a more genuine tradition to be my own, some tradition with deep roots, a great understanding and a living spirituality. I have always found my own cultural heritage to be immensely lacking in all of those things, sometimes to the point of depression.
        I am not saying that the Paraguayan indigenous cultural tradition is perfect or without its flaws; certainly there are lots of them, many of which no doubt come from its synthesis with Western culture and ideas, many of which are no doubt inherent and endemic. I guess what I am trying to say is that there is something infinitely beautiful and more satisfying in indigenous understanding and appreciation for the natural world, in their acceptance of their place in the greater scheme of life, than I find in my own culture. I do not want to idealize anything, that would be a mistake, but I think we ignore the value and wealth of indigenous tradition around the world to our own great detriment.
        But for now, I count myself lucky for having lived long enough to see and experience and another different cultural modality. I know I cannot change myself or my history, but maybe by stretching my own personal boundaries, by forcing myself to dissect those pieces of my culture with the tools of another, I can slowly reconstruct a better perspective of myself and this world. Maybe buried deep in that mess of materialism and Western orthodoxy and empty spirituality, some seeds of truth and honesty still survive. With the right tools, with patience, with understanding, perhaps I may one day coax them into bloom.

from Paraguay,

little hupo

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Anaerobic Biodigester: Simple Technologies that Make a Big Difference

When I was about 13 years old, I decided to enter the local science fair. This was my third time in the competition and I enjoyed doing it each year not because I wanted the extra credit at school or because I particularly enjoyed the significant amount of extra work, but because it was always a great, school-endorsed excuse for me to make a mess in my parent's basement without their disapproval. My first ever project was the construction of a mechanical waterwheel which I fashioned by taking a hack-saw to my sister's bike (sorry Carmen). The second project had me making epoxy glue derivatives and testing their strength by hanging hundreds of pounds of dead weight on them until they crashed down onto the concrete floor (sorry Dad). There was also that famous epoxy mixture I created that ended up melting the cup and part of the table I had mixed it in (sorry again).

But that year, at age 13, I decided I wanted to try something different. I can't recall exactly what I was thinking at the time, but in retrospect it must have been something along the lines of “How can I fill the basement with animal manure and light things on fire without getting punished?” The answer was a biodigester, basically a fancy contraption that captured methane gas produced by decomposing animal feces which could then be burned for fuel. The project was a success thanks to my wonderful mother who went above and beyond the call of motherly duties by collecting the necessary stock (animal manure) from a local horse farm (sorry Mom). In the end, this project earned me first prize at the local science competition and would stink up our basement without disciplinary recourse for well over four months. It was decommissioned at my family's unanimous request sometime after New Year's day.

Flash forward to 2013. I am now 24 years old and serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in the country of Paraguay, still just as curious and troublesome, but now with a license from the US government to do so overseas. My position as an agricultural extension volunteer in a poor, isolated rural community had me working a lot with small-scale organic systems at the familial level. I had worked extensively with composting projects and bio-intensive gardening to help improve household production, nutrition and sustainability. All of this work was rewarding but I felt as if there was something more I could do, some next step that I might be able to take with my community members that might give them a better appreciation of the depth of potential contained within their small parcels of land.

One of the initiatives of the Peace Corps Paraguay agricultural sector is sustainable permaculture systems, which essentially means taking advantage of the energy available at all points of agricultural production. Included in this initiative was a great project called the anaerobic biodigester, an green technology used for generations by farmers in India and China, but nonetheless effective, simple and novel to my community. This small-scale biodigester was really just a mock-up version of almost the same project I had done when I was 13, except now it could be put to use helping impoverished farmers provide for their families instead of just stinking up my parent's basement.

The design we used was developed in part by my boss, Fernando Gonzalez, who has been using a biodigester on his family's farm in Paraguay for over a decade. With his guidance and experience, I began the long process of applying for a micro-finance loan to help fund the project in my community. While the biodigester can be built with local materials and is relatively inexpensive (about $125 a piece), such up-font costs are still quite out of reach to the people I live and work with. After receiving the money, we held educational sessions with 15 adult members of my community where we described the project and the theory and walked them through the simple steps to construct one at home. In the end, we successfully installed two separate biodigester systems with two different families in my community.

