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Peace and Permaculture in Bolivia

An interview with Kim Glick, a Permaculture graduate who took her skills to Bolivia as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Some of our MWPN Permaculture students met Kim when she came along to assist Steve Jones facilitate the PDC in Llandrindod. Her knowedge of global Permaculture were informed by her 3 year service with a remote South American community where she initiated a project to rejuvenate seed stocks.

This is Kim in conversation with Roz Brown.

Q. I understand you spent some time in South America as part of the Peace Corps. Can you tell me something about the Peace Corps?

A. From July 1999 through August 2002, I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bolivia.  The Peace Corps is an agency of the US government founded in the 1960’s thanks to the initiative of the Kennedy administration.  The mission of the Peace Corps is both diplomatic and technical.  The first goal of the Peace Corps is to share US culture with other cultures in the world.  The second is to provide technical assistance to improve the lives of people living in other cultures.  The third is to bring that experience back to the US to broaden our understanding of the rest of the world.  To be a Peace Corps volunteer, you must be a US citizen.

I saw the Peace Corps as an opportunity to serve my country and the world since I did not see myself as being able to do that through military service or did not feel empowered enough to consider entering the political arena.  Also, in the US there is a mystique about the Peace Corps.  There is a certain reverence for the people who go abroad for two years and live in often exceedingly difficult circumstances to understand life from the perspective of others.  I wanted to be a part of that.  I imagine service in the VSO is comparable from a British perspective.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the organization and during those 50 years 244,000 people have served or are currently serving as Peace Corps volunteers.  That is less than one percent of the current population of the US so you can imagine, there is a certain amount of camaraderie and kinship amongst current volunteers and ex-volunteers.  For the most part, there is a culture of support and collaboration both amongst us and with the communities and countries in which we have been privileged to serve.

Q. I know you trained in Permaculture before going to South America. Can you say something about the course you did and where it was?

A. I took the 72-hour Permaculture Design Course in 1998 at the Crabapple Cooperative in Shrewsbury, Shropshire.  Mike Feingold and Chris Evans facilitated the course with inputs from other people such as the late Robert Hart, the master of forest farming, and Ianto and Linda Evans who are well known internationally for their cob building expertise.  At the time, I went with a completely open mind.  I did no research what-so-ever prior to the course so I had no preconceived notions about Permaculture.  All I knew intuitively was an entirely new landscape was opening before me and I was going to embrace it. Frankly, it just sounded cool and I wanted to prepare myself in the best way possible to give the best of myself to wherever I ended up.  Also, I should say, at that time my future was completely open.  The process of gaining acceptance and being invited to serve in the Peace Corps is a long one and I did not even know if I would get in or not.  It is like wanting to go to a certain university or getting a prized job: you may or may not get it and all you can do is what you can do and hope once you have done everything that you can, it is enough.

I found out about the course while I was Woofing throughout the UK and thought it sounded like something that could be useful for my future work.  At that time, I had very little money but great willingness to learn and was grateful to find such a lovely, generous group of people who were making every effort, sometimes at great sacrifice, to make the world a better place for all of us.

I did not grow up on a farm.  I grew up in a high- consumption society and was used to living in relative luxury in Southern California.  I had the privilege of attending a very expensive, small, private, extremely liberal university where I majored in philosophy but left with more questions than answers.  I had no idea what I wanted to do for work and found myself feeling as if I needed to learn something concrete and practical.  I needed to ground myself in reality in order to stop living in my head so much.  I had already been on a path of self-discovery, that is, of my own limitations and understanding of the natural world: Permaculture came just at this critical juncture for me.

Q.  What decided you to work with the Peace Corps, and did you have any say in where you were deployed?

A.  Since the Peace Corps is all about service - to the US and to the host country - if we truly serve in a disinterested manner, we must do what is asked of us so it is generally accepted we have no say in where we are sent or what work we will be assigned.  Having said that, the organization takes many factors into consideration when placing individuals, and sometimes some personal preference or health concerns do come into play.  My understanding is that the host countries request certain kinds of technical assistance from the Peace Corps and are privy to information about the people who will be living in their country for the next two years.  So, as Peace Corps volunteers, we do not work anywhere we are not invited to work.  Those arrangements are made both at the highest political levels and at the grassroots level.  During my service and my time abroad in general, I met many people whose only personal contact with the United States was through the Peace Corps volunteer who lived in their community.

