Frank Aragona's Peace Corps Service in Bolivia

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Frank Aragona's Peace Corps Service in Bolivia



Frank Aragona's Peace Corps Service in Bolivia

Frank Aragona's Peace Corps Service in Bolivia

Frank Aragona.

Frank Aragona began Peace Corps training in Bolivia on August 21, 2000.

31 August 2000

I live on a farm with a small Bolivian family, mom dad and two little girls, Carola and Sandra, 5 and 3. The girls are obsessed with me, they are like my appendages. They are a little bit in your face at times, and I can't understand a word that the three year old says. The family speaks Quecha and Spanish, mostly Quecha if they aren't speaking to me, so their Spanish has a strange rhythm and intonation. I have Spanish classes everyday, and that's fine, I'm in an intermediate class and picking it up quickly. You'd probably be amazed at how much better I can speak now, I can actually have conversations without resorting to too much English.

The farm has the whole deal, cows, chickens, sheep, a big garden and a huge farm field. Even guinea pigs (for consumption of course). And yes, I had chicken claw soup the other day, although they didn't put the claws in my dish, the girls ate them. The food? Potatoes, pasta, rice, and sometimes meat, potatoes pasta and more rice. Very binding for the bowels. Training is going okay, we've started to learn about soil conservation techniques, Spanish of course, and health. I've never had an hour and half lecture on diarrhea before.

9 September 2000

I'm living with a host family in a village about 30 minutes outside of the city of Cochabamba. Its a nice place. My host family is really nice, a family of four with two children ages 3 and 5. Training is slow, lots of Spanish class (which I'm picking up quite nicely but I have some work to do before I'm fluent), and technical training about three times a week. Tech training is fun, we dig holes, plant trees, do compost piles. Every Wednesday we go to the training center in Cochabamba for more training. This is about the equivalent of watching paint dry. I can feel myself getting dumber as I'm sitting there (Haven't I heard someone else say that about Peace Corps training? Maybe that was Judd talking about Fall Camp). All in all I don't really have anything to complain about. Doña Carmen (my host mother) taught me how to wash my clothes by hand. Its quite meditative, but I'm not good enough to just use my hands yet like she can, I have to use a brush. She finds my ability very amusing. I've also set up a cool job where I'm going to help this guy down the street build a latrine out of adobe bricks. They start everything from scratch. Basically they turn a big pile of mud and straw into a bathroom. Problems with soil are everywhere here. I look at the soils and I'm amazed that they can grow anything at all. Water is extremely limited, and organic matter is nil. They find their way around this by putting guano on the fields. Unfortunately it isn't enough. The weather here is just about perfect, reminds me a lot of Albuquerque, except this is winter and its warm all year round. I'm doing my best to keep the Vinchuga out of my bedroom (its an insect that sucks your blood and shits in the wound, the shit has a nice little organism that slowly gives the victim an enlarged heart after about 20 years, and then you die). Actually there aren't many Vinchugas where I live, but that hasn't prevented me from taking all the precautions.

14 September 2000

I´ve been here in Bolivia for about three weeks now, my first impressions and experiences have been somewhat sheltered by the fact that Peace Corps eases you into the whole process, but overall I´ve been making progress in my understanding and especially my language ability. I´ll try to keep this report nicely structured, and surprisingly I have a lot to write about even though I´ve only been here a short time.

First of all, people. I´ve met a lot of interesting people so far, volunteers, Peace Corps personnel, and Bolivians. The people most relevant to what I´m doing now are my technical trainers. First we have Ken Goodson, an all around good chap and a former environmental volunteer in Bolivia. Now he´s a trainer, and since he´s been here for four years he knows what´s up. He speaks pretty good Quechua and great Spanish, and he knows a lot about agricultural practices in Bolivia.

