Posts Tagged With: biodigesters

Biodigesters – Got Gas?

“Each day when I awake I know I have one more day to make a difference in someone’s life.” ~ James Mann

June 16, 2014

 

I love my work with biodigesters. It’s fascinating stuff and for those of you non-sciency types who don’t like to read technical talk about poo I tried to keep it interesting so you’d enjoy too. Keep reading. It’ll be worth it, I promise.

I mentioned long ago that part of my work here is with anaerobic biodigesters, which decompose locally-available organic material (usually manure) and produce methane gas for cooking as well as a rich, very liquid compost that’s excellent for gardens, crops or use as a foliar spray to repel pests. I have a lot of interest in promoting these systems on farms here in PY and also because I wanted knowledge to maintain the seven biodigesters in my community, installed by the previous volunteer, I decided to be part of the Biodigester training group last year. We are a group of Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) with specialized training who travel throughout the country helping other volunteers teach about and install these systems in their communities. This alternative generally replaces a señora’s need to cook (and breathe) over an open fire on the ground and haul firewood. It better manages manure, smell and flies on the farm. It makes for healthier living conditions while helping abate nutrient loss into surface water and the massive deforestation that occurs in PY. Here’s the story of one such event I attended recently…

 

The trip to the volunteer’s community was about 11 hours by bus, including waiting in the bus terminals and alongside the road for my next rides (and missing a stop – oops). By the first bus station I was STARVING so during my ‘layover’ I went to the nearby supermarket for lunch and discovered to my delight that they had a hot buffet of prepared food. Whoa – I could hardly contain my excitement! Almost like a restaurant! After much deliberation, I’d just decided what I wanted and was about to get the señora’s attention and then I noticed it: a cockroach exploring the case and the edges of the food. My hopes sank and my excitement evaporated. I was bummed but not completely grossed out. This is PY and hygiene, sanitation and other expectations are, well, different than the US. It’s not drama, it’s just a fact. I walked away and started cruising the aisles the way teens troll the strip at Old Orchard Beach. I digress. After another tour of the store and my need for protein and carbs outweighing the underwhelming fruit and veggie options, I went back to the case. Yes, I did. Afterall, I reasoned, the insect was barely longer than my thumbnail and it was just one (that I saw) and I’ve probably eaten elsewhere with similar or worse conditions without knowing it and that roast loin with ham and melted cheese looked so deliciously inviting and I was SO hungry for something other than bus-station-empanadas. I bought my original choices and tried to push that scurrying visual out of my brain forever. My innerds remained cooperative and unaffected and I continued my journey to my friend’s community. By the time I arrived it was nearly 9pm. Two other volunteers had traveled to help as well and we sat down to prep for our morning workshop. When our travel-weary bodies called it a day, our host gave us a tour of her humble abode complete with instructions on how to use her cool, new homemade composting squat toilet (her version of an aerobic biodigester and she did a great job building it too!). This was a first for me. The composting and the squat. How I made it a year and a half in this country without an encounter with the squat toilet is beyond comprehension. I’ve been terribly sheltered it seems. The fact that the toilet was on a raised platform to allow easy management of the compost underneath combined with the outdoor spotlight that happened to shine down directly and brightly onto the squatting hole made me feel like a Rock Star Appearing On Stage every time I had business to do and stepped up onto that platform. The Leo in me saw the proximity of the neighbors’ homes and desperately wanted to do a princess wave during my inaugural visit to the throne, despite it being 10:30pm. Perhaps only Leos would understand and appreciate such an opportunity, I don’t know. Despite my Leonine leanings, I’m not especially proud of the fact that I LIKE being the center of attention and “being in the spotlight”, and this was one time I would prefer to do without either. When stepping onto the platform and standing upright, the tarp surrounding the structure came to my hips. Barely. Pun intended. I’m sure I half-mooned the neighbors on multiple occasions before getting down to business. Grateful to be no taller, I found myself hoping for a power outage when nature called after dark throughout this visit.

