Che- My, Po- Hand(s), (also the Guaraní word for five, considering the amount of fingers you have), Jare- Dirty. My dirty hands.
Oga Ita, Itapua, Paraguay
I popped a slice of mandarin in my mouth as we walked down the path from Silvio’s kokue to the road. Amongst the sweet tang of the orange was the earthy flavor of dirt that was now caked all over my hands and thus the mandarin as well. My once khaki work pants had taken on the dark red color of the soil on the thighs, cuffs, butt, and knees. We walked down the road and I listened to all of the farmers in my community, equally as caked with dirt, laughing and joking and singing a chorus of nde tavy and nde rakore and the always-rowdy “caña call”. I tasted the dirt and looked at my hands and listened to my laughing neighbors and smiled at this moment of happiness, the likes of which I’ve been experiencing day after day lately.
In March I happened to meet with Rodrigo, the Supervisor of Protected Areas for Guyra Paraguay, in his office in Asuncion. My ultimate goal was to find project opportunities with Guyra, an amazing conservation organization that is the Paraguayan equivalent of the Audubon Society. They have a huge presence in my region, with a biological station in San Rafael and a history of reforestation projects throughout the surrounding communities. Rodrigo instantly began discussing a project to plant Yerba Mate near San Rafael that had just been funded. The theme was shade-grown, organic yerba and its socioeconomic effect on the smaller, poorer communities in the area, as well as the effect on biodiversity as a reforestation and conservation project. During the meeting, we added Oga Ita to the project and started immediately.
Yerba is native to the region. It loves shade and forest soil. The Jesuits originally found out from the Mby’a Indians how to cultivate it and prep the seeds, rather than waiting for the jaku, a large turkey-like bird, to come eat the Yerba berries and defecate the seeds, as is done naturally. It takes five years for it to mature before one can harvest it by pruning the branches. Its value is immense, both to those who sell it and to the culture of Paraguay, Southern Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina, as well as those who frequent Whole Foods and fancy themselves “fun and experimental” in the US. It can be the difference between living in poverty and being well off in this district, the most impoverished in Itapua. As part of this project, I’ve been doing socioeconomic surveys with the farmers receiving yerba. It’s been saddening and humbling to hear how much they make per year on agricultural products, sometimes as low as $100 per year. This is their entire income. Otherwise they must turn to the government, whose money gets transferred from pocket to pocket and doesn’t really amount to much for the lower class. But there were a couple farmers who happened to have much larger annual agricultural incomes and for awhile I couldn’t understand why it could be so much higher than their neighbors’. Until yesterday. Looking at the completed surveys, I realized that the difference between those who had practically nothing and those who had enough to get by comfortably was yerba. Full grown, mature, harvestable, sellable, consistent, reliably in-demand yerba. It has an impact and is visibly changing the quality of life in the area.
Today we started. 30,000 yerba mate seedlings are being delivered to Oga Ita. At each house, we count out thirty plants, put them in a box and pass them to be placed in a shady spot on the grass until we’ve reached the right quantity for each family. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a lot of work, especially considering there are 1,000-2,000 plants per family and I was kneeling all day, knees in the dirt, leaning seedlings up against each other in their plastic containers. At the end of each load at each house, the farmer would have to sign a letter of agreement and then I watched as each one stood back and really looked at their new sea of yerba on their lawn. The looks of happiness on their faces, the smiles just then, the joking throughout the day, the laughing, the passing of a liter bottle of sickly sweet honey and caña in celebration, the comments of rovy’a and omba’apokuaa Chance made it worth it. They make this whole experience, every up and down in the last year and a half, every struggle with Guaraní and every bus breaking down and every vegetable planted and every chipa eaten and every rainy downpour and every loss of electricity and every bite of asado and every handshake, kiss on the cheek, hug, and smile worth it. Because I know that in ten years I’ll be able to come back and see huge lines of yerba in their parcels of forest and tung trees, big and beautiful and pruned and harvested, and I’ll know that it’s making a difference in their lives. And that maybe, just maybe, that somewhere in that bag of yerba mate that I’ll have to import from Paraguay to the US, is just one leaf or one stem or one little fleck of ka’a that came from Oga Ita that I helped deliver and plant and got my hands dirty in the process.