'Adapting to a new reality' in South America's Gran Chaco

Until recently, the Pilcomayo River was brimming with fish. "In one night we could catch up to 80 or more fish," says Paulina Flores, of Naguanaurenda, Bolivia. "Now there are almost no fish at all."

Chaco kitchen garden.jpg
With CWS's help, indigenous communities in South America's Gran Chaco region learn to produce nutritious food in communal gardens like this one in Choroquepiau, Bolivia.
Photo: CWS

Until recently, the Pilcomayo River was brimming with fish. “In one night we could catch up to 80 or more fish,” says Paulina Flores, of  Naguanaurenda, Bolivia. “Now there are almost no fish at all.”

Sedimentation and uncontrolled pollution from local and foreign companies made the river nearly unusable for the indigenous people who depended on it for their food security and livelihoods. That left them with a critical choice: starve or learn new ways to feed themselves.

Since July 2010, Church World Service has helped bring desperately needed food and nutritional security to 14 indigenous communities in central South America’s Gran Chaco region,  which encompasses nearly 400,000 square miles and includes parts of Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina. For many of the indigenous peoples of the Gran Chaco, hunger, malnutrition and a lack of clean water are a way of life – and healthcare is scarce. 

CWS is helping train 14 indigenous communities in Bolivia and Paraguay in sustainable, environmentally sound agricultural methods to cultivate communal gardens that produce diverse, nutritional crops.

“This project is helping us develop the new skills and knowledge we so urgently need to adapt to this new reality,” says Flores, whose village now has a productive communal garden.

The program also provides nutrition training, and Flores has participated in food preparation and tasting events, including new dishes such as green leaf salads with beans, vegetable soup, soya burgers as well as re-emerging traditional Guaraní corn-based foods known as Muiti and Winti, and a bean and pumpkin-based drink called Arapase.

“My children love trying all these new foods – they enjoy everything!” Flores says.

Like the Pilcomayo River, much of the Gran Chaco’s once-fertile areas have been seriously diminished. “We used to have the forest and all its fruit,” says Cesar, from the community of Nepoxen in Paraguay. “In the past few years, the forest has been disappearing and we have lost our land. There are no animals for us to hunt. We do the best we can but the foreigners are destroying what they have – cutting down the forest and drying up the land, reducing the capacity of the soil to produce.”

CWS and its partners are also providing training and low-cost technology for agriculture and livestock production, including rain-water catchments and other systems for water storage and irrigation.

“With the help of this project, we have begun to improve our infrastructure and really begun to develop our community,” Cesar says.


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