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Mario's Peace Corps Journal

Mario-peace-corps-blog-80Even after two years living in Paraguay, I can’t help but be amazed at the year-in, year-out survival that I see my neighbors carve out of this tangled jungle. Their agricultural practices tend not to be too advanced; more often than not, they are quite rudimentary. I don’t mean to belittle the skill and aptitude of these farmers, most of whom have been working the land and surviving off of it for longer than I have been alive. Their perseverance alone is a marvelous feat.

But it came as a surprise, on a trip to the Bolivian highlands, or altiplano, to find farmers following the same agricultural practices that I’ve seen in Paraguay, except in Bolivia’s merciless landscape of harsh, dry winds and rocky soils.

It was almost inconceivable to me, as I bundled up in layer-upon-layer, that anyone could survive out there, precariously balanced on the edge of mountains just barely below the tree line. It made the sub-tropical Paraguayan climate seem like a paradise, even with Paraguay’s wretchedly hot summers and moist, chilling winters.

What does one grow in a place where only the hardiest, most resolute wild plants struggle to grow? The answer, I would come to find, is as much about the crops themselves as the location of fields and the techniques used.

This field on a Bolivian valley floor has been left fallow for the winter after producing a crop of wheat. It will be tilled in preparation for planting before the first spring rains come.

This field on a Bolivian valley floor has been left fallow for the winter after producing a crop of wheat. It will be tilled in preparation for planting before the first spring rains come.

Large parcels of agricultural land are hard to come by in a country bisected by mountain ranges. Fields are usually small (an acre or less) and spread out, located on the flattest pieces of land on valley floors. This means that farmers automatically avoid the complications of large-scale monoculture; any one farmer is cultivating in a number of small locales separated by natural barriers. If pests or disease appear in one location, they are unlikely to reach others due to the chaotic topography, and therefore will threaten only a portion of the total harvest.

Additionally, Bolivian farmers are experts in contour planting. With the help of their sturdy oxen, they till beautiful cursive lines into the rocky earth. Soils that at first glance appear unforgiving are in fact rich in deposits of volcanic minerals. During the wetter summer months, temporal streams carry these mineral deposits into small valleys, gorges, or the rare expanses of flatness, where they accumulate.

My time in the Bolivian highlands took place in the depths of winter. During the brief summer, which in the southern hemisphere happens between November and February, significant rains bring with them great opportunity. Bolivians take advantage of this fleeting window by growing their yearly supplies all at once. The surplus harvest is then stored in small stone silos and is kept fresh during the winter by the constantly frigid temperatures. It is natural refrigeration at its best.

Contour planting is an absolute necessity when cultivating the sloping terrain above 10,000 feet elevation. The small stone silo in the background is used to store crop surpluses—usually potatoes, wheat, and corn—over the dry winter months.

Contour planting is an absolute necessity when cultivating the sloping terrain above 10,000 feet elevation. The small stone silo in the background is used to store crop surpluses—usually potatoes, wheat, and corn—over the dry winter months.

Still, crops need to be hardy themselves, for even the summer months are quite chilly and unpredictable. Quinoa, a small, round, grain-like seed, is a staple crop that grows well (and almost exclusively) at high altitudes. Other staple crops include corn, beans, wheat, and more than 1,000 varieties of potato, which are used for human as well as animal consumption.

While I did not see any household gardens while I was in Bolivia, I have trouble believing that they are very productive in that climate. It seems that even during the summer months a garden could be a challenge at altitudes of 10,000 feet or more. Perhaps some root vegetables might fare well, but I get the feeling that the Bolivian highlands don’t see many tomatoes or peppers. But if I have learned anything from my time in Paraguay and now Bolivia, it is that people are capable of absolutely extraordinary things. Their resilience and survival are a testament to this, in spite of the immense hardships of poverty and social marginalization. Their warmth, hospitality, and kind outlook are even more so.  —Mario Machado