The unique and developing history
of the Nivaclé communities
descending from Mistolar
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The La Abundancia Assignment

Vernon Cook

Having been involved in different endeavors of Welfare leadership in our Church for several years, and now having served this mission with my wife wherein most of our time and effort has been spent working with the members of a branch of the church, I am going to put on paper some of my feelings of how the Welfare Program (or the essence of the gospel) has come to life for me.

In 1905 Joseph F. Smith said, “It has always been a cardinal teaching with the Latter-Day Saints that a religion that has not the power to save people temporally and make them prosperous and happy here cannot be depended upon to save them spiritually and to exalt them in the life to come.”  Also in 1986 Elder Glenn L. Pace said, “There is a state of human misery below which no Latter-Day Saint should descend as long as others are living in abundance.”  And then also in 1984 President Marion G. Romney said, “A dole is a dole whatever its source.  All our church and family action should be directed toward making our children and members self-reliant.”

What I will write about are the things the church leaders in the South American, South Area, along with the President of the Paraguay, Asuncion Mission have put in motion to bless the lives of some 300 members of the church who were converted and baptized in 1980-1983 at Mistolar, Paraguay.  The early facts that I write about have been gleaned from an article in the Church News, and from an article in the Church Almanac, 1991, also from several talks with President Richard J. Russell.  So anyone who may read this must realize what I write is only as I have interpreted what I have read and heard as to what took place in these efforts prior to May 10, 1991, when we arrived at Nivacle-Boqueron (La Abundancia).

Having all come into the church at basically the same time and being Native American Indians from a culture different than most members of the church, several sets of missionaries were assigned to go to this remote area (Mistolar, about 12-15 hours by car), live with them and tutor them, not only in doctrines of the Restored Gospel, but in the organization of their branch in a district of a mission.  I suppose a volume could be written of their progress during the next 8-10 years, but they were still in a very remote area, making it very difficult for area and mission leaders to offer much in their development.

I can only imagine that the Area Presidency wrestled with this problem at great lengths.  I am certain in my mind, after much study and prayer, a decision was made, even though it was a bit on the edge of church policy, to purchase about 50 hectares (about 123 acres) near the Trans-Chaco Route.  It was then surveyed and divided into about half-acre lots, and was made available to any of the families that desired to move and live there.

After some 25 families had moved to these lots, the church constructed a chapel on the edge of a 10-acre lot that was retained by the church.

The property purchased was where the road (most of it was really just a trail) from Mistolar met the paved Trans-Chaco Route.  This shortened the trip by car for the church leaders in Asuncion by about 7-9 hours, making it possible for more leadership direction, as well as making it possible for more integration into a new, and hopefully better, society.

I have been told that as settlers have taken up the land in and around Mistolar, it has been increasingly more difficult for the natives there to survive on wild animals, birds and fish, if not almost impossible, so I believe that their moving from that remote area will be good for them.

We arrived in Paraguay May 9, 1991, and were taken to this branch in Nivacle-Boqueron.  We became acquainted with the people, but we were not prepared for what we found.  We had known for several weeks we were to be assigned there to help the Indians develop clean drinking water and to learn to cultivate the soil.  We had thought that shouldn’t be too hard, for we had spent the past 12 years developing irrigation water and putting “New” land under cultivation.  “Let’s get started before dark.”

That afternoon was quite a day for us.  Sure enough there was a chapel at the edge of the road, and there was the trail which was shown on the survey sheet as a straight road but in reality was a trail that was somewhat straight but very rough, in that you had to dodge deep ruts, tree stumps and roots.  As we made our way through the village about a half-mile, our eyes were opened to a reality that we were to live with for the next 15 months.  What they called their homes, were generally poles and sticks supporting either fragments of old torn and worn out metal roofing, or just plastic or grass and weeds for roofs.  In a couple of cases only a sheet of old plastic tied to a tree that would in bad weather be pulled tight, making a place to get out of the weather.  What humble circumstances.

The soil probe I brought for taking soil samples was used to support me as I stood looking at the “real world”.  The zip-lock bags we were going to use to collect soil samples would have to be used for some other purpose.  The skill we brought in planning crop rotations, use of fertilizers and budget planning will have to be used in some other way.

The next three or four days and nights were used just planning and imagining the best way to handle the task at hand.  I came to the conclusion that we would have to have a farm tractor.  It would not have to be new or big, possibly 60-70 horse power with a heavy duty front end loader.  I pretty much had it figured out where I would start, etc.  After all, I had been doing such things since I was a “Pup”.  I also considered myself a pretty good tractor driver.

On Wednesday, May 15, President and Sister Russell and Elder and Sister Lynn Mickelson came to meet with us and the Indian families.  In the meeting Sister Russell and Sister Mickelson interpreted what was going on. As I understood it the people were told that this couple had been assigned to help them in their struggles for a better life, but I was told by Sister Mickelson that the men in the group said what they needed more than help was food and clothes.  What a reception we have received, I thought.

