Thursday, October 15, 2009

Reforesting Paraguay

I just finished a book about the Dust Bowl and people who stayed at their farms. The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan. A really good read that seems to give a very good summary of the agricultural side of the Great Depression by presenting the factual information about the event woven into the narratives of people who lived through it.

It does make me worry about Paraguay. The dirt here is a fine, powdery red sand. We are in the center of South America, so there is no good reason for the dust that would be prized on a ocean-front. The only explaination I can think of is erosion. This is a sub-tropical climate that has been reduced to farmland. I’m living in the center of a green desert with rolling acres of almost nothing but wheat, sunflowers, and soy. While walking on the dirt road behind the ruta I can’t shake the feeling that I’m in small farming community somewhere in the north east, layering rolling hills of crops to the horizon. Its beautiful…and extremely destructive. I’ve heard there is a law that 10% of farmland has to be left as forests, but it is clearly not being enforced. During training I got to see terrifying maps that showed the ever dwindling forests that are being replaced by cropland. Soy is the most important commodity in a poor country; they aren’t going to cut back. There is a factoid that states that this part of south America has the highest amount of different bird species. I’ve usually heard it stated in the present tense, but I highly doubt that it is true anymore. Where are all of these supposed birds living? Not in the treeless fields.

And the removal of the forests has had other negative impacts. Hotter summers, longer winters, droughts, more variability in the climate as a whole. Generally forests function like giant climate moderators, softening the extremes. Now the forests are quickly disappearing. Ask any older Paraguayan and they will tell you that something is off. The seasons just aren’t right.

Unlike the arid grass lands of the great plains of the US, whose soil and rainfall was never meant to sustain anything beyond a thick carpet of hardy grass [and wouldn’t be able to do so today if it wasn’t for people taping into the Ogalla Aquifer] sub tropical soils are not as nutrient rich. If you remember back in grade school, in tropical rain forests, all of the nutrients are at the surface of the soil and above, in the dense plant mass itself. That is why tropical forests make such poor crop land, you can slash and burn for a short period of time, but without the dense biomass system there to recharge the nutrients, the soil is quickly exhausted. While I’d guess this effect is a little more moderate in sub-tropical climates, over long periods of times, the final result is probably the same. Modern fertilizers make up for some of the difference for those who can afford it, but that has its own risks.

I just worry that someday the droughts will come and the crops won’t grow and the normally rich eastern portion of the country will look more and more like its scrub-land brother in the west. I’m afraid that what happen during the dust bowl will happen here, but there won’t be a government with the resources and organization to prop the system back up again like the US did with the New Deal. This is an economy based on agriculture, the smallest, most sensitive populations here are those who work the land in small plots. They will be the ones hardest hit by the mismanagement of the mega farms.

There is a small effort to ‘reforest’ Paraguay, but this doesn’t actually consist of turning farmland back into forest. The program mostly just plants trees in parks and school and other urban areas. Not that that is a bad thing, the more people learn about the importance of trees and how to take care of them the better. However, it is a huge misnomer to say that planting trees in a plaza is ‘reforestation’.

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