Study for Habitat Improvement Workshop (Filadelfia – Paraguay)

Permanent social irrigation technology for peasant farmers and indigenous communities.

The Chaco is an inhospitable region in the centre of South America. The land is fertile, despite there being insufficient amounts of organic materials and low humidity levels: it only rains, even if heavily, two to three times a year. It is a region where many menonite [1] and indigenous groups live, spread between Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia. On the whole, the former have large underground tanks where they keep rainwater, so as to use it all year round, whilst the latter do not have an effective water storage system.

Permanent social irrigation technology

Filadelfia is a town in the heart of the Paraguayan Chaco, with around 6,500 inhabitants, approximately 6 hours by bus from Asunción. The most widely spoken languages are German, Guaraní and Spanish. As is the case for most parts of the Chaco, water access and management are the main problems for small and medium scale farmers of the surrounding areas. Water, which is scarce, is stored on roof tops and in outdoor pits, which causes many health and hygiene problems. In recent years, climate change has reduced rainfall levels and the bovine industry, which has skyrocketed, has outstripped water supply. Furthermore, soya monocultures are arriving from Argentina and Brazil and will, in all likelihood, further worsen the situation.

Rosa grew up in a peasant farming family on the river banks of the river Paraná in Argentina, and she currently works at the Study for Habitat Improvement Workshop (Temha), in Filadelfia. In her opinion, Paraguayan farmers are hard-working and have a culture of self-sufficiency: they do not depend on external inputs for production. However, in recent years the situation of local communities has deteriorated and, in this context, Temha’s policy is clear: to optimise water use.

Temha develops its activities on a quarter hectare of land, where they have several organic plots (one in the shape of a mandala), a plant nursery, large-scale worm-based composting, an office and a well-equipped ceramic workshop. They created a permanent irrigation system using handmade, non-standardised pitchers of clay, of different sizes and porosity levels. The pitcher is buried along with the plant and is filled to the brim with water, which then passes through the clay at different rates and in differing quantities, thus irrigating the plant. In 2007 Temha staff set themselves up as an informal group, whose objective was to share and transfer this technology for free to the indigenous and farming communities of the Chaco. In 2010 they decided to set up a company limited by shares, with an initial capital of 4,500 euros. Its legal representative is Antonio Mompó, a Valencian who has spent over 10 years living in the region and has been at the frontline of Temha since its inception.

After years of experiments and studies, they managed to optimize the irrigation system, by determining which type of pitcher (size, thickness and porosity, etc) is ideal for each type of plant

In addition to the free transfer of the irrigation system, Temha offers courses, workshops and training relating to agriculture and sustainability, which the communities pay for with funds coming from NGOs and international cooperation. It works as a community college where farmers and crafts experts (all women) come to learn, disseminate their skills and share their ancestral knowledge and wisdom. They also have a bartering network and they address cross-cutting issues, such as gender equality, rights of minorities and indigenous populations. In the words of Antonio, the college is part of a process of increasing self -esteem and dignity.

However, sharing knowledge and optimising water use is not enough. The main challenges continue to be how to store water and guarantee basic services for all the communities -for example, Filadelfia does not have a rubbish collection service. At the request of the UN and after a year of work, Antonio developed a ceramic filter in order to improve the quality of drinking water. The result was a filter which is easy to make, with almost 100% effectiveness against bacteria, which no doubt improves users’ quality of life and is particularly beneficial to children’s health.

In practice, Temha is a social enterprise, though it may look like a NGO. Any surplus from training projects is re-invested in community projects. They also sell (as a not for profit initiative) or exchange any surplus of humus and medicinal and ornamental plants they produce. For now, the food from the plots are only enough to ensure self-sufficiency. However, as the irrigation system becomes more successful and expands to other farming communities in the region, more land is needed; so much so that they had to buy a neighbouring plot of 6 hectares with the objective of increasing production capacity.

The structure is designed to minimise the negative impact on the eco-system. They recycle or re-use almost all waste

Temha has 7 wage earners (5 of whom are women) and between July 2010 and June 2011 its turnover totalled 45,000 euros, money which is solely used to guarantee the financial sustainability of the enterprise: the shares have such a low return rate that it would frighten off any run of the mill investor. Nevertheless, Temha is facing legal barriers which are impeding growth (e.g. a costly bureaucracy) and they have problems in finding qualified staff committed to the process. But according to Antonio, the most important dilemma at the moment is whether to continue growing or not: more resources and institutional visibility could make their work more effective, but they run the risk of losing direct contact with the communities and yielding fewer concrete results.

For her part, Rosa believes that she did not learn anything new in the four years she studied Agronomy at University, as growing up on the farm taught her everything she knows. No professor had ever spoken to her about such an irrigation system and now she is able to discover and share many things within Temha. In fact, the community college is an effective tool for disseminating knowledge, as well as being an important physical space where best practices are shared and improved.

Whatever path Temha chooses, this social irrigation technology must reach the whole of the Chaco region and other areas where water scarcity represents a threat to the quality of life and self-sufficiency of the communities. In the same vein, the system of implementing common best practices, including the community college model, could be set up in regions where peasant farming agriculture is (still) dominant and where sustainability is sought.

[1] Groups of settlers mainly coming from Russia and Germany, who were fleeing religious persecution. They did not mix with the local population and maintained their centuries old traditions.