Next is Jose´ Salinas, or Pepe, as everyone calls him. Got his Ph.D. in soils and has studied all around Latin America. I´ve learned a great deal from him already about soil science and soil conservation. Its a hot topic here because the problems with soils are so severe. Pepe is a Bolivian with a pretty laid back attitude. Still, he knows how to things get done here in Bolivia and he understands what types of things will be successful and what types of things won´t. I have a feeling he will be a great resource during my service, both for the work I do in my community and for my thesis work.

Finally is Remigio Ancalle, our APCD. I don´t see him too much, but when he does come around its usually to talk about projects or site placement. In fact, yesterday was only the second time I saw him and that´s because we had our site fair. They´ve given us ten sheets of paper each with a different site and description. We choose two, without ranking them, and then try to work it out with Remigio and the others as to where we are going to go. Its nice and democratic. I´ve already got an idea of where I want to go.

The village I´m staying in is a constant source of fascination for me, both technically and culturally. I live on a farm with a family of four, los padres and the two girls, ages 5 and 3. The farm is pretty small, I´ve eyeballed it as a little over an acre but I haven´t gone out and paced it or measured it yet. Half of the farm belongs to Humberto (the dueño) and the other half belongs to his sister. In his half he plants alfa, or alfalfa, which grows pretty well here. They feed the alfa to the animals: three cows, two sheep, a goat, three chickens, nine guinea pigs, three dogs, and two cats. The guinea pigs are the main recipients of the alfa, and they are supposedly delicious when eaten, but I haven´t tried one yet. The plant is good because it fixes N, but I haven´t figured out if the rotate alfa with something else or not. Sometimes they will bring the cows, the sheep, and the goat out to the alfa field to graze. They also use the old corn stalks for the cows and the goat to eat. The animals consume a lot. The main food source for the larger animals is some kind of grain that they buy in 10 kilo sacks and mix with water. I don´t know how expensive this stuff is but they have a huge store room full of it. I´d imagine the investment pays off because the animals are a pretty important component of the farm system. They produce a tremendous amount of manure. I wish I would have measured it just out of curiosity because they just harvested the past years worth of manure this past week. 13 or so bags of it were sold to Pepe and Ken for our technical practices, and the rest is to be put on the field (the rest is a small hill in the backyard). The other half of the field, the half that receives the manure, belongs to Humberto´s sister and they plant maize, or corn, on that. It´s a little bigger than the alfa field, and it´s an annual crop, unlike alfalfa which can be harvested year round.

Water is a huge issue here. They need it for the crops, for the household, for gardens, of course, for everything. Cochambamba valley gets about 450 mm of rain a year (I think but I need to double check that number), and the majority of that rain comes between the months of November and February. Naturally that´s the planting-harvesting season. Basically its high (8,300 ft.) and dry here. The water that is used on the fields during the dry season is done through irrigation. I believe the source is quite far from our village, but the network is very extensive, and most of the water for crops in our village comes from a high lake near the outskirts of the city. A lot of households have concrete irrigation ditches, which reduce water loss into the very clayey soils by about 70%. Unfortunately my family doesn´t have any concrete, and the irrigation ditch is about a kilometer long ditch that runs behind all the houses (with houses on both sides). They block it up and move the water around by using big chunks of mud as a barrier. There just isn´t enough water for all the fields all the time. One night I was out late with Don Humberto working on the irrigation. He had to go to several houses trying to convince people to let him have some more water in his field. He was successful, but there were a lot of por favor´s in his speech. I didn´t understand everything he said because a lot of it was in Quechua, but the context was enough for me to realize that there is a water problem in our village. I asked Doña Carmen about it. Why, I asked, don´t you have concrete ditches behind your house like a lot of other people do? She said it was because nobody could agree to it. Some people wanted it and others didn´t. The expenses for concrete, labor, and other materials are pretty high, and some people just don´t see it as a priority. "No hay union," There is no unity, was her response. Either way, the water loss by the time it reaches our house is very high. The clay soils absorb a lot, but on the other hand if they were sandy the infiltration would be so high and rapid that nobody would get very much water at all.

