Life and Learning on the Farm in Paraguay

hotel lobby, building were donated by the LaSalle Christian Brothers and originally Franciscan

Asuncion     When talking to Martin Burt of Fundacion Paraguaya, it doesn’t take long before he brings up the subject of “agricultural high schools.”  Only an hour outside of the capital, the Organizers’ Forum delegation committed to a visit one afternoon.

Arriving we came to grip with the backstory behind the school.  The buildings for the most part had been built more than 50 years ago.  The facility was originally owned and developed by the Franciscan Order of the Catholic Church. They gave up the schools and property to the La Salle Christian Brothers, when they couldn’t make a go of it as the 20th century ended.  Around 2005, the Brothers pulled the plug as well, unable to balance the books on the operation.  The Brothers then arranged to give the schools to various nonprofits in Paraguay and the Fundacion ended up with the school and all of its buildings on 153 acres of property in Cerrito, which is now named the San Francisco Agricultural High School.

Tyler Lewis, Local 100, and our guide, the english teacher at the school

There are more than 150 students in the three-year high school program with 70% now boys and 30% girls, though originally all boys until recent years.  The students graduate with two high school diplomas, one as an Agriculture/Livestock Technician and the other as a Hotel and Tourism Technician.  The students work and study in shifts by semester.  One group begins the day in the fields or the hotel and kitchen operation, and then studies in the afternoon.  The other group begins in the classrooms and then after lunch, hits the books.   Our two guides included one teacher and one former student.  There are over 100 applicants for places at the boarding school, and they select about 60 students per year.  The tuition is $2.5 million guaranies or about $430 USD, almost the same as the monthly minimum wage, so not for everyone certainly.  Surprisingly, most of the applicants are city dwellers, they told us.  They explained that in the first year, a student does a little of everything on the property, and then elects to concentrate during the second year.  To graduate, their senior project involves making a business plan based on their interests.

The hotel operation is popular with other NGOs here and abroad, hosting conferences and meetings, and provides according to the Fundacion’s annual report about 25% of the income of the that supports the school.  The staff is largely the students of course, as is the kitchen, as part of the mission of the school to “learn by doing.”  Our lunch was excellent.

organic vegetables being grown by the students

The agricultural operation is organic and includes not only standard truck farm, row crops, but also a stand of eucalyptus trees that will harvested and sold for firewood by 2024.  The livestock and animals raised is extensive and includes chickens, goats, cattle, rabbits, pigs, and bees, all tended by the students of course.  The other big money maker is their cheese production operation which was a marvel to many of us, and sold widely to some high-end operations in the country under their brand.

raising goats

growing eucalyptus trees for fire wood in 2024 harvest

raising chickens

The Fundacion and the school tout the fact that all of these things have made the school and its operations self-sufficient for the last several years.  Though we were impressed by the scale and scope, that claim may be harder to sustain, since the land and buildings came free, much of the expansion of the facilities and new features came from external grant capital, the vast majority of the labor is free, coming from the students, and the hotel is a significant contributor to the balance sheet.  Upon graduation many of the students will find it difficult to break even when they realize that their life in agriculture and livestock will include the cost of land and labor, the debt involved in production, and the unlikelihood of income from a hotel on their hectares.  Nonetheless, the graduates will indeed have accumulated a huge amount of experiential learning that will point them either towards – or away – from a future career on the land.

raising pigs

the money maker — selling cheese

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Fundacion Paraguaya, Social Enterprise and the Poverty Stoplight

Martin Burt, ED of Fundacion Paraguayan and Eduardo, director of Poverty Stoplight

Asuncion         Our first successful contacts in Asuncion were with the Fundacion Paraguaya.  After weeks of sending emails without answer and puzzling over our problems, Martin Burt, the Executive Director of the Fundacion immediately answered my email, and almost as quickly we were having a lengthy Skype call, and he was offering his help, including the support of his super-efficient assistant, Sarah Hopper.  It turned out that Burt had a PhD in international relations from Tulane University in New Orleans and in his words was a “wannabe Cajun.”  It’s a small world!

The Fundacion Paraguaya is a huge nonprofit though with a major footprint in Paraguay and operations in a number of countries in the world from the United Kingdom to the United States to Argentina and various countries in South America and Africa.  The bulk of its $20 million annual budget, according to one of their 500 staff members, is its $16 million microfinance operation in Paraguay.  They also have integrated their operations into the Paraguayan educational system with social entrepreneurship programs in all 7000 schools in the country.  They registered a charity in the United Kingdom which also specializes in such programs.

When the Organizers’ Forum delegation met in the Fundacion’s offices most of our time was spent discussing a unique and interesting tool they had developed called the Poverty Stoplight.  The Stoplight focuses on an effective and blunt survey method where families, usually accompanied by some representative of the Fundacion or one of their partners, assesses their own relationship to poverty across fifty indicators by choosing red, yellow or green on the stoplight for each question.  A green assessment is a positive indicator of no problem, no poverty in that area, essentially.  A yellow indicates progress in ameliorating the poverty indicator, and red is the signal for a significant poverty issue.  The indicators are obviously not just financial, but include family violence, dental health, access to clean water, personal hygiene and sanitation systems, decent housing, and social capital, like knowing neighbors.  The Stoplight is in use in upstate New York, Stockton, California, Newcastle, England, South Africa, and Nigeria among other countries through their work with their partners.

Burt described the tool as allowing the “poor to own their own poverty,” meaning that it was a bottom-up assessment tool rather than a top down determination.  He also argued that the tool led to action, though that was harder for the delegation to follow closely.  The Fundacion argues that 80,000 people have used the tool with the bulk coming from their credit representatives interviewing families of the borrowers in their microfinance operations.  With their microfinance clients they have determined the rate to “get out of poverty” is three times faster using the Stoplight.  In some ways it seems the Stoplight is as effective as the partner’s ability to intervene depending on where the red lights are indicated.  Though there was a claim that the Stoplight could trigger necessary collective action and organizing, the delegation generally had difficulty in connecting the dots to see how that might evolve from simple use of the diagnostic tool, but we were all intrigued by it.

Martin Burt, unlike Mateo Balmelli, didn’t start the conversation by asking if we knew who he was, but at one point he mentioned something about having been mayor.  Later we googled his resume to find that he had been Commerce Minister in one government, chief of staff to the President in another, and Mayor of Asuncion for a number of years before returning again to direct the Fundacion.  From the awards and prizes he and the Fundacion have won in the social entrepreneur development world, they have clearing focused a bright beam from Paraguay to the rest of the world.

Martin Burt, Myself, and Willie Cosme listen to questions from the Organizers’ Forum delegation

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