Also Elder Mickelson told us there would be no tractor, for with a tractor the people would just stand and watch Elder Cook.  In the long run just how much help would that be?  President Russell said “Elder Cook, you should go down and buy them hand tools to work with.  Such as axes, machetes, shovels, hoes and possibly a saw or two, and they would be paid for by fast-offering funds.”

With that they left their blessings with us, saying, “Learn to love these people, that will be a big help to them,” and they were gone.

What a challenge, not a challenge to love these people, but a challenge to help a people that knew much more of axes and machetes than we did.  Needless to say our frustrations began to set in.  At least we wouldn’t have to be troubled with staying within an imposed budget.

There we were, they didn’t need our soil probe, plastic bags etc., but what they needed was our love.  Looking back, a bit over a year now I must say, that element of love has set deep, both ours for them and theirs for us.

Our Stake President James V. Thompson of the Richland, Washington Stake told me at the time he called me to be Bishop, that “a person could eat an elephant if he cut it into small enough pieces.”

But where do you start?  For us, we went to the two brothers that appeared to be the hardest working in the village.  We asked if we could help them get started in tilling ground for their gardens.  They agreed, so we took the one other tool I had brought with me, a 25-foot metal tape, and measured a 50-foot square plot in front of their homes.  Within an hour I started to realize that we had a major problem.  Not only was that clay soil very hard to cut into with a shovel, but also about every fourth spade full we would hit a tree root.  In about 8-10 hours most of the two 50’x50’ lots were spaded up.  It did not look too good, for the lots then appeared to be no more than an area with hard chunks of soil turned up.  We bragged them up for having done such a good job, telling them that “Now when the rain came it could sink into the soil where it fell.”

At this point doubts filled my mind as to how much we were going to do using this method of Soil Preparation.  We know these people would need to eat every day and here I was asking them to spend a full day doing a task that would take them away from what they were doing to put food on their tables.  It should be noted here, that prior to this task of spading up the soil and removing some of the roots, they had already used 2-4 hours removing the trees and brush from the same area.  But for this effort they could sell the wood they cut to the Electrical Producing Company in Filadelfia for enough money to somewhat feed their families.  The thought went through my mind that if we could just put on hold for 90-100 days their need to eat every 1-6 hours, this method might work.

We struggled with what to do several days and concluded the only realistic way to accomplish this task of loosening the soil would be by some mechanical means.  After all, 200 years of history has shown that if a man, with only his bare hands was going to feed and clothe more than just himself and his family, he will need to use some mechanical method.  Was I going to unlock a secret that the rest of the world had not found!  Had there been an abundance of wild animals, birds or fish in their area this might have been an option, but that condition does not exist here, so what do we do?  The answer seemed to us to be; help them with some mechanical means to accomplish the task at hand.

We knew that we were dealing with only about one half acre in each lot and to approach it commercially, where there would have to be a cash flow to pay for equipment and fuel was not an option.  We also knew that only a small part of their one half acre was cleared of trees and roots.  At this point it seemed one practical method would be, purchase a hand, gas-driven Rototiller.

After shopping for and finding one that we felt would do the job, we purchased it along with a 5-HP Honda Motor to power it.  The tiller itself had been manufactured nearby in Loma Plata.  We knew that this would help with expected repairs.

When we put this little machine to work, it got a lot of attention.  Watching it churn up the soil was very impressive to us all.  The biggest problem was the tree roots we had to deal with.  The working tines would grab the small ones, those under one inch in diameter chewed to bits and tossed aside, but the larger ones gave us problems.  The tines would grab and bite at them, making the little machine jump and dance, and at times it would lock the machine up.  We soon learned that it took two men to make much progress, one running the machine and the other working with an ax chopping the roots the machine uncovered but could not handle.

Several pages could be written about what took place the next 6-8 weeks in this effort.  But let me say we learned this little machine was not built strong enough to handle this type of abuse.  The third time we took it back to the manufacturer, I said, “I know we are asking more out of this machine than was built into it.  So, here are the changes that we want made.  We know this is going to cost us a bit of money but these are the changes that we want.”  I described these changes to the son who spoke good English; who then turned to his German-speaking father and explained how we wanted it done.  When we went to pick it up three weeks later, they had added to our ideas of improvement and we were very pleased with what they had done, even though the improvements cost more than the original purchase.  Now about ten months later, that little machine is churning away every day except Sundays and the days when it is raining, with no more major repairs.  This experience has brought home to me again the fact that “The cost of quality is appreciated long after the pain of paying for it is forgotten”.

