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Thursday, February 23, 2012

Paraguay Verde

            As I start to approach the 5-month mark in Paraguay my thoughts of late have been mainly focused on interpreting how Paraguayans view themselves as a nation a part of the larger world. A huge component of that stems from the relative size of Paraguay in relation to the rest of the world. In my junior year of college I studied abroad in China. Something that struck me as remarkable was the scale of China’s population. With 1.3 billion people and 160 cities with over a million people China is the most populous country in the world with India as a close second followed third by the United States whose population is just over 300 million people. As an American I was overwhelmed by the size of China’s population and marveled at how a country with a population 5 times the size of America could survive on relatively the same amount of land. The entire continent of South America has roughly 375 million people of that number only 6.4 million live in Paraguay making it 9th most populated independent country on the continent only ahead of Uruguay, Guyana, and Suriname I guess it makes sense that for people to have less understanding concerning how big the world is in relation to themselves.
            In recent weeks I have started to get a better sense of what constitutes international exposure in Paraguay. Given its landlocked location it is easy to understand that the country is isolated. By what strikes me is how people view distances and what their opinions of what constitutes far away. The fact that I came here from America is almost an unfathomable concept in the eyes of a number of people I talk to. Younger children in particular frequently ask me how long would it take to bus to America. When I explain that you cannot take a bus direct from Paraguay to America I often receive blank stares and confusion. A trip that takes 4 hours by bus is considered a long journey to many people, and given the general lack of opportunity and the cost of flying most Paraguayans have never been on a plane or even seen one up close. The other day I myself marveled when I saw a plane flying overhead not because I have never seen one before, but because it was only the second or third time I had seen one since I arrived. When you throw numbers like thousands of kilometers, or billions of people I notice a distinct lack of understanding particularly with youth. For many people scale is limited to the boundaries of Paraguay, South Western Brazil, Argentina specifically Buenos Aires, and Uruguay. The economy of the county is primarily dependent on regional trade and while big agrobusiness has broadened those limitations slightly, still when you talk to the average Paraguayan outside of the major cities in particular those boundaries appear to be a sort of end of the world.
            This trend, however, goes beyond the area of international boundaries, but also includes distances within the country itself. Anytime I have to walk to town, a distance of 1.6 km, or ride my bike to the lake, about 4.5 km, people always seem to marvel that I not only can walk that distance but also do it without thinking twice about it. Granted if I had a motorcycle my opinion about those distances might change as well, but walking 3 km a day is really not that much given the size of the town and the relative distances I need to travel to get things. I think the reason that I am writing about this topic now stemmed from something that happened to me this past Monday. Peace Corps was putting on its first annual environmental youth leadership camp called Paraguay Verde in the small town of Tobati located roughly an hour from Asunción and a 10 minute bus ride from one of the main international highways. In order to get to the location of the camp we had to hop on the local bus and ride it to the entrance of the campgrounds where registration was. After witnessing the 3rd consecutive bus that was overflowed with people we decided to hoof it. The owner of the restaurant we were waiting at looked at us like we were mad when we asked how long it would take to walk? He replied by saying it was way too far, a 30-minute walk minimum. When I hear the term long walk I don’t think 30 minutes I think 3 hours or more, but I would venture to guess that the restaurant owner had never even thought to walk that distance let alone actually do it, which struck me as amazing.
Planting Trees
            Needless to say the walk wasn’t that bad. I knew that mainly because the kids I was with weren’t overtly complaining. As for the camp itself it was Peace Corps Paraguay’s first attempt to connect youth from all over Paraguay with other youth under the umbrella of environmental action and activism. The camp was held in a protected area called Encampamento (Camp) Jack Norment named after an American missionary who suffered an untimely death. To be honest, I was skeptical about how the camp would run given it was the first attempt by the environmental sector to do one of these, but I was pleasantly surprised by how the kids seemed to react to the presentations and the information offered. Large concepts like global warming and recycling materials might have gone over the heads of many of the 50 plus youth on hand, but they weren't completely alien concepts to anyone, which was amazing to see. The camp provided many opportunities for the participants to practice their public speaking and presentation skills when they were asked to present a map of their individual communities and what resources existed within. Each group of kids also had to create a project plan of an environmentally themed idea that they would like to implement in their communities. We also had the opportunity to help plant 100 native tree varieties, which got the kids really motivated to do more of that when they return to their communities. ABC Color, one of the national newspapers, also wrote an article about the camp that you could read if you follow this link:
            The fact that a national newspaper covered the story of a youth camp in Paraguay was pretty amazing, and seemed to get the kids really excited. For me, it showed how much pull and influence Peace Corps has in Paraguay. The reputation and the continuous cycle of sending volunteers since 1967 has really made Peace Corps and it’s programming a very noteworthy entity in public policy and lifestyle. The camp received so much national attention because of its focus on youth. Paraguay is a very young country with a median age only 21.6 years and roughly with 28.5% of the population under the age of 15,  youth development programs are pillars of further development within the country both with Peace Corps and the Paraguayan government. This camp therefore got a lot of national attention, which I am sure sets it up very well for the future.
Rodrigo, Denis, Me, Noelia upon getting our participation certificates
            I took three kids to the camp, Rodrigo, Denis, and Noelia, all of who are members of the youth group formed by Mike and all of who were hand selected by their teachers as great students eager to participate with Peace Corps Volunteers. All of them had been to other camps put on by Peace Corps, so they were accustomed to they way things worked, how to speak in front of large groups of people, and participate in all the activities. Needless to say that made my job a heck of a lot easier, and by the end of the third day we had come out of the camp with a better sense of the resources available to the youth group from Peace Corps, non-governmental organizations, and government ministries particularly the ministry of tourism. As for the potential projects that come out of the camp we will have to wait and see, but the kids seem really motivated to do a trash pickup project in the center of town under the pretext of raising trash awareness and how people dispose their garbage.

            On the agenda for me now that the camp is over are a couple of days to rest and think about getting my house underway. School started today, but it rained a bit today and as everyone back home will remember the first day of school is kind of a joke anyway especially here when it rains. Hopefully I’ll get moving soon, but I am in now hurry everything is tranquillo for the time being and I like it that way.

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