Leading and learning by example: peer exchanges in the Argentinian Chaco

Margot DeGreef | June 21, 2016


The Montes family cistern in the Argentinian Chaco. Staff from CWS and partner FUNDAPAZ accompanied a group of Wichi indigenous women to the Montes family's land to learn about their cistern and water catchment system. Photo: Margot DeGreef / CWS

The Montes family cistern in the Argentinian Chaco. Staff from CWS and partner FUNDAPAZ accompanied a group of Wichi indigenous women to the Montes family’s land to learn about their cistern and water catchment system. Photo: Margot DeGreef / CWS

At CWS, we are continually learning, whether it is from other people, organizations, countries or mistakes. In that spirit, we have encouraged an exchange program between our food security program in the Northwest of Haiti and our South American Gran Chaco program. In 2013, the Program Officer working with CWS’s Gran Chaco program visited Haiti, and in April of 2016 our Haiti Country Representative Margot DeGreef visited the Argentinian Chaco to learn more about our work there.

We asked Margot about her experience and the lessons that she learned from her trip. Here are some of her thoughts:

One of the objectives of the CWS Gran Chaco Program is women’s empowerment. In what ways did you see this being achieved?

Margot: In the town of El Bananal, which has been reached by CWS and partner Fundapaz as part of the Gran Chaco program, we met with a group of Guarani women who spoke about the importance of culture, language and traditions in a community. They noted, though, that these things can change over time, especially when it comes to land use and food. I was struck by how the Guarani women speak up for themselves, run businesses (they sew and sell traditional clothing and uniforms), and fully participate in activities. When the houses in El Bananal got running water from newly-drilled wells, the women decided to build indoor toilets and mobilized the community about the importance of good toilets.

You met the Montes family, who installed a new water system as part of the program. What did you notice when members of other communities visited the family?

Margot: As part of a peer learning exchange – it isn’t just CWS staff who travel to learn by example! – a group of women from different Wichi indigenous communities came to see the family’s house and land. In particular, they were interested in the family’s cistern, which captures rainwater for drinking. I noticed that the women spoke quietly with soft voices: for some of them, it was the first time they had ever spoken up during a meeting. They had gained the confidence to do so through the CWS-supported program.

The backbone of CWS community development programs worldwide is ensuring that community members themselves have the skills and training that they need to be successful. Give us an example of how you saw this taking place.

Margot: The community of Lote 23 has united into a local organization that facilitated drilling wells about 40 meters deep. These wells connect pipes to the yards of surrounding families, who can merely open a tap in their yard to have access to good quality water. Fundapaz assisted in the detailed mapping of the water system. The community was inspired by an exchange visit to Brazil – seriously, peer learning is really important! – where a “one million cisterns” program was underway. Back in the Chaco, the community revised their goal to 100,000 cisterns and is actively advocating with the provincial government and potential donors to support their goal.

Here’s the big question: what lessons did you take back to Haiti from this program? How did it change your perspective?

Families in the Chaco struggle with similar challenges as many families in Haiti, including deforestation and limited access to water, education and healthcare, to name just a few. As roads are in a particular bad shape in the Northwest of Haiti – the CWS priority area – it takes a long time for children to get to school or for patients to reach a hospital. The lack of infrastructure and opportunities leads to a rural exodus. Just as in the Chaco, CWS work in Haiti allows farmers to grow crops and earn an income, so that they can take care of their families and do not feel the need to send their children away to live elsewhere. This also provides an important alternative to cutting trees for charcoal production as a source of income.

This peer exchange has affirmed for me the importance of the most basic need: access to water, which unfortunately is still too often a luxury item. Both in the Chaco and in Haiti CWS is committed to accompanying communities to have access to clean water, even more so in the light of climate change consequences.

One of the differences between life and work in Haiti and the Argentinian Chaco lies with the government: there is more involvement of the provincial government in the Chaco, and local organizations advocate with their government for investing in access to water. Although advocacy also plays an important role in Haiti, government involvement is limited and political instability continues. At the same time, Haiti is an expensive country, with investment in water systems costing many times more than a similar solution in the Chaco. While mapping of water systems in the Chaco has been an important advocacy tool, the use of maps is very limited in Haiti.

A Haitian proverb says, “Women are the pillar of the house.” Based on my recent trip, the same definitely applies to life in the Chaco.

Margot DeGreef is the CWS Country Representative for Haiti.