Andrés Wehrle has developed and is now disseminating an innovative approach to rural education that enables small family farmers in Paraguay to withstand competition from large-scale agribusiness by adopting sustainable, high-yield farming methods.
The New Idea
Over the past twelve years, Andrés Wehrle has perfected a method of rural education that improves rural livelihoods among small farmers–and he can prove it. Operating in a single locale, he is now working urgently to communicate his method throughout Paraguay (and beyond) before the trend toward large-scale agribusiness becomes unstoppable. In that endeavor, he is up against both the need to introduce more productive and sustainable farming methods to small farmers and a parallel need to organize a popular voice for sustainable agriculture to counter the powerful transnational corporate agribusiness lobby. His education method is able to do both these things simultaneously.
Paraguay is still predominantly an agricultural country with half of the population deriving their livelihoods from the land. Ironically, the recent return to democracy has brought with it a dramatic new threat to sustainable rural livelihoods. The new democratic government has endorsed the globally dominant "free trade"/agribusiness agricultural economic model, signing agreements with MERCOSUR (the "common market" of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay). This policy gives new impetus to consolidation of land holdings, the substitution of large-scale agribusiness for family farms and production for foreign markets. Even if the agribusiness model were able succeed, one consequence would be that large numbers of rural farmers and their families would be forced to migrate to the cities. Contrary to the initial hopes of new migrants, life in the city without skills or acculturation often means substandard or informal-sector employment for a very low income and a consequent loss of identity and self-esteem.What is more likely, however, is that small farmers will be dispossessed and the resulting large-scale monocultivation will exhaust the land and in other ways undermine the ecology. The irony is that in the most advanced consumer economies that gave birth to capital- and chemical-intensive agriculture–and saw most family farms lost to it–there is a strong "back-to-basics" movement that is shaking the very foundation of agribusiness by getting impressive yields with fewer chemicals. For countries like Paraguay, the challenge is clearly to find a way to fend off the desperate press of the failed paradigm of capital-intensive, large-scale agribusiness by revitalizing rural livelihoods. This means raising small farm productivity with sustainable agriculture techniques. This prospect is greatly hampered by the limitations of present-day education in rural areas, which generally does not respond to the realities, rhythms and dreams of young people. Those deficiencies combined with the demand for child labor at harvest and planting time contribute to low formal educational levels.
Over the past twelve years, Andrés has perfected a method to train rural farmers in sustainable agricultural production in ways that enable them to significantly better their lives. He also emphasizes the need for small farmers to organize politically to voice their interests in the national agricultural policy debate. His strategy now is to inseminate the ongoing national education reform process with his method. In 1983, Andrés founded the Center for Education, Training and Rural Technology to provide an educational experience relevant to the needs and culture of small farmers. The Center's programs are aimed primarily at increasing small farmers' income and diversifying production, but also encompass environmental protection and sustainable production. The Center's method also works at the group level, helping groups of farmers to come together to market agricultural products and, perhaps most importantly, to develop civic awareness to enhance rural participation in government.Participants in the Center's courses alternate between sessions at the Center and at the family farm. The Center's method is based on a cycle: identify real problems, discuss solutions and apply new techniques. The first session begins the cycle by giving farmers the intellectual tools to explore family working, living and cultivation practices in depth. The farmer's analysis is examined at the next session, which focuses on solutions, which the farmer applies at the next family farm session. This method is followed throughout the farmer's three-year period at the Center, and is accompanied by instruction focusing on preserving local culture and knowledge, alternative techniques, exchanging experiences, and applying new agricultural and organizational methods. Center staff monitor the farmer's experiences during the home session, visiting from time to time to provide closer assistance and encouragement. Andrés' results are impressive: between 60 and 70 percent of his students continue living and working their own small holdings and helping the family improve production. This contrasts with between 25 and 35 percent of the students at the state agricultural colleges who remain in agriculture. Many of the center's participants have also become community leaders and are now helping their communities to build local organizations to fight for their rights and achieve better living and production conditions.Andrés' current job is to disseminate the Center's model throughout Paraguay and beyond. The key step is to ensure its acceptance as a tested method for providing rural technical education in the context of Paraguay's on going "Educational Reform" discussion. To do this, Andrés is exchanging views with other institutions providing rural technical education, preparing new joint proposals for reforming environmental and alternative agricultural education and spreading technical assistance to schools and training centers. Thus far, the Center is coordinating and providing support to three other centers and undertaking a cooperative work program with two new agriculture schools. Andrés is planning local meetings, site visits, internships and regional seminars involving project coordinators, teachers, technicians, rural workers and students to begin a dialogue and to spread his techniques still further. Also on his agenda are visits to Brazil, Colombia and Central America to study experiences there and apply them to his own methods. The results of this process will be presented to a national seminar on rural education and, subsequently, to the National Commission for Educational Reform for implementation in Paraguay. Andrés will provide technical assistance to the rural educational centers adopting his new techniques.
Andrés was born in a rural town but moved to the capital, Asunción, as a child, after his father died. He never lost his rural roots and relationships, returning time and again to live and learn with neighbors and friends. The priests at the Catholic schools that he attended opened him to work with poor families. Thus, his life commitment to rural education for family farms combines his rural upbringing and roots with a vocation for service to the poor. A degree in agronomy in 1973 and hands-on practice at a San Francisco ranch and cattle breeding school gave him the technical basis to create the Centers for Education, Training, and Rural Technology. Andrés says, "It was set up in the middle of the Alto Paraná jungle, 465 kilometers from the capital, with ten young farmers, two agronomists, and my wife and I. During the authoritarian regime [which lasted until 1989], the new educational proposal seemed difficult to realize...like a dream." He faced formidable obstacles, including the dictatorship's control and repression, lack of financial resources, initial indifference from rural families and the need to develop a convincing methodology. Now with his method proven, he sees a unique opportunity to help Paraguay avoid following the path of large-scale agribusiness by leap-frogging to the new agricultural model associated with small, flexible farm units, sustainable methods and high yields.