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Michael Tighe's Peace Corps Experience in Paraguay
Michael Tighe's Peace Corps Experience in Paraguay
My Peace Corps Experience
By Michael Tighe
Peace Corps Volunteer in Paraguay (1994-98)
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Peace Corps is not a common word in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. When people heard I was to join, they immediately associated it with the Marine Corps and wondered how many years I had enlisted for. "Well," I explained, "it's not really that kind of Corps…"
Next, the news of my imminent departure made the front page of the local paper, and I began fielding questions from everyone in town. I even started to carry a small map in my wallet, to aid in my quickly-canned explanation of Paraguay's geographical and economic situation. Peoples' opinions of this kind of volunteership spanned the spectrum, from 'a young man taking time off and seeing the world' to 'a dedicated young man helping starving people.' I personally saw it as somewhere in between, a chance to test my knowledge and mettle and see if I could help someone at the same time.
High school and college had prepared me well for an experience of this nature. High school interactions with foreign exchange students, classes in Spanish and Biology, and charismatic social science teachers had piqued my interest in all things international. Graduation time left me at the crossroads of deciding between my love of the woods and continuing with some international discipline. Eventually I decided on Forestry, with a minor in Spanish in order to satisfy both passions. After graduating in 1993 with a Bachelor's of Science in Forestry I looked for a manner to marry these two interests in a meaningful way. The Peace Corps information packet that I ordered from a television commercial fit this order perfectly, and I decided to apply for volunteer service soon after.
After all the paperwork and anticipation, I finally accepted the nomination to serve as an Agroforestry Extension volunteer in Paraguay. Arriving at the airport in Asunción, Paraguay's capitol city, I knew that I was realizing my dream. From the plane I could see sparse pockets of forests covered by rich soils and uniquely developed communities. The possibilities seemed endless; only one thing stood in my way…what was Agroforestry? They will teach us, we were assured, during a 3-month in-country training session in the small city of Aregua.
Training consisted of long days spent studying language and technical material, all in a very hands-on fashion. What's more, leaving the training facilities left the trainee smack in the middle of Paraguayan culture, albeit in a town accustomed to visitors. While the nights and evenings were spent trying to communicate with Paraguayan families and establish cross-cultural ties, the same occurred during training sessions among other Peace Corps Volunteers. My training class consisted of 45 Americans, from all sectors of U.S. society. Speaking with my peers from other regions made me realize how removed and insular my quiet hometown really is. Working and playing together with these fellow trainees established strong bonds. Not only the shared experiences, but also the common interest among people from all different backgrounds made these the ties that bind.
The three months of training seemed like forever, as we eagerly waited to fan out into the countryside and begin our volunteer service. Finally the day came, and we set off for our sites, armed only with ambition and knowledge. Here began the real experience, translating this ambition and training into a cultural subtext that was still virtually unknown. How to get things done, how much to pay for a bed, and similar questions came up hourly as we realized the real challenges of living in a different culture. This is also where a volunteer boards the emotional roller coaster, when passions and ambition combine to produce emotional peaks and valleys on one-hour cycles. A positive response from a farmer can generate a high that makes the world seem right, while a visit to the store on the way back reminds you that you're still an outsider who will sometimes be overcharged for some items.
In addition to the emotional realm, another challenge was confronting personal beliefs and perceptions, as compared to how others perceive things. Many conversations with small-scale farmers would leave me scratching my head and thinking, "Why do I think this way?" American institutions like public education have instilled certain beliefs among the general population that haven't arrived to this southern Paraguayan community. I know that the earth is round and that two-dimensional maps represent a three-dimensional planet, but why don't these people? Why do I believe that the U.S. has sent people to the moon and that it's not a Hollywood sound stage?
Small items like these surfaced throughout my first two years, usually while taking a break or huddling around a fire. Working side by side with people in whatever capacity really impresses one with the common human bond. Planting trees and plowing contour lines until you feel like you can't sweat anymore gave me a feeling of exhilaration and accomplishment like no other. It also drew me close enough to the people I worked with that I would sometimes forget we were speaking a different language and living so far from nowhere.
I enjoyed the first two years so much that I eagerly accepted a one-year extension to work on a forestry project in northern Paraguay. This move allowed me to see a very different sector of the country, a city-type environment in a very politically unstable area at the forefront of landless reform. I attempted to piece together landowners who had participated in an abandoned plantation project to renew interest in reforestation. Successes were modest at best in the first 6 months, but started gaining steam near the end of my one-year term. Eventually we organized a small group of plantation owners who discussed their ideas on what went wrong and what was still needed. They pooled money and sent the president of the group to visit potential wood buyers with me, and then reported to the group. Important ties were realized with industry, and the landowners learned from their countrymen what was marketable, how much they could expect, and the reality of selling their plantations. This communication is what I consider my greatest success during this extension--letting rural landowners see the potential of reforestation and hearing it from people in their own country.
This work led to a great interest in non-traditional tree species and their potential markets. I decided to attend graduate school in order to better study these tropical and subtropical species and further my knowledge. The logical choice for this course of study was North Carolina State University, a school renowned for its plantation programs and international forestry experience.
While taking the GRE and applying to NC State, I received a call from the U.S. Crisis Corps to serve as a volunteer in Nicaragua. Hurricane Mitch had recently devastated large areas of Honduras and Nicaragua, and the Peace Corps' new natural disaster arm, the Crisis Corps, was looking for foresters with Spanish-speaking abilities. The idea of Crisis Corps is to utilize the vast web of ex-Peace Corps volunteers to respond quickly and efficiently to natural disasters in the countries where they served.
Nicaragua had never had a forestry program, so they requested former agroforestry extensionists from any Spanish-speaking country. This was a very different experience than Peace Corps, a more official capacity where we served as a link between non-governmental organizations and farmers. My work consisted of establishing community and family gardens and thereby redistributing seed for agricultural crops that were devastated by the hurricane. While only a short assignment, the passion and perseverance of the Nicaraguan people is something I will never forget.
After Crisis Corps, I was accepted to NC State and began a Master's in International Forestry. I am still currently working on my degree, while working full-time for the Central America and Mexico Coniferous Resource Cooperative (CAMCORE). The objectives of CAMCORE are very similar to my work in Peace Corps. Working in gene conservation and tree improvement, CAMCORE is an industry-sponsored cooperative that bridges the gap between endangered trees and forest industry. I'm not sure if my Peace Corps and Crisis Corps experiences led me to this career, or the other way around, but together they had a profound impact on my life. I revisit memories of these places and people daily, with a smile of contentment visible to my coworkers.