 

Sample squat toilet - basically a hole in the ground or cement platform (this is a stock image from the internet; the one described above is MUCH nicer)

Sample squat toilet – basically a hole in the ground or cement platform (this is a stock image from the internet; the one described above is MUCH nicer)

At daybreak we headed to a local agriculture-themed high school of which there are many in PY. The day started with four of us teaching a workshop to 50 high school seniors about all aspects of the biodigester followed by hands-on application with the kids doing what they’d just learned. The kids were motivated and eager to see it come together, though we always have to convince new users that the gas does not make the cooked food smell like manure and the biodigesters themselves do not smell despite the hundreds of gallons of soupy manure inside because it is an enclosed, oxygen-free system. By 5pm we had started filling the plastic tube with water and were mostly done. All that was left was for the volunteer and kids to begin ‘charging’ it by adding manure the following day. They will add manure for the next three weeks before enough methane gas is produced for burning. This system was installed next to the pig barn for ease of collecting manure and putting into the system (as opposed to hauling buckets of manure across campus) and the fuel will be used to cook pig food. Pigs will provide fertilizer which produces gas and liquid compost. Compost will grow crops to feed the pigs and people. Gas will help cook the pig food (and in most cases, people food), which will result in more fertilizer for the biodidgester and meat for people. And a nice, closed-loop cycle continues!

 

Biodigester installation at a Paraguayan high school

Biodigester installation at a Paraguayan high school

The amazing volunteers who helped with this project (and the woman on the right is a volunteer's community contact)

The amazing volunteers who helped with this project (and the woman on the right is a volunteer’s community contact)

 

A completed biodigester after 2 years in use. The spout on top of the bag is where the gas exits into a hose that runs to the cooking area.

A completed biodigester after 2 years in use. The spout on top of the bag is where the gas exits into a hose that runs to the cooking area.

It was wonderful to participate in this installation, spend time with other volunteers, sharpen my technical and language skills, and see youth learning valuable new information and skills for their futures. And I can check “visit to a composting squat toilet” off my bucket list.

Categories: Peace Corps Paraguay | Tags: , , , , , | 6 Comments

Where Has The Time Gone?

8-11-13

“Life loves to be taken by the lapel and told: ‘I’m with you kid. Let’s go.'” – Maya Angelou

It was supposed to be a simple two-week respite from blogging back in February while I prepared to *finally* move from my host family (who I adored, but…) into my own house. Obviously, that turned into a six month hiatus as life got busy and Facebook posts became the ‘easier and quicker’ method to share the latest news of my Peace Corps adventures (oh, did I tell you? I now have internet at my house. Daily. And running water. And a hot shower. Daily. OMG). A lot has happened during this time, which I’ll try to summarize now and make a better effort to regain my regularly scheduled posts here.

In mid-March I moved into my own ‘house’, my ‘schoolhouse’ as I call it, because it is literally a classroom in an old school, residing on the same grounds as the new school. This has worked out beautifully; it is the nicest casa in the community and of course all my neighbors, especially the kids, were dying for a look inside. I am exquisitely happy in my classroom, the kids have been respectful (even inviting me to their daily voleiball games during recess), and I make fantastic use of the giant chalkboard that covers one of walls for my infamous list-making fetish, drawings, reminders, and even tallies while I do my 30-day ab and squat challenges – the only form of exercise I can get during what is currently winter of cool-to-freezing temps and sometimes rainy conditions. (Wow- that was quite the sentence!) As soon as I’d settled into my new space, I began work on my garden. The school Director, Profesor Victor, who is also my contact, gave me a space adjacent to the school garden. It was cow pasture when I started and five weeks later began to resemble a garden, complete with bamboo fence that I helped cut and build with assistance from about a dozen locals. The bamboo was delivered via oxcart from the far end of town. Unfortunately two weeks later, one of the oxen (called ‘guei’ …sounds like whey) swallowed a whole grapefruit and died. I never knew cattle love grapefruit.

