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Thursday, December 20, 2012

Biodigester Burning

       To this point in my service, I have been extremely fortunate to have been in a position to do a number of different projects that in my mind have been successful. At the end of October I wrote about the upcoming biodigester workshop I would be doing with a local farmer in a small community about 15 KM from where I lived. I mentioned in that post a bit about what a biodigester is, my lack of experience and knowledge in what they actually are, and my anxieties with being able to effectively facilitate a project. However, despite my nerves and preoccupations about the project the workshop went off without a hitch as most things tend to do here.
       The workshop was scheduled to begin at 8am on October 26th, and I was sweating the night before. Not only because it was stifling hot outside, but also because the materials list of the things needed to build the biodigester wasn't updated and was missing some key components. I had to go to 5 hardware stores to get all the materials that were on the outdated list in the week prior to the workshop, so I was in a minor panic that the only hardware store in the area close to the community wouldn't have the needed materials. I distinctly remember appealing to a higher power as my friend Gabe, a Peace Corps Volunteer who is one of the technical trainers of the biodigesters, went up to the counter at the small hardware store to ask for the specific parts needed. Luck was most definitely on my side as the guy at the counter had each missing part preventing a lot of last minute scrambling before the workshop.
       Although the workshop was scheduled to go off at 8 everybody in the group knew full well that we wouldn't realistically get started until at least 9 as people finished tending to their own fields and families. That was fine with me because we decided at the last minute to make the 4 meter trench 6 meters at the last minute to increase the gas producing potential of the biodigester. By the time we got things rolling at around 9:15 there were only six people from the surrounding area that showed up. Not a big deal because six is better than nothing, but as the morning wore on that number swelled to 16 people from not just San Roque, the community where we were doing the project, but outlaying areas as well including one member of my community. I am not sure what I was expecting in terms of participant participation in the workshop, but was blown away by how involved people got in leveling the trench, preparing the plastic tubing, and making the food for lunch. Personally, I was a bit overwhelmed by the science of the biodigester having seen one built before, and how it was going to work, so for the Paraguayans watching this for the first time I can imagine seeing a inflated plastic tube attached to hose and random piping that is supposedly able to produce cooking fuel must have been unbelievable. The workshop ended around 3:30 in the afternoon, and I for sure got a sense that people were thinking "okay lets see if this contraption will work." To be honest, I was thinking the exact same thing myself having not seen one actually burning, but I was told by Gabe and Connie, the other trainer, that it would work if he filled it correctly after a month.
       After the workshop I went on vacation to Argentina, and had a number of other things going on that prevented me from going back to see whether or not things were working or not. San Roque during this time also found out that it would be getting an Agriculture Volunteer from the newest group for the next two years, so things are looking good. I went out to check on the progress of the biodigester, and to meet William, the new volunteer, on November 20th about a week before the biodigester was theoretically ready to work. To anybody’s surprise it still wasn't ready, but no less than a week an half later I gave Daniel, the farmer who we did the project with, a phone call to see how things were going and sure enough we were burning. When I went there the day after the phone call I think my facial reaction was as surprised as every person who came by to take a look at it. Light blue flames were shooting out of the stove top with a much stronger flame than I expected. The best part about the whole thing was while I was there Daniel mentioned that the intendente of his districto (sort of like the mayor or county commissioner) not only came to personally see the biodigester work, but also to donate roofing materials to protect it from falling branches. While I was there the roofing material was delivered by a guy who works for the municipality, and his eye essentially popped out of his head when he saw the thing light. Daniel had said on a number of occasions that everyone looks at it and doesn't believe it is going to work until the second he lights it. It is something he is immensely proud of, which was an unintended advantage of the project. Not only does the biodigester work, but dozens of families have expressed an interest in putting one in their own house.
Doing the biodigester was probably the hardest project I have been involved with to date since I joined the Peace Corps. I never thought it would go off as smoothly as it did especially in the beginning. I was glad that I was proven wrong, and while I sort of feel badly for William who is now thrown into a situation where a number of people want something that he has had no experience in building, at the same time I am happy that this was able to stimulate the interest of a community that could really benefit from this type of technology.

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