What is poverty? I’ve heard about it. I’ve read about it. I’ve heard people preach about it. I’ve even seen infomercials on TV telling me about all of the poor children who need my help. The latter is usually accompanied by a child whose stomach is so inflated by parasites that they could almost be mistaken for being well fed. Usually their hair is messy and they have dirt caked on their hands and faces. I remember vividly watching these infomercials thinking how terrible it was that people were taking advantage of these poor children who had nothing to put them in front of a camera to be the face of their own poverty. Yesterday, my opinion changed.
We traveled from the San Rafael Reserve at Procosara to another Reserve about 3-4 hours away that is managed by Moises Bertoni, (a Paraguayan NGO working to prevent deforestation in the Atlantic Forest. And who also, as I learned, worked to help local indigenous communities in the surround areas.) The reserve is called Reserva Tapyta (a perfectly Paraguayan blend of Spanish and Guaraní.) We arrived after giving a lecture at the Municipality not too far away, and set our things inside our new cabin for the night, which is not nearly as luxurious as it was in Procosara, but I digress. Behind the reserve are a number of Indigenous groups that live their lives as though time stopped 200 years ago. The unfortunate side of this is that time has not, in fact, stopped, and these communities continue to live without. Without heat. Without electricity. Without food. Without healthcare of any kind. Without water, except for the pump that was recently installed in the community.
I asked myself, how exactly are we expected to teach this community how to protect “our” water, when they were merely celebrating the fact that they had water. As far as using too many natural resources is concerned, these were not the people to be preaching to. However, the indigenous communities are essential to the protection of the forests and the prevention of deforestation. With enough education of the dangers of deforestation, including the change in climate and lack of protection for their families against extreme weather, which we are experiencing more of this year than Paraguay ever has in years past, and the eventual contamination of water – their small communities might be able to help. But again, when you look poverty in the face, I don’t know how you tell them that they cannot cut wood to make enough money to feed their community, who go for days at a time without eating. I just don’t know how one is meant to handle a situation like that.
At first, the community was both intrigued and wary of us. We took our time exiting the camioneta (SUV) and one by one walked into the community grounds. As we made our entrance, so did the indigenous. A few children trailing their mothers wandered in to see who and what had come to visit them. The children all smiled huge toothless grins, especially when I smiled at them directly. They were thrilled for the company and the attention. I took a photo of Francisco with one little boy and offered to let him see his own photo for which he was amazed. All the other kids came running over to see their friend’s face on the frozen screen. Then we handed out bags of potato chips of some sort, and chipitas (see What do Do and See in Paraguay for a description of the latter.) We also came armed with Coca Cola and Sprite (thanks to the campaign we launched with Coca Cola we are fully stocked for years to come!) There was much excitement as the kids opened up their bags and ate. The mothers, (some of whom were only 13,) and men of the community also ate what was given out. The thought crossed my mind that they had not yet eaten today. Or perhaps in the last few days. I don’t know, but my stomach churned at the site of these poor children who were so malnourished and had dirt literally caked on their hands, feet, and faces, and whose hair was sticking up at all angles probably from never having washed it, eating bags of potato chips and drinking from giant bottles of Coca Cola.
Also surrounding these people, are animals who have for one reason or another stuck around the human encampment long enough to be completely emaciated and wasting away. The hungry dogs wandered around, sniffing every inch of ground for a spare scrap. A mother dog, whose 3 pups seemed to live with the community, had ribs and bones sticking out so far I wasn’t sure she even had enough skin or fur to cover them. The puppies didn’t understand why they weren’t getting any of the food as they waited patiently, ribs sticking out, for a hungry child to misplace a crumb or two. I also watched a couple of the kids kick or shove the puppies away and they were hoping for a scrap to eat. How could these children share when they hardly had enough for themselves?
I have to say that it was an incredibly strong emotion that I felt, standing there among these children and families who literally have nothing and thinking how unfair it is that they are left untouched by the government, or welfare groups of any kind. Moises Bertoni goes to visit once or twice a month, and I think provides them with some sort of help, but they can’t possibly sustain the entire community how they need to be. They are receiving some financial support to build a schoolhouse, but for what lessons, what teachers, what materials? How will it be any different than every other day, wandering around their encampment looking for food or something to drink?
I got back to the cabin and started to cry. I don’t think I’ve ever seen poverty up close in such a powerful way before. I understand it. I know it’s out there. But I never had to see it, not like that. I guess people have to focus on promoting good in the world, and there is only so much one can do. You can protect the animals. You can protect the forests. You can protect the children. You can help the poor. I’m not quite sure how you can do all of those things, and so many more that need to be done. For now, I will tell the story of these people and my experience with them and raise awareness of their existence if for no other reason, than that people know what’s really out there.