03 February, 2009

Starch and Sustainability: A Reflection on the Global Food Crisis in Rural Paraguay

Peace Corps and National Geographic Glimpse were having a short story contest on the global food crisis. The idea is for Peace Corps Volunteers to write a first person narative that reflects the consequences of the global food crisis their communities. Here's what I got:

Starch and Sustainability: A Reflection on the Global Food Crisis in Rural Paraguay

The door closes itself in the wind. Whooosh, screeeeach, click-click. I slowly turn around. "Alright Erin," I say to myself. "You can do this." The sea of curious stares made every swallow feel like a belly -flop in my stomach. "Buen dia clase," I hear Spanish unconfidently exit my mouth. Oh who am I kidding, my Guarani has been better than my Spanish since day one. We did, after all, receive our training in the indigenous Paraguayan language. "MbaƩichepa!" I call out with a little more gusto than before. Snickers ripple through the desks and a few proud "Iporas" leave the more self-assured students. Some have walked several kilometers to be here, and they sit eager in their bare classroom missing plaster and window panes.

This is the beginning of my service in Pindoty, Paraguay. I have come to help my community in a variety of areas, but agriculture is my project sector. Today I am introducing a school garden activity, helping the students learn the importance of gardens and how to maintain them. Gardens are often underestimated in Paraguay, Most families in my community do not have personal gardens. It is not that Paraguayans lack the knowledge, indeed planting is a proficiency of nearly every family in the country. It is simply that there has never been the need such as there is now to produce their own vegetables. Vegetables have always been accessible in the market. But times are changing and many diets, including those of the students sitting in this classroom, are falling back on one food group and one group only: mandioca.

It begins salty and crunchy. Fried to perfection, melt in your mouth mandioca.. Then it goes mushy, pureed like mashed potatoes. And finally it comes just by itself, peeled and boiled, sitting there in all its steamy glory. Before entering the Peace Corps, I had never thought I would be served a delectable three course meal of… mandioca. Known as yuca or cassava in many other countries where it is also a staple crop, mandioca is filling and easy to grow. It withstands poor soil and harsh weather conditions. The tuberous mandioca root lays dormant in the ground for months, waiting to be unsoiled, skinned, cooked and consumed as the main source of carbohydrates in a Paraguayan's diet. It is a white, starchy food bursting with carbohydrates but void of many other crucial nutrients. The problem with this lies in the fact that mandioca is replacing that spot necessary in the diet reserved for more nutritionally diversified food. The "bread" of Paraguay is becoming a supplement for disadvantaged Paraguayans.

Although this narration stems from my personal experience as a Crop Extensionist Volunteer in Paraguay, it is hardly unique. I live in Pindoty (pin-do-tu). It is a tranquilo farming community closely located to Coronel Oviedo, a city of approximately 80,000 people. Compared to other rural communities, our location should be advantageous for accessing a variety of markets, but it is not. It is not because the prices of food, even in a locally grown mercado, are far too high for a subsistence farming family to nutritionally improve their diet. So what happens? Families are forced to subside on mandioca chyryry, mandioca tortillas and mandioca mash.

My nearest neighbor and dear friend Rosa is a single mom, subsistence farmer and struggling nutritionist. Gabriela, her two year old baby girl sits in the dirt and feeds herself earth. She does this because of her severe iron deficiency leaves her dangerously anemic and dirt is her sole source of this vital mineral. That was the situation as I encountered it entering my community. We've now introduced dark, leafy greens into the diets of both mother and daughter, a big step up from dirt, but it's not enough. I'm sorry to say that this story is not isolated to one family it extends to many in my immediate community.

Something to know about this global food crisis is this: to some, this crisis is nothing new. It has always been difficult, nearly impossible, for many people living in the bottom income bracket of developing nations to nutritionally fill mouths and stomachs. So the crisis that some families are experiencing for the first time is actually a continuing crisis, one that is only being exacerbated in other families. Exacerbation is the situation for Gererado. Gerardo is a hard working member of my community; he plants to feed his mother, brother, sister and two nephews. But the amount of yield he needs from his crops to sufficiently keep them healthy is great, and his soil is not. We've worked together to incorporate green manures and crop rotation into the plan for his farm. Through resources of Peace Corps Paraguay, Gerardo witnessed a model farm which began as collaboration between volunteers and Paraguayans and is now properly and fully managed by host country nationals. He has continued to share this knowledge in Pindoty, but the risks of subsistence farming in midst of a food crisis are hard to bear.

Crop extension has taught me some unforgettable life lessons. One of many is that the global food crisis upon us is scary to some and deadly to others. For Rosa and Gerardo, the continually increasing price of food puts the health and happiness of their families on a very thin thread. We as volunteers can make a huge impact at this crucial time, introducing alternative crops and soil conservation methods to stretch the family's resources as far as possible.

Let us return to that classroom I introduced in the beginning of this story. We planted our garden seeds and watered them every day. One day on my way home, I coincidentally followed three jubilant kids walking home from school. They were chattering amongst themselves, each with a small plastic bag of lettuce, carrots, beets and peppers in their hands.I overheard one proudly say how he was going to start his very own veggie patch at home. He might even ask his sister for help! ¡Ipora mita´i! (Well done, little one).