Q. When did you reach your destination, where was it, and what was it like?

A. I received my invitation to serve in February of 1999 after having started the application process approximately one year earlier.  My assignment was to work in the Community Agriculture program in Bolivia.  I was thrilled with this prospect because I had it in my head that it would be great to work in the Andes and I really did want to work with producing food.  After having met Chris Evans I had decided that I wanted to go either to Nepal to work in the Himalayas or to South America to be in the Andes.  At that time, the Peace Corps did not have an active program in Nepal and since I had some language study in Spanish, Bolivia was a terrific place for me.  I probably never would have picked it myself because to me it was a mystery.  I had to go check the map to see where it was!  I had no choice of my specific site either.  I went where I was sent.  Frankly, had I been asked I probably would have picked somewhere else, but in the end just going with the flow worked for me because it turned out to be the birthplace of my first major creative manifestation.  It also made me realize that there was a real need there and it was a tough site.  I felt proud that my trainers thought enough of me and my skill-set to give me a big challenge and let me run with it.  I will admit though that once again, I did not have any clue what was in store for me once I arrived.

Q. What were the initial challenges you faced as a solo female volunteer?

A. All volunteers, male or female, face certain challenges.  Usually, communication is the greatest one.  Learning a new language and being able to function in a completely new environment and actually finding work and getting anything productive done is the greatest one for all of us.  Then, there are the physical challenges of the effects of new foods and the water on our bodies.  Peace Corps volunteers tend to become obsessed with their bowel movements, mainly their unpredictability and arrival at inopportune times.

I became acutely aware of how I was perceived by community members, both men and women.  I realized that working with cultural attitudes and gender roles was essential for any success.  In as much as there are other women working professionally in agriculture all over the world, at that time, in Bolivia, particularly in my site, they had not had a woman volunteer for sometime and previous ones had not worked in agriculture but in other areas such as health or education that were more culturally accepted fields for women.  I must admit that I had the good fortune of getting an excellent male counterpart with whom I had a long, beneficial relationship.

Unfortunately, in places like Bolivia, there is a belief that friendship cannot exist between a man and a woman, that there must be a sexual relationship and that must lead to marriage.  Soon after my arrival I was getting the question of who I would be inviting to the wedding.  This created great difficulty for both him and me because we were barely getting to know each other and had little opportunity to decide for ourselves where the relationship could lead not to mention all of the cultural and communication difficulties we encountered.  Also, as one can imagine, as if having a million ideas swimming in my head and adapting to my new surroundings was not enough, I then became a subject of great curiosity because none of the women could understand how it was that I did not have children yet.  I was 27 years old at the time.  I used to tell them “lots of condoms” and they would laugh.  I hoped maybe they would learn from it.  Getting their husbands to use them was the tricky part.

Q. How did you survey and analyse the situation, and how useful did you find the Permaculture system of going about this

A. In addition to my Permaculture course, I was also given three months of training in Bolivia.  During that time we lived with host families in communities so we could gain that experiential learning in a safe environment.  We received four hours per day of language training and another four hours per day of technical training within the Bolivian context.  I found that my experience with Permaculture made me uniquely prepared to take advantage, appreciate, and supplement this training because I already had some understanding of its wider application and purpose.  I also discovered just how progressive and valuable the Permaculture concepts and my personal field experience as a Woofer were when we were doing technical activities.  It became clear to me early on that all of these skills and information were a gift and I felt compelled to pass it on for the benefit of as many people as possible.  How that was actually going to manifest, I, once again, had no idea.

Q. Can you give a brief description, using SADIMET, of what you found, what you came up with, and how it worked in practice?

