27 avril, 2006

The insufferable heat of the Paraguayan Chaco

Patience, or lack thereof, seems to be my achilles heel at the moment. For I wish I could sit and write 3 times what I have written here ... it doesnt do my trip justice. And I havent even touched on Tango in Buenos Aires yet ... but here is a little bit of what I tapped out, after a dinner of grilled surubi (fish native to this part of the world) in a hotel in Asuncion thats rather incredible for its luxury, spaciousness and speed of internet connection.

I'm slowly getting used to the Paraguayan accent, which has a sort of sing song lilt to it, less Italian sounding than the Argentine accent, and people here add "verdad" as an interjection, and pronounce the rs more deeply, with a curled tongue, rather than the tongue at the front of the mouth. Not unlike the central american accent.

I stayed in a hotel a few days ago, in Filadelfia, Paraguay, a 5 hour drive through flat brushland, on a road eerily empty, with the occasional "town" that was no more than a gas station, with the odd hand made shack alongside the road, where people eeking out a living, would while away the heat of the day sitting, drinking terere, watching trucks on their way to Bolivia zing by. The hotel had a slogan that translated roughly as: Hotel Florida, Where the Insufferable Heat of the Paraguayan Chaco is converted into pleasure". Heat, yes. Pleasure, not so much.

The digs were spartan, and rather ironically, the only hotel Içve ever stayed in that didnt have a bible anywhere in the room. Four TV channels: 2 in German, 1 in Spanish and 1 in Portuguese. Single beds only. A sliver of a bar of soap.

The streets of Filadelfia are wide, well kept and clean. The grocery store huge, even by North American Standards, tidy, well lit. The sidewalks perfect, compared to the ones in Asuncion, where I almost broke an ankle, tripping over a pile of bricks and slipping into a pothole, within a few seconds of each other. Absent are the diesel buses belching black smoke and carreening around corners, barely stopping to let people off an on. Everyone here drives a car, moto or walks. Faces are either white, with blonde hair and blue eyes, or indigenous looking = dark skin, high cheekbones. There are gardens, trees, a German sort of orderliness. My Paraguayan colleague kept on saying, this is a completely different world. Lomo Plata, about 25 km away from Filadelfia is a bit better off, with lots of new pick up trucks driving the streets, a huge supermarket, shiny new hotel, and home of the largest cooperative in the country, and a dairy plant where they process 70 per cent of the countrys milk, cheese and yogourt. In the parking lot of the plant there was a smell of fake strawberries in the air.

Most people walking down the street are tall, blonde and could pass for any of my cousins. Spanish is spoken with a german accent and signs are in three languages.

The Mennonites came originally from northern Holland, Friesland to be exact, where Menno Simons became a leader of a group of Protestants called Anabaptists; his followers became known as Mennonites. Fleeing persecution, they fled to Russia, Ukraine and eventually Canada and the United States. Many of the Mennonites living in Paraguay (numbering about 10 000) came from Manitoba Canada around 1927. They came wanting to escape military draft, and essentially to be isolated, with freedom to live in their own language (a dialect of German called Plattdeutsch or Low German, sort of close to Dutch), practice their own religion and customs. And so, they left Canada and settled in Paraguay, a country that had lost almost 2/3 of its adult men in a devastating war with neighbouring Bolivia and Argentina, and had a huge swath of its territory, northwest of the capital city of Asuncion, lying barren, and uninhabited.

In 75 years in Paraguay the Mennonites have created thriving and well off communities, largely through agriculture and especially dairy farming and processing. Hence, my visit. CIDA is supporting a 3 year project where a Canadian organization will provide technical assistance to Paraguayan dairy farmers as well as to 8 small and large dairy cooperatives.