Also this autumn (springtime in North America), some fellow volunteers came to visit my site to produce a documentary on biodigesters because, at the time, I had half of all biodigesters in the country right in my community. That same week I participated in a biodigester Train the Trainer workshop to learn to teach Paraguayans how to install biodigesters. Cool! I think I might want one when I come home. These biodigesters are 20 foot plastic tubes that lie in a trench and to which you add manure daily. In three weeks, this starts producing a daily delivery of amazing liquid compost for the garden and methane which the locals use for cooking… all using FREE materials!

In May, my cousin and a friend came to visit. Unfortunately, it rained…no, poured… the first three days. And it was cold. Instead of visiting locals and seeing sites around my community, this offered a great indoor bonding experience and many experiments in cooking that, after they inventoried my ‘pantry’ shelves, defied all bets we would go hungry before we ever got out of Dodge. It’s amazing what you can do with cornflour, mandioca, sweet potato leaves, beans and eggs. Ultimately, the rain broke and my cousin and I were able to play in my beehive; her first, but not last, foray into beekeeping.

Throughout this time I’ve made a couple of attempts to host beekeeping workshops but, for various reasons, including three days of rain, they keep getting postponed. As does the yogurt-making sessions I promise to my neighbors who seem very interested but are impossible to pin to a date and time. Such is Paraguay.

Most recently, I returned to Maine for a quick one-week vacation. I did not plan to visit the states until my service was over, however, Maine summer weather beckoned me after freezing my tail off in PY for a week, and all the other beautiful things of Maine including my daughter’s 25th birthday celebration, reuniting with family, swimming in the lake, tango dancing in an oceanside gazebo with friends, toes in the sand at the ocean and shared meals or walks with old friends. It was also the easiest vacation of my life in terms of packing since I was going home to my ‘stuff’. I had only the necessities: toothbrush, passport, tango shoes, a book, camera, tiny travel pillow, sunflower seeds for snacking, calendar of plans for the week, and a gift for my daughter. This was a liberating travel experience! Oh, and if you’ve never heard an American belle speak Portuguese with a deep southern twang over the airplane intercom, you just haven’t lived. I came back with a better perspective and appreciation for both cultures. What do I miss about the states? Besides the obvious answer of family and tango dancing (if you don’t know this about me, well then, you just don’t know me! I’m a tango addict), natural BBQ chips, feta cheese, fresh Maine air, seeing people exercise and trying to stay healthy, generosity and kindness of Mainers, being able to show my money at the cash register (or technology of any kind in public) with little risk of being robbed afterward, walking alone at night, full bodied complex conversations – in English-, dressing up all fancy for special occasions. What don’t I miss? The never-ending busyness, schedules going full tilt, attitudes of entitlement and rudeness, impatience, excess, and incessant marketing for stuff we don’t actually need.

After living in a culture which has the 144th worst GDP in the world but ties for first as the happiest people across the globe, I think there’s a lot to learn from the people of Paraguay. While Paraguay has its shortcomings in serving its people, a short visit with locals will undoubtedly convince you that wealth and stuff does not necessarily bring happiness. I live among very poor people who, despite the barriers they face and the limitations of their country’s systems, laugh and joke, skip and play, sing and show content in their everyday work more than any group of people I’ve ever met. They are resourceful, creative, and make the best of what they have. Want to play volleyball but don’t have a net? No problem, just balance a stick over the top of two chairs. Got a big rock and a plank? These kids will readily make their own teeter totter with such awesome materials. Or just play for hours in a pile of sand. And their generosity is second to none. A neighbor hears that I’m out of cheese and brings me the last of what she has. Another neighbor offers me unlimited access to her grapefruit tree. Others bring me popcorn grown in their field or eggs from their chickens even though they may have barely enough for their own needs.

So I’m sure I’ve forgotten some significant details but I’ll close here and save a little storytelling for next time. Feel free to leave comments, ask questions, or list things you’d like to know more about!

Until next time….jajotopata amigos!

Categories: Peace Corps Paraguay | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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