I realized an even more extreme example of water problems when I saw a huge field, about 10 minutes away from my family´s house, that is completely unused. It belongs to the mother of Humberto, and there is absolutely no water there to plant anything. It must be between 1 and 2 hectares in size (if I can ever figure out what a hectare actually is), so its pretty big. But its worthless to them because they can´t get any water to it. They want to sell it. I wonder if there´s some crop that would grow there sufficiently with the rain water? Another option, of course, is a water catchment, but that´s expensive. My guess is they will sell the land or trade it for other land.

Trees. Gotta talk about those. I´ve learned by now to identify several species, but the most prominent species in the area is Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globose). It is everywhere. Mainly around farm fields as a wind break, but also in plantations. It grows incredibly fast, I mean, like 20 feet in height a year. It coppices well too, cut a stump and five more grow back from it. That´s the system here, grow the tree to a certain diameter, which doesn´t take long, then coppice it and let it stump sprout. The farmers use it for fire wood and construction poles. The wood is hard and durable. It grows fast and they can sell it for a decent price on the market (not much but it is income). A forestry student in the area told me that this species of Eucalypt has been in the Cochabamba valley for over 300 hundred years. Seems a bit long to me sine Oz wasn´t really colonized till about 1790. I do wonder, however, who introduced the tree and how the coppice system that´s being used now was developed. Despite its many uses and its fast growth rates, the tree is somewhat of a nightmare to those foresters and agronomists who are trying to increase agricultural sustainability and tree species diversity. This is the case for several reasons. First of all, it uses a lot of water. Naturally, if it grows that fast its going to be fixing a lot of carbon and need a lot of water for it. Water, as I mentioned, is not the most abundant resource here. And it roots deep and far, so it competes with crops for water. It also casts a lot of shade because its tall. Ken says it pollutes the soil to discourage other species from competing with it, but Pepe said it just uses a lot of water. I´m not sure which is true, but it certainly dries out the soil. Moreover, its incredibly weedy. If, but some miracle, you could convince farmers to get rid of it and plant something else, it would be an enormous chore to actually get rid of the trees. They sprout like crazy and the stumps are huge. Either oil or lots of digging will kill the trees. The alternative, in my mind, is shade. The tree is shade intolerant. If you could plant something in the understory that would eventually overtop the trees, you could still thin for several years, letting the good competitors grow out fat and have some nice timber to sell by the time your shade tolerant tree had taken over. The type of silviculture needed for a project like that, not to mention the time scale, is somewhat beyond the level of your average Cochabamba farmer...even if you could find the ideal species to plant in the understory, that is.

Another tree in the area is Molle, a native N fixer that seems to grow best along riparian edges (i.e. irrigation canals). A lot of people, Ken and Pepe, for example, seem to think its a good alternative to E. globose, but it grows a lot slower and doesn´t grow a straight bole. The farmers say its only good for fire wood, which isn´t entirely true because some farmers use it to build their plows, its very hard and very durable.

A few other trees I´ve run across are Sauce, a native tree that is used for construction sometimes and seems to me to be in the Saliacae. And Takcho, a native acacia with heavy spines used a lot of times to make live fences. Home gardens vary in complexity from house to house, and there seems to be a correlation between level of education and species diversity in home gardens. Our home garden, for example, has very little. Artichokes, a few medicinal plants, peach trees, and chamomile, but that´s about it. Where Kristina lives, on the other hand, is very nice. The species diversity there is extremely high: fruit trees, medicinal plants, flowers, bee hives, vegetables...a beautiful set up. I could spend a year just doing a taxonomic study back there. They also seem to be better educated and have more money. Still, my family is a lot younger and they are just starting out. That could be part of it too.

