Water -> Food

As a follow-up to the look at water in the previous post, last Tuesday, October 16th was World Food Day. I know it lacks the alliterative appeal of World Water Day, but as they say here, asi es.

Turns out World Food Day has been going on since 1945. This is the first I knew of it. It’s probably hard for the UN to find ad space.

One of things that caught my eye when I was reading through some of the statistics for the water post, was a section about sustainable agricultural practices and their importance in water conservation. For example the 1500 liters of water it takes to produce 1 (that’s right one!) kilo of wheat. Or the 15,000 liters of water it takes to produce a single kilo of beef. I feel like in the States people of my age have grown up with the concept of environmentalism and environmental stewardship all around us (choosing to partake is a whole other issue) – campaigns to save “the rainforest” or against littering or to recycle or images of mustached sea otters reminding us of the importance of clean waterways. The idea of preserving the environment has always been there in the background. More recently the sustainability movement and with it the idea of green everything has become not only en vogue, but also gone from being a mark of corporate savviness to an essentiality.

Agriculture has never been able to reach the level of hipness as environmentalism. Probably why we didn’t know it was World Food Day but all know for sure when Earth Day falls on the calendar. It’s a shame because they’re one in the same. Sustainable agriculture is the cornerstone of a sustainable future – especially in environmental terms. When will it get its Kermit the Frog?

So the World Food Day alarming stats say one in seven people suffers from undernourishment; 3.5 million children die every year from under-nutrition – one every six seconds.

What does this possibly have to do with Paraguay that I’ve taken the time to write about it? Small farmers. As impressive as Iowa is, it’s small farmers who are going to have to feed the bulk the rest of the world’s growing population over the next fifty years. The same small farmers that a very meager amount of Peace Corps volunteers around the world are working with demonstrating techniques on how to be more sustainable producers. The best argument for doing so isn’t even the environmental benefits – it’s that it works, is cheaper and in the long run easier. None of that though makes the effort less difficult.

In the early nineties, right around the time some of us in elementary were peddling those tee shirts in the name of endangered species, there was a brief period where we had these little white cardboard cubes, of some sort of origami construction, to collect change for the famine in the horn of Africa. We all know how that turned out. Ridley Scott jogged our memory and tired to open some eyes about a decade after the fact with Black Hawk Down. It’s a perfect reminder that the problems faced with thirst and hunger and extreme poverty don’t happen in a vacuum. They just don’t happen under our noses.  Or they do and we chose to smell brighter stuff.

I reckon to say we’ll hear a lot about Iraq and Iran in the final presidential debate on foreign policy tomorrow, but not a word about the larger scale issues standing to pose much greater problems and in desperate need of greater advocacy – everywhere.

We’ll see.


Good Good Water

I recently revisited a community I first went to on March 22nd. The only reason I happen to know I was there on March 22nd is because I later found out that happens to be World Water Day.

Like anyone else, I probably wouldn’t have thought twice (or even once) about that day’s moniker had I not been in a, how shall we say, uniquely ironic situation that day.

Several times on the drive, my boss and I found ourselves saying how we felt like we were in a different country. That’s how remote the settings were. I had a Paraguayan telling me it felt remote and removed. We were driving about as far off the beaten path as I’ve been in Eastern Paraguay – and by now I’ve been a few places. It’s definitely not the farthest away in hours or in kilometers, but in that other so hard to quantify measurement – feeling. Sometimes you just plain feel far from everything else. Most of the time it’s because it’s true. (Or because you’re lost).

The “road” (I use the term loosely) we were on cuts through the campo alongside the Parque Nacional Ybycui – the  borders of which seemed rather ambiguous, at least as far as the scenery was concerned. We were carrying with us, in the bed of the Hilux, a 200- liter blue plastic water barrel. For those of you reading in Liberia, Myanmar and  the United States that about 52 gallons. Like an oil drum. Only plastic. And filled with water.

On a side note. Water weighs 1 kilogram per liter. That’s convenient isn’t it. Or 8.35 pounds per gallon. Either way, there were 200 kilos worth of water standing up back behind our headrests.

The volunteer we were headed to visit had no water. When volunteers talk to each other and say they have no water, it means their community or their house doesn’t have running water. Some places do, some don’t. If you “don’t have water” you have a well. And bucket. And a pulley. Problem solved.

This particular fellow though, really didn’t have any water. His well dried up. Such an interesting expression. More like the land around his well dried up.

It hadn’t rained beyond a spit in certain parts of the country since before Christmas, almost four months earlier. The drought resulted in the nation’s soy exports falling by 60 percent this year according to one newspaper – a remarkable statistic given that it is the top export and the way this country earns its GDP. A very small handful of people lost several ocean freighters full of money, but the effects of the sequia reached well beyond crop production and began to hit families – ones with nothing invested in soy or anything else beyond the small plots of land they live on – directly.  Beyond personal consumption crops failing, wells in higher elevations began to dry up. Drinking water was carried from luckier, or lower-laying neighbors, or from the occasional meager and less-than-clean spring in the woods. Gardens, and with with them the source of any vegetables, shriveled in the sun. Laundry lines hung empty.

