Covered in red soil and tired to the very marrow of my bones, I have returned alive (barely) from my first trip to “el campo”. Speeding along bumpy roads, it is the first chance I had to see Paraguay as she is at heart – calm, warm, languid. There are no stark mountains, no crashing waves. Instead, we pass over rolling red landscapes illuminated by brilliant blue skies. In two days, we visited three different municipalities: Encarnacion, Pirapo and Santa Rita. I should mention here that we left Asuncion at 4 AM on Monday so as to arrive at our first destination at the start of the business day. I still do not consider 4 AM to be a functional hour of the day, so I have some adjusting to do.
Working with the public relations team of Francisco Pereira and Liliana Franco, we set out to promote the new PAL program (Programa de Adecuacion a las Leyes Ambientales). This is an education and training program set up by WWF Paraguay to help land owners comply with environmental regulations. Each landowner must have at least 20% of their land forested (this means either leaving it as is, or reforesting if they have cut down too many trees). Land owners can attain “compliance” by either reforesting, paying compliant farmers for their forested land (similar to carbon trading), or leaving formerly deforested land to regenerate, instead of cultivating it. The overall aim is to bring Paraguay back to a state of environmental health, with a productive and functioning forest.
I admire the resilience of the Paraguayan farmers, who continue to persevere in the face of severe drought. Many of their crops have been lost for the year, devastating the economy and their own survival. Though one could point out that they are not exactly environmental heroes, having deforested most of the country to grow extensive soy and corn crops, and thus contributing to the increasingly severe droughts. We met with two farmers in the municipality of Pirapo, a community settled by Japanese immigrants. It seemed very odd to me at first, hearing Japanese people, with very Japanese names, speaking Spanish. As second generation immigrants, they consider themselves completely Paraguayan.
Both farmers we spoke with in Pirapo are currently working to bring their property into compliance with environmental laws, by reforesting specific parcels of their land. They took us out through fields of dry soil to the sections where they have started reforesting, and spoke about the importance of complying with the new environmental laws (perhaps because we were there representing the WWF).
Liliana and Francisco used the opportunity to interview the farmers about their reforestation work – these interviews will be broadcast over the radio in Pirapo, as examples of good stewardship. As Liliana pointed out, big institutions and flashy media are not the best mechanisms for communication in these communities. People trust their neighbors, and if they hear from the farmer down the road that compliance is important, they will be more likely to join the program and start reforesting their own land. Through word of mouth, “el campo” has a chance at regeneration.
In both Encarnacion and Santa Rita, we went to the most popular local radio stations to distribute a short “spot” on the PAL program. While there, we were interviewed on live radio – Francisco and Liliana talked about the program and it’s implications for the community. Nicole and I thought we were only there to listen in, but both radio announcers had other ideas. They were more interested in talking to us about our intentions in Paraguay, and whether or not we were single. Twice in two days, I was broadcast to the local listeners in my mediocre Spanish – YIKES! I can only hope I didn’t make too big a fool of myself.
Back home in Asuncion now, I’m looking forward to the next trip, to meet more members of the community working towards sustainability for Paraguay.