The primary crop where I live is corn. The also plant a lot of habas (Phaselous lunapus), which fixes N and produces a lima bean like fruit which I don´t particularly care for. Its a good crop because it fixes N, and N is very limiting in the soils here. The soils here are very young. The mountains here are not very old geologically, and the dry climate and low primary productivity have made for a slow development of soils. In the mountains the soils are primarily entisols, a shallow rocky soil low in organic matter with a high silt content. Lower down there are inceptisols, another young soil low in organic matter and high in silt, but not quite as rocky as the entisols. There are also a lot of vertisols, which have a lot of clay and they are easy to identify because they just have these huge blocky chunks of clay caused by expanding clays as the soil dries out. All of the soils here are low in N and P. It is somewhat reasonable to assume that farmers can find ways to increase N levels in the soil, primarily by increasing organic matter content and using N fixers. This is a matter of awareness, I think. P, on the other hand, is very expensive to buy in fertilizer form, and I believe it is cycled geologically more than its cycled biologically. How can poor farmers add P to their badly depleted soils? The soil is tilled by tractors, they don´t use much animal traction where I live anymore. From what I can gather there is a guy who owns a tractor and he just goes around and tills the field for 60 bolivianos an hour. That´s about 10 bucks an hour, and it´ll take him three hours to till Humberto´s field, 30 bucks. It isn´t too expensive, but its more than it seems like for the people here, they are pretty poor farmers, after all. It´s certainly faster and more efficient than using bulls or donkeys, but it does put more money into the hands of a person or family that probably already has a lot in the first place.

The community I live in has been inundated with settlers, people migrating from the campo to move closer to the city. Five years ago, I´ve been told, it was once all agricultural land. Now its a mix of small fields, houses, tiendas, and the odd shop here and there. Farm fields have become smaller and smaller as the pressure of migration and a growing population has become more intense. There is still a strong Quechua culture in the community, but I sense it is being displaced and assimilated in the larger Spanish speaking culture of the nearby city. My family speaks Quechua for example, and Spanish, and many grandmothers speak only Quechua, but the children usually only speak Spanish and a little bit of Quechua. It seems that the school system discourages extensive use of Quechua in education. The migration from the campo is logical in the context of a search for greater opportunity, better schools, and more access to the modern products that the city can provide. Humberto works around the house on the weeks, but during the week he works as a construction worker to provide a cash income for his family. One week he went off for 5 days into the mountains to build a school. The women, therefore, are the backbone of the family. They are the mainstays. They stay out of the chicharia´s (basically a local bar), they watch the kids, tend the animals, cook, and clean. For the system to function well both partners have to do their share, but if the man should slack off on his part it is always the women who pick up the slack. Alcoholism is usually the main culprit. The family I live with, thankfully, is free from this disease.

Everyone seems to know each other, and everyone seems somehow related, but I haven´t nearly been around long enough to figure out all the relationships. What a complicated web! Tenure is also sticky, as different people seem to own fields scattered all over the place. Who owns what? You got me! I´m only there for three months, so its like a practice session for the real thing, but all of it intrigues me.

Now for my description of tech training. Our first session was a lesson in slopes. How to measure them in simple ways that don´t require a lot of tools. We also used the A-frame to measure out contour lines. A lot of people here plow up and down the field, a huge no no since the erosion problems are so insane here and the slopes are so steep. They do it, Pepe said, out of tradition. He argued that the traditional farming practices of the Incas were lost during colonization, and now people have ingrained in them some pretty terrible soil management practices. I´m not sure if I buy the historical argument, but its worth looking into. On really steep slopes its necessary to build a terrace. Which requires a lot of man power but will save a farm field from being totally destroyed by erosion. The trick mainly involves convincing people that they´ve got to do something to save their field. Some don´t want to listen, for all sorts of reasons: fear of foreigners improving their land and then claiming it, distrust of foreigners, adherence to tradition, or an unwillingness to put the labor and resources into farm field improvement.