Even though the tiller did continue to work away, it was soon apparent to us that for it to do the good we expected of it, we would have to use some heavy equipment that would loosen the soil down deep and also rip out the roots that we were struggling with.  We first had a large tractor, with two shanks on the rear, rip the entire area that was cleared of trees and brush.  Then the same tractor to pull a special offset disc over the same area.  This disc was equipped with blades one quarter inch thick, making them suitable for cutting fairly thick tree roots.  This project took about 4 days.  But our little hand tiller now churns along much smoother.  We hope that after we are released and are no longer here to pay for repairs and the .60 per hour for fuel, some condition will exist making it still usable to them.  It appears they are doing a good job now of the regular maintenance and understand how important cleanliness is for this little motor, even though we went through a painful process of learning.

After purchasing, and then setting wood posts at the corner of each lot, we hired a large motor grader to build a nice road through the center of their village.  Having burrowed the dirt on each side of the road, a ditch or burrow pit was left making a passageway for the rain to drain off.  This project was very obvious and much appreciated.  No more ruts and tree stumps to dodge.  The Sunday after its completion we held a little dedication meeting and prayer out at the head of the road.  Sister Cook said she noticed several of the men weeping for joy during this meeting.

During this period the men have completed, or nearly so, a nice four wire fence around the entire perimeter of the project.  About 70% of this was done prior to our arrival.  Also they have removed nearly all trees and brush from the 10 acres retained by the church, no small task in itself.  Also they have fenced off a 50’x100’ lot for a cemetery on the church property.  We have also planted 12 citrus trees on the property and several other trees including a lapacho tree.  Flowers including four bougainvillea, along with some cactus and several papaya trees.

Before we arrived, a tajamar, or pond, had been built for the collection of water, also a windmill pump was placed by it.  Then we hired the construction of another tajamar, down about midway in the village, where more water is being collected.

One of the major projects President Russell wanted was to someway, somehow, develop some means of obtaining clean drinking water for the people.  This has proven to be the most time and resource consuming project.  I won’t take space with details of what process we went through, just realize that we chose the same option each of the cities in the area use, including their hospitals, that is, to collect rain from their roofs and store it in a cistern or tank.  Not a bad way when you consider the options.  But what do you do when you don’t have a roof---“you guessed it”---, build one.

As of this writing they are just finishing the last of the 13 roofs.  Along with rain gutters and a 1000 liter (about 250 gallon) tank for storage of the collected rain.  Each tank has a modern kitchen valve from which they can fill their kettles or buckets.  What an improvement from carrying buckets from ponds some 2000-3000 feet away.  Of course now there is rain or sweet water in the two ponds in their village.

Around each of the posts that supports their roofs, the people have made walls with either poles, plastic or in some cases they have salvaged old metal siding or used grass and mud.  This project is still in progress.  Some are making adobe block they hope to use for walls.

I should write a bit about what they are doing with their tilled lots.  In each they have planted a variety of crops.  Beans, corn, sweet potatoes, squash, mandioca and several that I know very little of.  They have in some cases harvested two crops of beans.  It seems apparent to me at this point that sweet potatoes and beans may be their best options.  Beans seem to grow and mature so fast that they beat some of their dry periods, and sweet potatoes are very drought resistant.

It may be of value to some and not interesting to others, but I will write a bit about the problem they have here with lack of moisture at times.  It is a known fact here in this warm climate, where crops grow 365 days a year, that the evaporation is going to be right at 100 inches for the 12 month period.  Based on the 5-year record of rainfall in this area (Loma Plata 1986-1990), the total annual rainfall was 22.66 inches.  With the expected evaporation, this gives a total shortfall of 77.28 inches per year. 

From this you soon realize with less than 23 inches of rain, while needing 100 inches, and you have no means of irrigation, you will need to do some planning and special management by timing your planting and the spacing properly of your seed so there will be moisture to mature your crop.  This is possible, but only with an understanding that any plants growing, including weeds, use moisture.  So you space your seeds so those plants can draw on moisture from a larger reservoir or spot of soil.  To some extent our people understand these facts and are learning each day.  There is quite a bit of unused cleared land on the church property.  If the weeds were being controlled there, there would be an accumulation of moisture in the soil for next year’s crops.  “But such is life.”  I believe that as time goes on and with a bit of leadership from outside the village, they will use more of these resources.

Another project completed and used each day now is the construction adjacent to the chapel of a 25,000 liter cistern.  A hand pump is installed and now with the stroke of a hand they have cool, clear drinking water.

A project that has just been started that we expect to be completed before our release is that of them building a stove in each of their homes.  They are using 136 brick and a 39”x18” polished cement slab and metal rods for a grill.  When one is complete, they will have a brick stove they can cook on or bake in, and along side of it a cement table they can work on.  They are very excited about these.

We have also extended the road through the village to the end of the property, making it two kilometers, or just over a mile long.

