Uneven Terrain: A Peace Corps Farmer in Paraguay Follows the Contours

Photos by Kelly Gleason

Another issue of indubitable importance arises: the fact that certain members of the oppressor class join the oppressed in their struggle for liberation, thus moving from one pole of the contradiction to the other. It happens, however, that as they cease to be exploiters or indifferent spectators or simply the heirs of exploitation and move to the side of the exploited, they almost always bring with them the marks of their origin: their prejudices and their deformations, which include a lack of confidence in the people’s ability to think, to want, to know.They talk about the people, but they don’t trust them: and trusting the people is the indispensable precondition for revolutionary change. A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people, which engages him in their struggle, then by a thousand actions in their favor without that trust.

      -Paulo Freire

The Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Let me say, with the risk of appearing ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love. It is impossible to think of an authentic revolutionary without this quality.

-Che Guevara


I don’t love Paraguay. On top of this I don’t have faith in humankind, which is to say, as a whole, I don’t trust it. Perhaps this isn’t exactly an ethical dilemma like assisted suicide or prostitution, but it is a very important thing to question and investigate, considering my role as a Peace Corps volunteer. For I feel that my lack of love and my lack of faith in many ways negate the other aspects I bring to the job: my technical knowledge, my acceptance of the need for such knowledge, and my desire to impart it. These things are all hollow gestures without love. Likewise, is it unethical-or merely patronizing-for me to try to instill hope in others when I myself lack it?

I don’t love Paraguay for seemingly petty reasons. It’s flat. Its once glorious and unique forests have been destroyed, replaced by endlessly sterile soy fields. I find both its food and its music to be bland. These are petty things, yes, but suffice to say, Paraguay simply hasn’t struck that deep chord within me. Of course, I didn’t join the Peace Corps for the food and music, and as for the rainforests, I could have continued my self-engrossed tourist wanderings in Thailand or Belize if all I wanted was relatively pristine ecosystems.

I joined the Peace Corps for numerous reasons, not the least of which was guilt about the “oppressor inside”-my belief that, as a U.S. citizen, I have both directly and indirectly benefited from the repression and oppression of others, especially Latin Americans. And so I joined to repay, in whatever insignificant, symbolic way, what I perceive as my accumulated debt. But joining the Peace Corps for such a reason isn’t an act of love. Rather, it’s an act of hate (for the system) and self-loathing (for my involuntary role in it). I don’t believe that trying to correct the imbalance or alleviate my role in the system will propel me into love any more than it will make me hate the system even more.

At the same time I realize two things: One, that not “loving” Paraguay because I don’t like its food and aesthetics is shallow, thus I need to search deeper for love. And two, that in this deeper definition of love, social justice-the catchphrase that in a large part led me to Paraguay-emerges as an integral component. A passionate belief in justice-the urge to right perceived wrongs-is perhaps a large part of the love that guides Guevara’s “true revolutionary.”

For those who doubt that a Peace Corps volunteer could in any way be Guevara’s true revolutionary, consider this: any paradigm shift in thought or action is a revolution.
A telling example lies in my work promoting soil conservation to local farmers. Because it’s easier to plow with oxen in straight lines that to vertically ascend the hills, farmers have traditionally planted their crops perpendicular to the contour lines of the slope. Yet with no barriers to slow the heavy rainfall that flows down the exposed hills, this plowing practice accelerates the erosion of precious topsoil. I encouraged farmers to adopt contour-plowing by working with individuals in their fields and meeting with local farmers’ committees, with mixed results. My frequent lack of success in convincing farmers of the importance of this change made me realize how drastic a change is actually required. What seemed to me a small change in practice is in fact a revolutionary change in their whole way of looking at their fields, the elements, and their traditions.

I have faith in the human ability to overcome such limits of mind and of flesh, be they self-imposed or barriers imposed by others. I believe in an individual’s unlimited potential to summit any peak they wish to climb, be it in the form of a revolutionary idea such as contour-plowing or a physical handicap. Yet the issue of faith, an integral component of love, is another contradiction of my Peace Corps service. I love people as individuals, and I have faith in them. But not in humankind as a whole.

I lack faith in humankind because I believe, essentially, that a single species can’t dominate an ecosystem (or ecosystems) without throwing it irreparably off balance. The increasingly complex human web of overpopulation, environmental degradation, global poverty, and cultural unrest leaves me feeling quite pessimistic about our future. The fact that I believe individuals have an inherent ability to overcome great odds doesn’t mean I have faith that humankind can overcome its gross, self-destructive actions. This may be a contradiction, but so I contradict.

And so I hope. I understand the importance of hope, and as a volunteer I try to instill it in others. For these campesinos without hope for the next season’s cotton harvest or for their children to live in a better world, there is no movement forward, no passion behind any technology or development project they receive. There is only fatalism, despair, and feelings of irrelevancy. I’m in Paraguay, at least in part, to struggle against these things.

And yet the paradox is that by and large, I feel irrelevant in this whirlwind. My work as a crop extensionist is a perfect example: I strongly believe in promoting small-scale, diversified farms. But doing so in a world rushing along with mass monoculture and export-oriented economies is like stopping a flood with a paper dam; I feel like Cassandra. I betray my hopes and dreams with lack of faith that they will ever come to pass, revealing them to be a mere patchwork of desires and pleas, nostalgia and fantasy. And just as one can’t teach what one doesn’t know, I can’t impart authentic hope when I lack it myself.

But I do have a few comforts. I know that I’m not the only one in the volunteer community with these issues. I know it isn’t false to attempt to empower an unempowered person even though I don’t believe the human race can get its act together. More importantly, I know that authentic faith and true love don’t come easily. I know that hope, love, and faith need practice and action to be maintained. In part, this is why I’m here: to put my slight hopes (and my fatalistic tendencies) to the test. This, in turn, leads me to believe that my doubts about such things are, in a “development” sense, far more ethical than any certitudes would be. I can’t pretend to have all the answers to dispel to others, but can only enter into the situation with what I have and what I am. I believe that such a situation is necessary for a more authentic dialogue, a mutual giving, and that in striving to instill hope for the future in others, they can instill such hope in me. I hope so.