Tuesday morning we set off at 7 am to visit 2 small dairy cooperatives close by, and the farms of 2 of its members. A few hours later, after driving along red dirt roads through clouds of dust, seeing absolutely no one along the way, we arrived. The two cooperatives we visited were not Mennonite, and so I got a lot of stares = pale skin, blue eyes, red hair. An unusual commodity. It felt like Central America ... a suffocating wall of heat, blinding white sun even at 8 am, men in wide white hats leaning against fence posts in the shade, rickety hand made fences, hand made carts being drawn by horses carrying tin milk carts, like the ones I used to see pictures of, from the 1920s in Canada ... or pre-war in Holland, like the ones my parents used to use.

We sat around in a group, under the shade of a huge burly Chaco tree. I could barely understnad the Spanish, a mix of Guarani and a spanish sort of swallowed, especially the Ss. Sebastian spoke first. He is a huge, burly man, native of the region, and, due to his size, seemingly older than his years, but his red cheeks and thin beard revealed his true age, probably around 23. Sebastian giving us a history of the cooperative, founded 30 years ago, and what kinds of problems members face = lack of access to credit for members, lack of access to machinery, low production, low price of milk, inability to sell to the larger cooperatives because of low quality, inability to access better genetic material for cows, lack of capital to buy new cows or improve herd, lack of water, lack of pasture material in the 6 months of drought, lack of access to markets because of bad or nonexistent roads (in the dry season). Most members live at a subsistence level. Most children dont go to school, or dont finish primary school if they do go.

Milk produced by the small producers, if it is bought at all, is bought by the larger cooperatives. Farmers typically start working at 4 am, milk the cows, and place tin jugs by the roadside, for them to be picked up. Even at 8 am, it was 30C or so, and milk was sitting out in the heat, unrefrigerated, ready to be collected. Im amazed more people dont get sick from eating dairy products. Except for members of the larger cooperatives, there are no standards for milk quality (i.e. bacterial counts).

We then headed a few metres away to the farm of one of the coop members who is receiving technical assistance as part of the project. Already, small changes in the ways he is managing his farm has seen a 25 per cent increase in production in 1 month. He now rotates his cows through different areas of pasture instead of letting them roam randomly. He has created a pile of silage, under a tarp and layer of dirt, which he will be able to use to feed his cows during the "lean months" where theres little rain. He has 23 cows, all a mix of pure holland breed (rare and expensive to keep in Paraguay due to their extra nutritional requirements, or so i was told) and brahmin from India, better able to support heat and dry conditions of the Chaco. He had a very simple house, a wife, with 2 small children. Again, the spanish was difficult, and a mix between spanish and guarani, but we managed, sitting under a tree, in plastic chairs, I asked him about how long hes been farming (15 years ago he didnt have a cent, or a home), what hes changed in the last month, and what he hopes, expects in the years to come. His wife, a cheery, round woman with huge cheeks, and a who reminded me of indigenous women I met in Guatemala, and came from Pilar, in the eastern part of the country, joined us, and in between smiles, and serving terere (cold yerba mate with herbs), chattered to her youngest son in Guarani. Against my better judgement, since I knew the water likely had not been boiled, I took a few sips. A day later my digestive system seems to be holding up ok.

According to all involved, in most farms, work is a family affair, and it is the woman who does a lot of the manual labour, e.g. milking, and knows the details of the operation, health of animals, etc. Shes the power and brains behind the operation; her husband the public face.

Another farm, visited later in the day, demonstrated a clear difference in standard of living between members of 2 different cooperatives. Luciano has 55 lecheras, much more land, and 3 vacas, lots of chickens, and also grows manioc, papaya and made honey on his property. He has a truck, a small motorcycle, and his yard had a small garden, and tanks for collecting rain water during the dry months.

Around 3 pm, when the heat was at its peak, we drove back to Filadelfia, the spartan hotel, and later, a large Mennonite meal with about 25 people around a long table, all men, all Mennonite, all either dairy farmers or dairy plant managers, where I was asked, to my surprise, to make a speech on the spur of the moment in Spanish. A test, but I think I passed.