During another session we learned about composting. The concept of taking kitchen scraps, straw, corn husks, guano, ash, a dirt and turning it into rich organic matter. Why is this important? Bolivian soils are extremely low in organic matter. A compost heap isn´t going to produce enough to put on your farm field, but it will help with gardening and therefore improved nutrition. It also shows people the potential use for a lot of stuff that gets thrown away. And of course it increases awareness to the problems with Bolivian soils, which most people don´t really know too much about.

We´ve also made a few seed beds for cover crops (Red clover, alfalfa, avana, vicia, cabada, and triticale...are these Latin? Spanish? I need to ask), and trees: three or four types of acacia, eucalypt, and Pinus radiata. We will give these crops to our host families to do with as they please. Its only for practice. My host family was pretty excited about planting all the trees in their field. That´s a good sign.

One day we went out to a field to look at some of the problems with water and soil erosion. Upon arriving and walking out onto the farm field we noticed a bunch of holes in the soil. This is caused by the draining of the surface water supply. Coca-Cola, everybody´s favorite beverage, has a large factory down hill of the farm fields, and they are using a lot of water. Furthermore, farmers are digging wells like crazy to get water to their crops. The result has been a drop in the water table and a collapse of the surface soil in many places. Now a lot of farmers can´t even get a tractor onto the field, its too dangerous. The hydrologists have recommended digging deep, into an aquifer that is about 250 meters below the surface, where plentiful water abounds. But this is too expensive for the average farmer to afford. The water hoarding eucalyptus in the area doesn't help. What´s the solution? I don´t know.

2 October 2000

Finally have been able to get into to the city. All is well here, things have started to quiet down, and we are back in classes once again. I'm doing well, really getting to work on my garden and I'm starting to learn a lot about agroforestry. Technical training is okay, but it mostly consists of building up useful connections. I've met a lot of great people already, and I think they will be good resources when I get to my site. I'm almost certain I'll be going to Tipa Tipa, about 7 hours from Coch., a pretty rural site with lots of irrigation and soil conservation work to be done. This Friday I hope to go to the city to work with a beekeeper. He's going to show me the ropes and get me started. I want to put a hive in the backyard. It'll be the perfect complement to the small agroforestry system/homegarden that I want to try and set up in the backyard of Don Humberto and Doña Carmen.

23 October 2000

Everything is quiet now, we left the hotel over a week ago, and all of the political turmoil has wound down and it seems that for now the problems have been resolved. We just spent the past week in Northern Potosí, which is an amazing place. The culture is very rich there, and the conditions are very primitive. Little Spanish is spoken, most conversation is done in Quechua, which I've managed to pick up a little bit of...simple things like how are you, good bye, and I don't speak Quechua. I just got back yesterday. Training is almost over. My garden was completely destroyed by my absence...too much water and too much sun make for a poor seedbed. I'll have to start a new one when I get to my site. Next week is site visits, and that should be interesting. We don't swear in until November 17, so I still have another month here in Cochabamba.

21 November 2000

I´m moving to my Peace Corps site today, and little village called Tipa Tipa located in the Department of Cochabamba, about six hours away from the city. My village is a town of about 700 people. They are a motivated group of people who requested a volunteer to help them with some of the administrative and proposal aspects of community projects. They have no potable water, and they have no latrines. Both of these are huge projects that could take my whole two years. Right now its just a matter of moving out there and settling in, buying a stove, pots and pans, all of that stuff that we need just to live from day to day. The community seems very well organized and they really seem to know what they want and how I can help them with it, so I think they will put me to work right away. I´ll have my hands full just trying to learn Quechua, which is the dominant language in the village.

Second Quarterly Report: December 17th 2000

Nevertheless, the number of potential projects that exist in my site is encouraging. Thus far, my main research interests lie in the area of agroforestry. Up till now I have seen little work being done by research agencies or extension agents in this field. Yet there remains an enormous amount of potential to do agroforestry work in Bolivia. The potential is there not only on steeply graded farm fields, but also in areas with little or no slope. There is room for research in species selection (both natives and exotics), agroforestry for forage production, soil conservation, water conservation (which has special relevance in my situation), soil fertility management, fruit production, reclamation forestry, and range management (to name a few). All of these things are relevant to some of the work I can do in my site, and I will explain some of that relevance once I begin a more detailed description of the local farming systems and environment.

