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"The Farther You Go" by Mike Strong

The sparsely populated Gran Chaco plain in South America is home to a dry forest of thorny trees, shrubs, and grasses. More than 20 percent of Gran Chaco’s forest has been converted into farmland or grazing land since 1985.
NASA Earth Observatory, Image of the Day May 1, 2018
The sparsely populated Gran Chaco plain in South America is home to a dry forest of thorny trees, shrubs, and grasses. More than 20 percent of Gran Chaco’s forest has been converted into farmland or grazing land since 1985.

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

The farther you go from home, the more you meet the place you came from. When you return to that place the more you see every place.

Lucas Bessire is an anthropologist at Oklahoma State University. Bessire, who grew up on a farm in southwest Kansas traveled to the middle of South America to study the effect of deforestation on the indigenous population in the Gran Chaco area in northern Paraguay. The Gran Chaco is a large alluvial plain which extends across Bolivia, Paraguay and Venezuela.

He spent more than 4 years in the Gran Chaco (52 months). As Bessire studied the loss of habitat on that human population, the human population of Kansas was beginning to run into loss of habitat in terms of water loss from the Ogallala aquifer.

Usually when we talk about loss of habitat, we are talking about animal populations forgetting that humans are just another species sharing habitat.

The Gran Chaco, in the middle of South America, is directly related to the high plains of Kansas, formally. In 1968 the Kansas Paraguay Committee was created to promote volunteering and social impact in both areas.

Bessire writes:

“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, … , looked like pieces of Kansas laid somewhere they didn’t belong.” (page 9)

At this point you could probably start picking out villains and victims and bystanders. A lot of writers would. But Lucas Bessire sees a more intricate world. Responsibilities overlap.

We find out that the water use in 12 counties in southwest Kansas, where he grew up, 8,400 square miles with 4,400 farms is governed by the Groundwater Management District Southwest, or Southwest GMD. Kansas has a total of 105 counties. So, 11-percent of Kansas counties handle roughly 1/3 of Kansas’ agricultural economy and about ½ the groundwater use.

Bessire says that it was in 2016 that he became aware of water depletion in southwest Kansas. Having long left home and having long made his own break with his family he thought he would be researching water depletion on his own. But his father joined with him.

More than that, his father not only made connections for Lucas Bessire but often led the way. For Bessire this was a new homecoming and a reconnection with his homeland in Kansas as well as his father. He was running in.

The more he finds out about the Southwest GMD the more he begins to wonder what the GMD is managing and who the Ground Management District is working for. Policies which were supposed to prevent the loss of aquifer levels turn out to encourage depletion of those water levels. The question, of course, is who benefits and who is getting cheated and how can we work this out?

The temptation to break the planning and problems into discrete parts to work on separately only takes us so far. The parts need to be seen as they fit into a whole.

But what is depletion? Farmers disagree. Some mine the water, taking out every drop they can get for themselves. Openly. Others, Bessire notes, find themselves in a system where the only option is to keep irrigating, though they might not want to. Some farmers try new methods they hope will compensate. And some of the best efforts produce the opposite result to their intentions.

In his own field, ethnographic fieldwork uses scientific methods to show customs of people and cultures, hopefully revealing patterns not readily seen and turning puzzles into analytical questions, looking for open ended solutions which take us into a still viable future.

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

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