Turning on the faucet is something we take for granted, just like so many other things. Volunteers in Paraguay are spoiled you could say because lots of us have running water in our communities. Paraguay is a lucky spot in the world when it comes to h20 (I’ll resist the temptation to talk about the aquifer, again). In the Peace Corps you don’t expect to have running water – well let me rephrase, you shouldn’t expect to have running water. So you use a well. I won’t belittle it, using a well everyday for all your water needs (and they add up) isn’t easy or particularly fun. But you get used to it. You learn some of its benefits (always chilly drinking water that doesn’t rely on a pump to power it) and eventually you do the same thing as the rest of us: take for granted that it’s out there. Then one day, it’s not.

780 million people in the world lack access to clean drinking water. That’s two and half times the population of the United States. That’s one out of every nine people on the planet. Diarrhea – not heart attacks, not car crashes – is the leading cause of death in the world, mostly due to dehydration and lack of proper sanitation that relays on water. It claims the lives of 3.4 million people each year. That’s the population of Los Angeles. Drought has claimed more lives in the last century than any other natural disaster.

That was the alarming statistics section of this post. I’m not trying to say that the dried up well of a volunteer in Paraguay is causing kids to die of thirst. That wouldn’t be true. Or that the drought earlier this year caused any deaths. I don’t know if that’s true. I do know that it took me trying to unload a 440 pound barrel of water from the back of a pick truck four hours from nowhere, to begin to not take what comes out of the faucet for granted. Not sharing that seems like a disservice to those with buckets in their hands.

A few weeks after our delivery the rain returned and so did water in the well. As of this morning that volunteer’s well had again dried up.

More on Beans and Government

A great piece was recently published, in the New York Times, by the director of Oxfam International, highlighting the role of that damned little bean we keep discussing, in the recent ousting of Paraguay’s president, Fernando Lugo.

Soy is neither a new or small topic in Paraguay. I often tell people that any work you’re doing in this country can be related to agriculture. By that standard I suppose it also wouldn’t be too far to say that nothing here is ever that far separated from the soybean. I can’t understate this relationship enough, which is why I’ve written here about it so many times. (You can find my previous ramblings on soy here, here, here, and here).

The Times article succinctly covers many of the ideas I’ve tried to touch and even comes pretty close to capturing some of the ridiculousness of the situation. I hope you’ll all read the article, but some of it bears repeating:

  • Paraguay is the world’s 4th largest exporter of soy in a time when there seems no limit to how much of the legume the world insists upon consuming
  • In the past 16 years, just short of 3 million acres have been deforested here in order to plant soy instead of something edible
  • Close to 9,000 rural families a year are evicted by soy production in Paraguay
  • 1.2 million acres of land are turned into soy monocultures in Paraguay each year
  • And one billion people – one-seventh of the world’s population – goes to bed hungry every night

I’m not a vegetarian, but one comes pretty close to a convincing argument when you look at how the world’s hungry aren’t being feed because soy is being planted instead of food. The argument has some virtue but needs a little duct tape to keep it afloat. There is currently a market for soy. There isn’t one for feeding the world’s poor. There’s no money in it. Rest assured, if there was, than people would be feeding them. While this is all very true, it’s still worth pointing out that if we didn’t all have such a hunger for grain-feed beef and fish (two species that don’t even naturally eat grain) than we wouldn’t need all this soy. Remove the market, the soy goes away. The idea is the conflict will too.

It would be nice if simple economic theory could be applied to such a complex problem and yield such a pleasant outcome. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem anywhere close to happening. People want land reform – that’s why they vote for people who promise it to them. Governments want development – which at this point is measured by GDP. The two are at odds and the common ground it would seem is shrinking for the landless and disenfranchised, while growing wider for governments and agribusiness. Wide enough to plant a sea of something no one even needs in order to line pockets and hold on to power. You can’t help but wonder when a government’s overthrow is not meet with anything more than a whimper by the very people it’s designed to protect, until you realize just how disconnected they feel from that government. Separated by so many things, including a desert of soy.


Trust market forces

I heard a statistic last month that I finally got around to confirming – if typing a few words into Google counts as confirming.

US economic growth (in real GDP) for 2010 was at 2.83%. No real surprise there. I’m guessing it felt about like that – or lower.

The People’s Republic of China (that’s the big one, usually painted red on the map, not the island one most of us call Taiwan) in contrast was at 10.3%. Ranking sixth highest in the world. Again, no real surprise there – we’re all pretty used to hearing (or reading on our cheap electronics) about the rising monster in the east the will one day consume us all. Although sixth seems a bit lower then all the hype would have us believe.

