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Greg Verkamp worked with organic agriculture in Bolivia
Greg Verkamp worked with organic agriculture in Bolivia
Going organic in Bolivia
By MONICA McLELLAN
Sun Staff Reporter
Caption: Peace Corps volunteer Greg Verkamp worked on organic agriculture projects in Bolivia. He returned to Flagstaff two months ago, and is looking to continue his studies in forestry. Photo: Josh Biggs/Arizona Daily Sun
Even though he is the son of a former state senator, Greg Verkamp is somewhat homeless now.
Since he returned in May after two years in Bolivia with the Peace Corps, he has been living with friends and camping in the forest. He's finding his direction after what he describes as "the most wonderful, challenging, frustrating thing I've ever done in my life."
For two years he stuck it out through isolation, language trouble, homesickness and stomach sickness to help a few Bolivians take a few steps toward healthier farming. He doesn't claim to have changed the world, but at the same time, he says the two years were "the most worthy way I've spent time," and "I recommend that anybody who has ever had the slightest interest in joining the Peace Corps does it."
Twenty-nine years old, Verkamp was born and raised in Flagstaff. His family has been in northern Arizona for more than 100 years, and his father, John Verkamp, is a former Coconino County Attorney, state representative and state senator. He attended NAU, where he received a Bachelor of Arts and Liberal Studies, with an emphasis in Environmental Science. Later he worked at the Ecological Restoration Institute, at the NAU forestry department. After a few years there, Verkamp felt it was time to either attend graduate school or join the Peace Corps. He decided to travel.
Verkamp spent his first three months in the town of Cochabamba for training. He took intensive Spanish classes, as well as cultural and safety training. He learned the basics about his job, which would be to improve agriculture -- composting, crop rotation, basic herbicide and fungicide recipes, and seed selection.
In Cochabamba, Verkamp was surrounded by "a little neighborhood of volunteers," but after seven weeks he was assigned to Carapari, a tiny town in southeastern Bolivia, an hour from Argentina.
In Carapari, population 1,000, Verkamp was the only American and almost the only person who spoke English. The nearest volunteer was 21Ú2 hours away.
The first three months at the site were difficult, Verkamp said. He was going to bed early, exhausted from concentrating on understanding people and making himself understood. He listened to the BBC every night on his short-wave radio to relax his mind. The change in diet was tough too -- the Bolivian diet consists mainly of potatoes ("I think I've had maybe two potatoes since I've been home," he said). Verkamp had E. coli, ameobas, giardia and a long list of other food- and water-borne illnesses.
He describes the first part of his stay as isolated and lonely.
"One has to have a lot of patience," he said.
It took him about a year to be completely comfortable in Spanish, but he was working his way into the community before that. In the beginning, he played a lot of soccer and basketball with local kids. Verkamp said kids are the "gateway into a community," because of their openness and acceptance. He also went fishing, something he had always enjoyed and the Bolivians did as well. It was something they could share without having to talk too much.
One part of a Peace Corps volunteer's job is "being an American," Verkamp said. He prepared lots of pancakes and played American music as a way to share American culture. All the time he was also listening and learning about theirs. "Both Bolivians and volunteers are giving and receiving," Verkamp said. "It's an exchange."
Verkamp said the Bolivian view of the United States is not positive. "As far as the government goes, it is seen right now as somewhat arrogant," he said.
"You're always aware that you're different," Verkamp said, but although many Bolivians didn't agree with the U.S. government, that didn't affect their view of Verkamp as an individual.
"I was treated wonderfully," he said.
The Peace Corps recommends the first six months to get to know the community and let the community know you, and to find out what the community thinks are problems. In Carapari, Verkamp had to learn about the specifics of his site and develop a project for his second year.
Verkamp discovered a major problem was malnutrition. He worked with local nurses to encourage vegetables, which are not a typical part of Bolivian diet. They held "vegetable expositions" where the nurses made a variety of dishes with veggies cooked Bolivian-style.
For his project, Verkamp worked in the smaller towns surrounding Carapari, consisting at most of 20 to 40 families each. There he helped existing local women's clubs set up one-hectare community gardens. With $2,000 from a U.N. grant, he brought in materials with the goal of starting self-sustaining plots of corn, peanuts and vegetables.
One part of his task was to encourage organic pesticides and herbicides. He saw farmers using none at all and losing their crops, or using chemicals and exposing themselves and families to dangerous levels. Verkamp said the people are aware that the chemicals aren't good and are interested in organic, but they have little access to alternatives.
A nearby professor, already experimenting with organic herbicides and fungicides, helped Verkamp with recipes against local bugs. They tried to use locally derived ingredients as much as possible.
Verkamp encouraged experimenting among local farmers, but said only about 10 percent were willing to go out on a limb and actually use it. The rest will wait to see if it works.
Verkamp said his project wasn't really "blooming" until the last four months. "If I had another five years there, I could have spread it so much farther," he said.
After two years working with organic agriculture, Verkamp said he has come to realize how important it is.
"It is important to know where your food comes from," he said. He thinks in the United States we will have to go organic eventually, "for the health of us as human beings, and for the health of the land."
From living closer to the land he gained a connection with it, and a desire to take care of the water we drink and the food we eat. Verkamp said he plans to have his own organic garden, when he gets his own place