My first day in the field in Argentina couldn’t have been more different than my first day spent with our pilot participants in Rwanda.
I was lucky to arrive in Neuquen last evening since every flight from the previous two days had been cancelled due to the volcanic eruption about 250 miles north of here on the Chilean border. Martin Funes, WCS regional director, picked me up at the airport and took me to my hotel, where we had a beer and talked about the project, the schedule, and what to do since the 40 solar lanterns I lugged down here in my huge suitcase were confiscated at Customs. We decided to wing it, using a brochure with photographs we had to illustrate to families what we are proposing.
Martin and Lara Heidel, who will be our “on the ground” person recruiting, interviewing, and distributing/monitoring the project, had arrived on the overnight bus from her province and joined us. And we set out for Rincon de Los Sauces, a dusty, ugly town built with oil money in this dusty, relatively flat, hot area of Argentina. Although we’re on the very northern tip of Patagonia, the beauty doesn’t begin here. The Mendoza province is just across the Colorado River. Lots of guanacos running everywhere.
Since we’re working with goat herders, many of whom are transhumant, there is no village to hold a meeting like in Rwanda. These folks live with extended families far, far from one another. Lara acknowledges that it is going to be a huge challenge to coordinate this project, but she’s game. It’s like having 100 separate clients spread out rather than 100 clients concentrated in each of two villages, like in Rwanda.
We took off and visited the first family, the Castillos. About 15 years ago, the government made all sorts of promises to the herders and other very low income people – promises of modern homes, electricity, running water, etc. We arrived the Castillos home, which was provided by the government, but the giving stopped there. There is no electricity, although a lone pole stands next to the house where the government promised it would be connected. There is no running water, just the Colorado River a kilometer away where they walk each day with pails for their water. They have seven children, although there were more people there since some were married. Their youngest daughter married at 12 and is now 25 with a 13 year old son. The Castillos’ youngest daughter is 5. Sr. Castillo is 45 and looks 65.
And they were all the nicest people you could ever hope to meet. Their home had 3 rooms – 2 bedrooms and one large room for everything else. There was an outhouse down the hill. They immediately offered mate, which I’ve learned to accept wherever and whenever offered, even though I knew the water to make it came from the river and everyone uses the same silver straw to drink it, it’s the polite thing to do.
Four years ago they had 600 goats. There has been a drought for 3 years. Today they have 115 goats. Last year the drought was so bad the goats had no kids. This year was better and the goats had 90 kids. This is the source of their money, selling the kids and now raising a new breed of goats that produces the wool for fine cashmere. The challenge is processing the cashmere and finding a market for it – something WCS is helping with.
We went with them to round up the kids so that the mothers could be brought into the corral to nurse them. Their sons came riding up on horses after bringing in the mother goats.
Sr. Castillos rides his horse 2 1/2 hours each way twice each week to his daughter’s house to charge his cell phone. They cook with propane, and propane and candles provide their light, but because they have no car, they have no way to be assured they’ll always be able to fill their tanks.
When we told them about our project, they were intrigued but still a little skeptical. Since the government had made so many unkept promises, I could tell they found it a little hard to believe we were going to provide light for their home for just being part of our pilot. We’re going to need to prove ourselves to them, and I’m sure many others like them.
But instead of working with a village, a community, we’re going to be working with individual extended families, some stationary and some who are nomadic with the seasons. It’ll be a good test for our technology. But if the people are as friendly, warm, and kind as the Castillos, I think we’ll do fine.
Tomorrow it’s off to another region of Neuquen to visit more families. Again, when the understanding of our project clicks and you see the look of appreciation dawn on their faces, it’s worth everything we’re doing. We’re changing lives.