By far the most pressing need in my site, and the one most eagerly sought by the community members where I live, is the desire to get potable water. Water is taken from the irrigation ditch which runs behind the local plaza. It is sediment laden and full of harmful microbes, not to mention the fact people are forced to haul water from the ditch in buckets to bring it to their homes. Right now the community is engaged in trying to install a water system. Since there is not sufficient clean water in the surrounding hills, the only alternative is to dig a well. The depth of plentiful water is estimated at 100 meters. The estimated cost of such a project is $14,000 US, far beyond the means of a poor, rural Bolivian community. The community, therefore, has been forced to seek outside funding for the project. The community is working with three or four sources of financing.

The first is the municipality of Mizque, to which the community belongs. The nature of politics being what it is here in Bolivia, this source of funding had to be fought for. According to the law of popular participation, enacted in 1994, the national government is obliged to distribute community development funds through the hierarchy of provincial and local governments until it reaches the community level. Each community in every municipality has a right to these funds in order to meet their most pressing needs. When the community of Tipa Tipa introduced their water systems project to the municipality of Mizque, one critical member of the committee refused to sign the approval papers because of the fact that Tipa Tipa was affiliated with an opposing political party. This rattled the community so much that they loaded themselves in two camiones (the Bolivian equivalent of a semi), and men, women and children marched into the mayor's office demanding this man to sign the papers. The issue of drinking water, they claimed, is apolitical, and all communities, regardless of their political affiliation, have a right to clean, readily accessible water. The recalcitrant official was forced to sign the papers. A remarkable show of solidarity on the part of this small, poor community.

The second source of funding is the community itself. All homeowners were obliged to pay a certain sum of money, I can't remember the sum but I think it was a hundred dollars. For those who have two homes the sum was doubled. I believe the community has been able to fund 10-20% of the project this way.

The third source of funding comes from an NGO called Plan International de Sucre. They came to Tipa Tipa on Thanksgiving day to take photos of the young children in the village. These photos are then sent to the developed nations of the world to arouse pity in those who live more comfortably than the children of the third world. Those who choose to do so then become padrinos, and are asked to send money to the children to improve their standard of living. We've all seen this on TV, with the images of starving young children in Africa or Latin America, and Sally Struthers imploring viewers to send 11 cents a day to save the life of a poor child. Well, this is the same sort of deal, and this program is able to fund projects through this type of work. The also collected a tremendous amount of information in the process of taking photos, things like wood use, water availability, health status, religion, age, occupation, etc. This type of information could be extremely useful for my own work as a volunteer and a master's student, but one of the workers for the NGO informed me that I would not be given access to any of the information they had collected. If we are both working towards the goal of community development, then why would an organization refuse to give out information that has the potential to help the community? Regulations . power . bureaucracy. Stupidity.

The final potential source of funding is UNICEF. This was mentioned to me in passing by a community member. I don't know much about UNICEF, except they are involved in water development projects around the world. Even though the issue of agua potable is a hot one in Tipa Tipa, all of the information has been really hard to collect. Mainly because people speak in Quechua, all the meetings and casual conversations take place in Quechua, and I'm simply at a loss to understand what people are saying. Furthermore, people don't seem to see much benefit in including me in the project. Perhaps they are right, but I've still been eager to learn as much as I can about it.

Reforestation is another project that has a lot of potential in the area. The plaza and village itself has been completely deforested, and the planting of shade trees in the area would do a lot to reduce brutal day time temperatures. I don't think it would be too hard to drum up community support for a small community reforestation project. Reforestation in the surrounding hills, on the other hand, is probably more necessary, and yet it would be infinitely more difficult to convince people of the need to invest time and resource



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This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Bolivia; PCVs in the Field

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