At first, the biodigester might seem a stinky and cumbersome way to produce bio-gas for fuel purposes but the impacts of such a simple concept for small-scale farmers can be enormous. In a country such as the US, with an abundance of cheap fossil fuels (natural gas, petroleum, coal, etc.) most of us wouldn't waste the time handling animal manure if we could help it, however, in parts of the world where manure is much more abundant and accessible than disposable income, the biodigester can make a great difference.

The biodigester serves to produce bio-gas, a methane/hydrocarbon/water-vapor mixture that can be burned to cook food or heat a home. This fuel source means that families do not need to use up valuable financial capital to buy propane gas or be forced to slowly deforest their small properties to cook over wooden stoves. Additionally, and just as importantly, the biodigester produces a super-charged organic fertilizer that helps to boost garden production. The fertilizer itself is actually so strong that it can be diluted one part to twenty with water and still be extremely effective. Other secondary benefits include human and animal disease reduction and cleaner water supplies, a by-product of proper management of animal wastes.

The first time we lit-up the bio-gas stove with my neighbor, he threw down his hat, put up his arms and started jumping up and down with joy. He looked at me and said, “Mario, this whole time, I didn't believe you when you said it would work. Now I believe you, you crazy American.” Within a month, in addition to the bio-gas, these families have also noted a substantial boost in household garden productivity thanks to the biodigester's fertilizer component.

I can already tell that this project did as much for this family's sense of pride and motivation as it did for their material disposition. No doubt, it has helped them in a number of tangible ways, but more than that, it has given them something else to be proud of, it has planted a seed of inspiration in their minds. For people who have been farming and subsisting the same way for generations, the simple idea of the biodigester has opened their eyes to future possibilities that had never before been considered.

In developed countries, it might seem silly to think about what proper animal waste management and simple technologies can do for us. We drive our own cars and plug into our iPhones and never give a second thought to the fact that we are living in a universe of energy and potential and yet, have only really figured out how to master one of those sources (and a finite, pollution-ridden source at that). Something like the biodigester might seem a good solution for a poor rural farmer in some far-flung corner of the globe, but the reality is that we are facing a lot of the same problems right here at home. Climate change, pollution, deforestation, crop-failure—these things are not strangers to the developed nations and as the world spins onward into this next millennium, they will only become more familiar.

I am not saying that every family should go out right now and start building anaerobic composting systems in their backyards, but we need to start thinking more seriously about how we are going to provide for our energy needs and the needs of our natural world in the future. Yet, we shouldn't look at this as some sort of doomsday scenario, but instead an amazing opportunity. 

As a kid, such alternative energy possibilities fascinated and intrigued me. A decade later, they have done the same thing in an isolated, rural Paraguayan community. Maybe the next step will be to bring it full circle, to bring it once again a little closer to home. One small step at a time. But at least this last step got me out of my parent's basement and into the open air.Thanks for the help you guys, sorry for all the stink over the years.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Limitations of the West