One of the best things that has happened for these people has been the starting of a school in March, 1992.  To my knowledge it is the first school that some, even 15-16 year olds have ever had.  The Ministry of Education and Culture of Paraguay is paying the teachers’ salaries, and temporarily our church building is being used for the class rooms.  There is serious talk of them building a school for this village.

I should also say that the children are enjoying the school and of course a soccer and volleyball court, without which no church or community property in Paraguay would be complete.  It seems to be used several times each week.  Quite often they have competitions with other groups.

The area around the Church has been covered with a thin layer of gravel, making it much easier to keep the mud out of the chapel when it rains.  Over 100 citrus trees have also been planted in their individual lots.  With proper care these will be a great help to the people.

Let me write a bit about our feelings of the situation here when we came and what it is now.  Although we had to deal almost daily with someone wanting food or medicine, we were determined not to make them dependent on us.  There were many, many days that we would give food or medicine because we felt it is what the Savior would expect us to do.  But there were more times than not we would just tell them that they would have to earn money with which they could purchase their daily needs.  On many occasions like this we would return to our nice room to eat our evening meal and it would actually taste bitter to us. 

But we knew we had to keep in mind Elder Romney’s quote above.  During the months served here, we have had much empathy for the people, trying only to do for them things they could not do for themselves.  I know when we return to our spacious home in Oregon so much of it will seem unnecessary.  When I flip the switch to light our room, also when I realize the fuel we use in our home does not have to be gleaned and carried several thousand feet but just set a thermostat or turn a switch.  Then I am sure I will hope and pray from the depth of my soul that in the hereafter things will be more equitable.  We feel their spirit when they pray and worship and feel confident things will be well with them.

I appreciate our church which gives us a base from which to work in Christian services.  This Mission is one of the highlights of our lives.  The leadership and generosity of President and Sister Russell will always be remembered by Sister Cook and myself.  The foresight of the Area Presidency is one to be emulated by other leaders in such situations.

These statements would be incomplete without acknowledging that the Savior has led us through these months we have served here.  How well we know now that He will bless our footsteps once we put our feet in motion.  Also when we put our preconceived ideas aside and listened to our leaders and our own thought out impressions, then we were able to do what we were called to do.

We will always be grateful to President Russell for this special assignment.  It has been one that may be desired by many members of the church.  We are thankful that it has been ours.

When I consider the cost our mission has been to the church in teachers at the MTC, plane tickets, our share of the operation of the mission office and the vehicle that has been provided and maintained for us, has given us a determination to “hit the ball hard” and become profitable servants.

Of all the changes we see now as we walk through their village, the biggest change has been in us.  Yes we see beans, sweet potatoes, corn, mandioca, where 14 months ago there were only trees, stumps, roots and a group of saints who looked to us for something, not knowing quite what it would be.  As I said in the midst of these significant changes the most noticeable to us were the changes within ourselves.  Those changes are probably only visible to us but nevertheless they are there.  The feeling the day we set our suitcases down with the thought “Let’s get started before dark”, has changed to one of wanting to know more of what our leaders and the Lord wanted us to do.  Those words of Elder Mickelson, “Learn to love these people, and it will be a big help to them” have come to life for us.  We more fully realize now what is meant in the scriptures wherein we are told that “not even a sparrow should fall unnoticed”.  For when you have been set apart as a missionary and are given a certain assignment, you may properly realize you are only in His work, not yours, and as you are directed by Him and when you yield to each of your righteous impressions, you cannot fail.

There has been a price tag on most all that we have seen happen here.  I will list below what these have been so that those in leadership of this area may have a feel for what is going on under their leadership.

Since we have arrived here we believe that the only church funds used to accomplish this is the use of some fast offering funds to purchase hand tools, and a few other supplies.  The rest has been by private donations.  Even from a young lady missionary as she was leaving to go home.  We appreciate those that have made these funds available to these humble people.

 $1,325   Medicine and Food 
   $960   Tools 
   $538   Plants and Seeds 
 $2,813   Tillage and Tiller 
 $1,231   Road, Pond and Lot Markers 
   $430   Fence Supplies, etc. 
 $9,409   Roofs and Tanks 
 $1,112   Stoves and Tables 
   $167   Baptismal Font at Church 
   $586   Cistern at Church 
   $228   Gravel for Church Lot 
   $113   School Supplies 
 $2,172   Travel Expenses (last 10 months) 
$21,084   Total 

Now a final thought; I believe that more couples should be called to such service.  For us it has not only been time well spent, but we were put in a situation where it was not so hard to give of our unneeded resources.  Also there has been a refining process for us that was needed.  Probably, the rest of our lives we will feel a bit guilty when we have our lovely home redecorated or go and set the thermostat to get cool or warm air.  But the refinement I spoke of will always be with us.  And we will always be thankful to those who made this opportunity possible.