The spot of third highest was reserved for a special contender. Any guesses? Weighing in with 14.4% economic growth in 2010 – more then 4% higher then China and 3.2% higher than its next nearest competitor, India – that’s right, Paraguay.

Only Qatar and Singapore (ranked higher at 1 and 2 respectively) out grew, I would say, little, Paraguay, but by the company it’s keeping here that hardly seems appropriate.

Strong beef and cereal exports are cited as the reasoning for this anomalous (I can’t believe that’s a word, or that I’m using it) growth. Seems strange to me.

Until you consider two things. First how small the Paraguayan economy is to begin with. I’m not an economist, but I think that’s a factor. And second, the topic that won’t seem to go away in these parts: the soy.

Just walking and riding around, no measuring tape, no GPS, just plain old visual observation, I’d say it’s easy to see at least – the very least – a 20% increase in the amount of land used to cultivate soy (and wheat in the off season) in the 30 kilometer stretch of highway I travel regularly. This is land that wasn’t being used previously to plant these crops and this type of visual observation does nothing to account for increases in productivity on existing parcels.

It’s almost like watching an agricultural revolution in fast forward – or a train wreck in slow motion. Fascinating, but slightly terrifying.

A few people stand to benefit greatly (a strange concept I know) while the rest of the country enjoys a falsely inflated sense of prosperity (the President here referring to the country as an “economic champion”) and only the residual benefits of any actual growth. Something tells me that when things flatten out – sooner then later on any type of scale – any sense they’ll be feeling will be neither false nor residual, but very real and very immediate.

It’s a topic I see us revisiting.


Facts all come with points of view… (cont.)

(I wrote this a while back – back when it was still news. Or at least back when people were paying attention to it being news. I decided not to post it, but now have changed my mind. It’s as relevant today as it was six weeks ago and even though it’s not “news” anymore, I don’t see it going away anytime soon – no matter how much we try to ignore it).

For every one death for energy derived from nuclear power there are four thousand from that of its older brother, Coal.

I’ve been explaining a lot of things this week. Where Japan is. How big the ocean is. How deep it is. What makes tsunamis. Plates – as in tectonics (this one I’m getting good at. Major earthquakes in Haiti, Chile and now Japan have all taken place during my time here). What is radioactivity. That one’s tough. The difference between nuclear power and nuclear weapons. And then anything that can be related to any of that. Basically open season on things I’m barely qualified to understand, let alone explain.

The disaster in Japan is being covered regularly on the news here. But as I’m sure it is back home, the ongoing nuclear saga has now grabbed the headlines away from the immense number of lives lost. What’s not being covered though are the basics. I read something about how back home most people’s knowledge about nuclear power is from watching The Simpsons. Here, we’re not even working with that.

As I’ve mentioned before, Paraguay – for it’s rung on the ladder in the list of the world’s developing countries – is a unique place, given its electrification rate: 96.7%. Hydroelectric power makes it all possible. Just three dams actually. (One of them happens to be the second largest in the world, but then again it provides power to a lot of Brazil – the world’s fifth largest country). This being the case, little time is spent thinking or talking about alternative energy or clean energy or even the fact that energy is, for most of the world, dirty and expensive. The concept of nuclear power plants here are as a foreign as the idea of a pastrami sandwich or a really good bagel.

It’s slightly acceptable – or I guess excusable is a better way of saying it – that people here, so far removed from the situation and the technology, don’t fully understand what’s happening. But for that to be the case in the States is kinda unacceptable. I’ve read a lot in the past 2 weeks about “nuclear power fears” and stuff along those lines. But I also read something today that made a little more sense: A forty-one year old nuclear power plant is hit by a the largest earthquake in the country’s modern history, then slammed into by a tsunami, has the roof collapse, burns for a few days, and not one person yet dies from radiation exposure.

That’s impressive. And something kind of hard to overlook as your trying to overlook that statement about coal up there.


Facts all come with points of view… (cont.)

ONE liter of bottled water uses THREE liters of water to produce

I understand people don’t want to drink the tap water because of the crap that makes its way in there. Fair enough. But what’s being done to keep that same crap out? Buying more bottled water probably isn’t helping.

I get water from a well. Conveniently (for now), Paraguay sits on top of the world’s largest contiguous fresh-water aquifer. The Guarani Aquifer contains enough fresh water to supply the world with 200 years worth of fresh drinking water. The locals don’t let that one be forgotten. Mostly because they think I’m a spy sent here to figure out how to steal it, but also ‘cause they’re proud of it. I can’t blame them – somewhere near the top of the list of best reasons to be a PCV in Paraguay: You can drink the water. Followed closely behind by: You can drink the water!

At least for now.

The soy got sprayed again this morning. That’s not helping matters.