         This may be the longest period in my two years in South America that I have gone without writing a blog. I have been writing a lot, but just not the sorts of things that anyone would want to read—essays for graduate school applications, GRE studying, professional Close of Service paperwork for the Peace Corps. Here's what's crazy: all of Peace Corps has been a slow, sometimes-frustrating-sometimes-liberating process of meeting people, talking to them, working with them, learning, teaching, and just living; all of a sudden I am caught between this life, tranquillo-pai'te, and that other life, full of paperwork and propriety and professional clothing and bullshit. Its weird to say the least.
        These two years have been a day-in, day-out emotional and intellectual confluence set in the sprawling basin of sub-tropical Atlantic forests (Mata Atlantica) and pastureland that is Paraguay. I have learned so much. Its hard though—I can see how, from such a description, the wrong people would idealize this kind of life too much; their reverence for something they don't fully understand would project this life as something that it is not, and in that sense, actually be extremely irreverent. At the same, any person would be lucky to live the life I have had for these two years. I am eternally grateful for those people who made this possible. Thank you.
        One of the inevitable results of spending so much time outside of that western cultural bubble is reflection, not only personal and interpersonal but societal as well. Let me just acknowledge here the inherent limitations of me, Mario Machado, ever gaining a fully objective perspective on something like “western culture” considering that this was exactly the kind of medium upon which embryonic me was grown and baptized into this world. At the same time, stepping into the lives of half-indigenous, half-Spanish rural campesinos for two years has give me some perspective that I could have gotten no where else. I have been blessed to live such a life. It has opened, ever so slightly, my non-seeing, non-feeling, fixed-in-a-false-reality eyes.
I respect western culture for lots of things, lots of tangible reasons (medicine, science, human rights, etc.), but I understand, perhaps now better than ever before, its shortcomings.
        Look at our world, look at the west, look at the social-democracies we have created. Whatever their merits—be them concrete or philosophical—there is the undeniable fact that they are, in so many ways, completely spiritually lacking. I am not trying to sound funny or like some shallow-minded hippie, I am trying to say something important I have realized. The gods of the west, in the great historical tradition of the Greeks and Romans, are functional. They are pragmatic tools used to direct or modify social behavior, to be wielded like a bludgeon by those in power when the masses strayed like wandering sheep in search of true gods, or to be ingested like cheap alcohol to draw a curtain over the eyes of those with a propensity to seek something real. Western gods, Christian gods, the god whose name is sprawled like pornography across our money, is a placebo; it goes hand in hand with self-centeredness, self-righteousness, narcissism, commercialism, materialism, commodification, conspicuous consumption. These are the alters, please leave your money at the door if you wish to purchase your salvation.
        I am not a priest or a scholar but my whole life I have struggled with spirituality. For those who know me well, you will know that as a younger boy I was a very devout Christian. As a teenager, I used to drive myself alone to church early every Sunday. Whatever it was, I wanted, needed to understand it. And yet, in due time, I fell out with Christianity. I was too intellectually honest with myself, with the world, I asked too many questions, and most of all, there was nothing in this Christian god that slaked any of the thirst in my soul. I see now that I was searching for meaning within the meaningless paramaters of western religion; this has almost nothing to do with spirituality, and for those who have found such spirituality within the western paradigm, they have been almost always cast as pariahs and freaks. The west does not believe in anything it cannot see or feel. 
        Those ignorant fundamentalists who claim to know the Christian truth are as godless as those corporate Christians who use the scriptures to placate their guilty consciousness and justify their gluttonous greed. They would cringe at the thought of real Truth, it would unravel their carefully constructed world.
        In the west, we have not tried to seek truth on its own terms. Instead, we have created a god to fit what we want, all of our earthly, superficial, capitalist desires.
        Why do we fear drugs? Hallucinogenic plants that have been used for millennium by peoples to aid them in their day to day struggles within their environments and along their spiritual journey. Why do we fear something so natural? Because it is outside of our comfort zone, it threatens to challenge the thin-veil of the western gods that just barely hold these societies of sheep in place. Can you imagine what would happen if people just started meditating and practicing ancient tribal medicine in huge numbers? Can you imagine what would happen if people stopped listening to the Catholic church? Can you imagine how our world would change it people stopped participating in the sacrilegious orgy of consumption that is Christmas? The social and economic west would collapse.
        Listen, I know I must sound insane from all of this, and I am not trying to make the case that all drugs are good or that the west is some demonic, overbearing entity. But in a world of 6 billion people that is slowly corroding the underlying social and environmental fabric that supports us all, why should we not seek answers outside of what we already think we know. There are such great problems in the world, such suffering, such inequality. Sure, you might argue that the march of the west is also the march of slow, plodding, and yet inevitable progress, but at what cost and to what ends. How much longer can our planet sustain us? How much longer will marginalized and forgotten peoples be subjected to such inhumanity?
        There is a truth to be known outside of what us culturally, religiously western people think we know. We continue to ignore it at our own peril. It may take courage and difficulty to reach for it, but I believe that any such journey will be infinitely worthwhile.

from South America

-little hupo