Thursday, April 25, 2013


The New York Times has a good article about the huge economic growth some parts of Paraguay are experiencing right now. My part of the country specializes in the kind of modern, mechanized, GMO agriculture that is leading this growth and many of my students and counterparts make their living, and live well, from monocultural GMO soy, wheat and corn production. I think the economy in my area is somewhat more equitable than in the cities; there are a few mansions here, but there does seem to be a fairly large middle class in my town. There seem to be relatively many smallish land-holders who can make their living in this way, and there few desperately poor people here.

On the other hand, this morning I rode my bike out to do literacy activities in a tiny school about 6km outside of town. The school is only open in the morning and has 9 students (and two teachers!). They say that there are so few students because more and more families have sold their small plots of land to the larger land-holders and moved into town. The teachers told me the families often aren't able to manage their money though, so now they all come out to work on the land that they used to own. 

It's hard to say that this boom is a bad thing for the country overall. The article "notes the overall poverty rate has fallen to about 32 percent in 2011 from 44 percent in 2003, said Roland Horst, a board member at the central bank" and that "the government had been trying to reduce poverty, noting that a program of giving small cash stipends to people in extreme poverty, begun in 2005, now included more than 75,000 families".

But the shamelessness of the rich can be really shocking: "“How is it possible to reconcile the fact that hundreds of people survive each day by sifting through garbage in the municipal dump of Asunción while Paraguayans are also the biggest per-capita spenders in Punta del Este?” said Mr. Rojas Villagra, referring to the Uruguayan resort city where rich Paraguayans vacation alongside moneyed Argentines and Brazilians."
and the government has little resources (in tax revenue) or interest in major poverty-reduction programs:
" Paraguay’s social welfare programs remain meager compared with antipoverty projects in neighboring countries, which have lifted tens of millions of people out of abject living conditions. They blame Paraguay’s relatively weak state, with tax collection corresponding to only about 18 percent of gross domestic product, a figure lower than that of African nations like Congo and Chad."

As Americans, we volunteers occasionally have the opportunity to rub elbows (is that a phrase?) with the wealthy elite of Asuncion, and some of the places we frequent in that city principally cater to that class. It's usually an interesting experience and we're always surprised how little they know about life in the rest of the country, how they speak English but not Guarani, how they've been to Disneyland but not Santani. 

Soy field after harvest, September 2012

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