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"Connections" by Mike Strong

Cattle in the Gran Chaco region of Paraguay
Peer V, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Cattle in the Gran Chaco region of Paraguay

This is Mike Strong, in Hays, for HPPR. The book is “Running Out” by Lucas Bessire.

Paraguay is a landlocked country in the middle of South America. Kansas is a landlocked state in the middle of the United States. The Gran Chaco region of Paraguay is very roughly around 21 degrees south of the Equator. The entire Gran Chaco goes from 17 to 33 degrees south latitude. Garden City is a little less roughly about 38 degrees north of the Equator.

The satellite photo images of the area on Google show, within the borders of Paraguay, what resembles at first a city seen from very high rather than a third of a country. Regimented blocks of squares organized at varying angles to each other, covering much, maybe most, of the north of Paraguay. Large blocks. As you zoom into the blocks, they are not city blocks but huge blocks of agricultural land formations with smaller, but still huge, squares of ag land.

Just outside the border of Paraguay, to the west and north, in Bolivia, and to the southwest, Argentina, the blocks largely disappear.

This is where anthropologist Lucas Bessire spent more than four years as an anthropologist studying the effects of the destruction of native forests on the indigenous people in the Gran Chaco. When, in 2016, Bessire returned to his home southwest of Garden City he saw a similar effect on the people of the High Plains because of the loss of water table.

Two locations far apart yet so similar. And the very same persons responsible in Kansas were responsible in Gran Chaco.

Lucas Bessire writes:

… The Plains appeared to be a mirror image of the tropics. Kansas and Paraguay shared a set of visual and moral cues. The same agribusiness logic was evident in each. It was no coincidence. Some of those deforesting the Gran Chaco were the same people driving groundwater depletion in western Kansas. A group of farmers traveled between the Kansas Plains and the Chaco. Bibles, tractors, seeds, cattle genetics, and market trends went with them. Newly cleared fields in Paraguay, I wrote earlier, looked like pieces of Kansas laid somewhere they didn’t belong.
(page 9)

Bessire tells us that he had been “unsparing” in his criticisms of the deforestation in Gran Chaco. Now that he had returned home, he realized that his own family, among the rest, was involved in aquifer loss in the plains.

And, of course, “it’s complicated.”

In southwest Kansas, 12 counties are covered by the Southwest GMD (Groundwater Management District). These 12 counties carry about a third of Kansas’ agricultural economy, and close to half of Kansas’ use of groundwater.

The Kansas GMDs (Groundwater Management Districts) were created in the 1970s to conserve groundwater, to stabilize agriculture and in the process let Kansas’ water users determine their own future.

Memberships with voting rights require owning 40 acres of land or water rights to one acre-foot. Bessire, in his anthropologist role wanted to talk to someone at the GMD. His father, as a member, not only made that possible, Bessire’s father really helped lead him along.

The real question is how to solve this. How to keep the people and what needs to change. More precisely, who needs to change? Bessire takes us through not just the incentives to change but the perverse incentives not to change.

Lucas Bessire writes,

“… blame and self-grievance get us only so far, politically and personally. The overly assured sense that I could parse the guilty from the innocent was part of the problem.”

This is Mike Strong, in Hays, for HPPR Radio Readers Book Club

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Spring Read 2024: Water, Water Neverwhere 2024 Spring ReadHPPR Radio Readers Book Club
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