A. Using the SADIMET methodology (Survey-Analysis-Design-Implementation-Maintenance-Evaluation-Tweak), it is possible to contextualize my process and work as a volunteer although it would take a lot more than just one article to do it properly and in detail.  I should also note the Peace Corps does not have a Permaculture program, per se; there are different programs such as Basic Sanitation, Integrated Education, or Community Agriculture.  The experience as a Community Agriculture volunteer gave me the opportunity to apply what I learned from Permaculture in a real environment where I could experiment with and test the theories I had found so fascinating during my course

Briefly, I can say that after approximately one year of working in the area and doing loads of observing and consultations with individuals and entire communities, I analyzed all of the limiting factors in the area, came up with a design for a manageable project, found financing for implementation, and implemented the project for the rest of my service.  I implemented the project with 150 women living in three communities.  Their husbands also pitched in as necessary.  There was continual maintenance involved since the project itself was complex and we were working with annual crops.    Regarding evaluation, this part is more difficult because the project itself was designed to be carried on during a five year period for which the Peace Corps placed another volunteer after me to continue the work.  She had the task of building upon the foundation that I left for her which she did in her own way.

In retrospect, as far as tweaking things is concerned, there are technical changes I would make now because it would be appropriate.  At the time, I realized there was only so much that could be done at once.  Just getting people to understand certain concepts was difficult and I figured pushing too hard would be futile for me and for them.  Now, however, there is more understanding in the zone and it would be easier to do other things like establishing a no-till system using raised beds.  At that time, this would have been an anathema.

Q. What were your chief delights during your time in S America?

A. Just spending time outside working with the women on our plots was fun.  We did all of the ceremonies for planting.  Someone always brought the coca and the 100-proof alcohol to bury in the plot and to give the blessing.  I learned so much from them.  Working in my garden with the kids was a highlight.  I also made some very close relationships with people and I had a great counterpart who helped me a lot.  I do not know if I would have been able to take all of the difficulties or accomplish as much as I did if I had not had him to rely on for guidance, professional support, and encouragement.  His belief in me was so important because I had little positive feedback from the people in my area and often was downright antagonized by male agronomists working in the zone.  I had to be highly self-motivated.  It was a tough place to work both physically and mentally.  Also, until I lived at that altitude, I never realized how many stars there were.  I used to stand outside at night for as long as I could stand the cold and stare up in awe.  It was spectacular.

Q. What were the most difficult times or tasks for you?

A. I would say the whole three years was difficult.  I had to learn a new language, become a garlic expert, live in tough conditions, devise strategies to communicate technical and abstract concepts with people who had never even sat in a classroom, who were tired, oppressed, and frustrated by a system that had basically forced them to live in a most inhospitable landscape.  The most difficult part was just getting anything done - even making a phone call was hard.  The occasional bout of altitude sickness did not help either.  Somehow though, despite all that, I ended up extending my service for 13 months: I felt that two years was not enough to see any kind of result and after awhile, that did become important to me. I had a lot of people counting on me to come through for them and to show that indeed, it was possible to produce high-quality, certifiable, commercial-grade seed stock without using any petroleum based fertilizers or fumigating with toxic substances. This was in a place where no one except for a few farmers, one Argentine expert from whom I bought the original stock, and myself thought it was possible.  Even the experts were shocked and duly impressed with our harvest and it was all done by the women who had been ignored for so long.

Q. What do you feel you have gained on a personal level from the experience?

A. On a personal level, I gained a much deeper understanding of myself, my capacities, my gifts, what I can do in the world when I give myself the space to do it.  I realized that I had much more in me than I ever thought I did and that my experience, in as much as it was unique to me, was happening within a greater framework and was applicable and relevant to others - both men and women.  I realized how precious our natural resources are and how powerful it can be when people can be motivated into action.

Prior to Permaculture and the Peace Corps, I did a lot of personal work.  I suppose you could call it Zone 00 in Permaculture-speak.  I had reached a point in my own self-evaluation where I had read hundreds of books seeking answers, written hundreds of pages of personal journals, analyzed hundreds of dreams: I knew it was time to allow something new to enter my life.  All I had to do was let go, stop thinking and planning so much, and let it come to me.  Permaculture came to me as did the Peace Corps and everything after.

