Day 470 - Volunteer Service - Article 10

This article was published August 29, 2008 in the Ames Tribune Newspaper.

Slash and Burn to Grow More Rice

I am sitting on the porch watching a big swath of hillside go up in smoke. It reminds me of one of Jeff’s stories. Last month Jeff went with Junior, two other relatives and Junior’s dad to ‘tumbar monte’. Tumbar monte is the slash part of slash and burn. They went out with hatchets and started cutting anything tree-like in an area next to a creek on about a 60 percent incline.

Jeff was invited the day before so that morning he set out with his axe to find out just what goes on and to see if there are possible alternatives. While cutting down trees grown men couldn’t circle in half a hug, he asked the farmers what they were going to plant. “We can’t afford rice. The price is going up. This field is going to be rice.”

First, let me explain the average Panamanian eats one and a half pounds of cooked rice a day. About 160 pound of dry rice per person per year. So when rice prices started going up partially due to a law which forbids processed rice from entering the country and partially due to increased transportation costs, the poor were the first to feel it. If they want to keep eating large quantities of rice (which they do), they need to grow it or find more income. The easier route is to grow more. They farm by slash and burn.

Back to Jeff. He is putting blisters on his hands chopping down trees. “Isn’t this a lot of work?” Jeff asks.

“Yes, yes it is,” comes the reply.

“Have you heard of growing rice in shallow earthen tanks? It has higher yields and you can grow three to four times as much rice in the area you would have grown dry rice.”

They have heard about rice tanks. They are adamant they don’t work. They bring Alvero, the father, over to the discussion. Alvero says it’s not their custom. They don’t grow rice that way here.

Jeff, having learned about rice tanks through Peace Corps, says you can grow three crops a year with rice tanks compared to two with dry farming. You can use the tanks year after year so you don’t waste time and energy cutting down trees.

Alvero counters there is no water available. Jeff offers to seek permission to do a demonstration tank using the community aqueduct. Alvero says that rice doesn’t grow in water. Jeff explains certain types of rice grow better in water. All it takes is the right seed which we can help them get.

Eventually Jeff is forced to give up the discussion as Alvero is actually getting angry and they have finished clearing that patch of land. The next day Jeff visits Alvero’s house with a booklet in Spanish with lots of color photos showing a rice tank and how it works. Since then we have asked if they have read it. They say the pictures are pretty. Again we wonder how literate our community is.

We need to find another approach. Possibly inviting some of the young men to visit a community with working rice tanks. Or maybe look for another way to bring in money. With the price of rice and corn rising, it is clear change is coming. Will our community be forced to dismantle and leave the valley to become day laborers? Or will they rise to the challenge and find new ways to produce crops? We hope it is the latter. We also hope they understand we are on their side and want to help them.

Foy and Jeff are Peace Corps volunteers in central Panama, some 40 miles northeast of Panama City. They live in a town of about 50 people that has no electricity. Their Peace Corps assignment is from May 2007 to Aug. 2009.

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