Water, Gardens and the Weenhayek

Fionuala Cregan | March 20, 2013

The Pilcomayo River in central South America. Photo: CWS

The Pilcomayo River in central South America. Photo: CWS

Weenhayek community leader Emeterio Torres tells us how, just 10 years ago, to visit a government office or participate in meetings involved a one day bicycle ride on dusty unpaved paths across dense Chaco forest.  Punctures were a regular occurrence and repair kits an essential travel companion.

Today that has all changed.

Today we arrived in Emeterio´s community by road, still unpaved, but a road nonetheless.  Buses now pass linking Weenhayek communities to two of the Bolivian Chaco´s main towns of Yacuiba and Villamontes.  Accompanying the road are cement poles and wires which bring, for the first time ever, electricity to hundreds of Weenhayek families.   A kiosk sells cold drinks from a recently installed fridge – a newfound luxury in the 40 °C (104 °F) Chaco heat.

With support from CWS and Week of Compassion another major change is also taking place.  In May these traditional fishing communities will eat fruit and vegetables they have produced on their own land.

One of the most marginalized and food insecure people in the South American Chaco, the Weenhayek faced a major crisis in 2011 when the Pilcomayo River on which they depend for their livelihood suffered a serious sedimentation problem and the subsequent depletion of the fish population.  The Pilcomayo River is transnational – its management is shared by the governments of Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina.  Fishing for commercial and family consumption on the banks of the river is central to the livelihoods and survival of Weenhayek families.  The severe sedimentation has been caused by engineering works and the channeling of the river in Argentina and Paraguay.  In June 2011 a state of emergency was declared in Bolivian Weenhayek communities.  There were almost no fish to be caught in the river and a survey conducted by the Government revealed that 79 percent of members of these communities were going – at least once a week – without eating during an entire day as well as reducing food rations and frequency of meals for adults and children.

Almost two years later, Weenhayek communities are trying to adapt to the crisis and change of livelihood including through the development of experimental kitchen gardens to produce nutritive vegetables such as tomatoes, lettuce, onions and broccoli and the planting of citrus trees.

“We have suffered a radical change in our lives, “says Maximo Gonzalez. “We have to find solutions that are sustainable as we know that we can no longer depend on fishing. With support from CWS we are developing these kitchen gardens which provide a small but important alternative to families.”

Two agronomists have worked with 25 families in a total of three communities – Resistencia, Lapachal and Caiprendita – and have been amazed at the energy and enthusiasm amongst men, women and children alike to learn new techniques.

“I had no idea how to prepare the soil and seedbeds or develop organic pesticide,”  Emeterio, whose community Resistencia is part of a pilot phase, tells us. “This has been an important experience for us.”

This is echoed by Samuel Torrez, leader of Lapachal who tells us how excited his community is to learn new skills.  “We want to work and learn – we are really happy with this project.  For us it is just the beginning, once we have mastered these two kitchen gardens we will expand so that each family has one.  When other communities see what we have achieved they will also want to learn.”

On our visit to Lapachal and Resistencia we could sense the enthusiasm amongst the community for this new initiative.  In Lapachal one family was so eager to get started they even planted some seeds behind the meticulous agronomists´ back!   Technical accompaniment will be provided for the planting of tomatoes, lettuce and onion seeds over the next few weeks when much awaited rain is due to fall.  The first harvest will be in May, a month which is also traditionally fishing season.

On our return to the city of Yacuiba we pass by the Pilcomayo River – the waters continued to be very low due to the lack of rain as well as the engineering works which have affected the channeling and flow of the river. Forecasts for a productive fishing season are yet again not good for 2013.  We are thankful to be supporting Weenhayek families find alternatives and embrace change with enthusiasm and hope.

Fionuala Cregan, Program Officer, CWS