Q. How has your experience as a Peace Corps member informed and deepened your understanding of Permaculture?

A. What I realized about Permaculture while I served in the Peace Corps was that it works anywhere in any given situation but, like the principles say, every individual manifestation is different and defined by the limiting factors with which we find ourselves confronted.  I realized that Permaculture could be scaled up or down depending upon how we organize ourselves.  When I first took the course in 1998, I got a lot out of it because I learned so many practical things but when I got to my site in Bolivia, I never had the opportunity to use an A-frame and we did not have the same edible wild plants as in the UK.  I did not have an occasion to organize a LETS system because these people already lived that way.  I did not have to build community because they had that too.  They knew how to work together in groups so I used that resource to our advantage.  I had only the principles to work with and they are what I used.

Q. What are your plans for the immediate future and longer term

A. Once again, I find myself in the “void”, that vacuum which nature will always seek to fill: going through all this taught me that actually, this is a pretty great place to be and it is alright not to know all of the answers, or “how” everything will manifest.  Nature knows exactly what it is doing and I am in awe of and humbled by its intelligence.  Perhaps that is the greatest lesson we can learn from practising Permaculture.

I have been invited to teach a Permaculture Design Course this June in Costa Rica.  Right now the people sponsoring it are in the process of registering students

This full PDC runs from June 13 through June 24.  It will be team taught by myself and Steve Jones of Sector39.  Students should plan to arrive in San Jose, Costa Rica on Saturday, June 11.  On Sunday, June 12, transport will be provided from San Jose to the Osa Mountain Village.  It is quite a long complicated trip from the city out to the site so we are allowing a day for this.  The course will start on Monday morning through Friday, June 24.  On Saturday, June 25, students will be transported back to San Jose for Sunday flights.  That means, if necessary, you must plan for at least two nights in the city.  Information will be provided about where to stay and where to meet upon expression of interest in the course.

The course is US$ 1495 per student.  That price is all inclusive for a two-week stay except for airfare, country exit fees, and hotel or hostal in San Jose.  Please contact Deborah Vogel at the World Institute for Sustainability and Education (WISE) to enroll:

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The fee covers room and board for 14 days.  It does not cover airfare or transport to and from the airport.  There are flights for around £500 from Manchester to San Jose.

I have lived and worked in both South and Central America for a little over ten years.  I can tell you from experience that Costa Rica is a spectacular place and it is hard to beat the beaches there.  This time we will do the course in entirely in English because we anticipate mainly students from the United States, Canada, and the UK.  It will be a great time for making new connections with people.  Eventually, I hope to develop all of the teaching materials in Spanish but that is another project for another day.

Q. Who can become a Peace Corps volunteer?

A. You must be a US citizen to join the Peace Corps.  However, so many people have asked me this question in the past that I have thought a lot about it.  If you want to spend two years of your life living and working in a developing country, or the “two-thirds world” as Chris Evans calls it, try VSO which is similar to the Peace Corps.  Also, United Nations has volunteer programs.  Like the Peace Corps, both those organizations give stipends so your expenses are covered.  I would think they both provide healthcare, too.  They are also well established, well respected programs with lots of experience working with volunteers, but they also require longer time commitments.  Regarding age, the Peace Corps has no age limit.  You can be a volunteer at 90 years old as long as you are healthy and do not have any other problems that would impede your service.  It is my understanding that  VSO normally accepts people who have much more technical experience than the Peace Corps requires because we receive intensive training, but I would think that learning about and practising Permaculture would be a great advantage for any potential VSO volunteer.  Go for it if you can: both the course and serving in a foreign country are major, eye-opening, life-changing experiences!

There are many, many opportunities to volunteer all over the world.  Some organizations will give you some support and a destination but you may have to pay a fee.  Usually, these assignments are short-term and you can get some international experience which will always broaden your horizons.

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