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July 2020
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Service Programs

Pathways to a Sustainable Future Project Held in Paraguay

Paraguay-2016-07-19-Pathways to a Sustainable Future Project Held in Paraguay

Part 1

The Journey Begins

 “How can I make a positive difference in the world?” is a question that many men and women ask in their heart and mind. It takes a special commitment to step up and work with others to help make positive changes in a community and beyond. A team of 27 volunteers from 12 nations took on such a challenge and journeyed to Paraguay to take part in the second “Pathways to a Sustainable Future Project.”

“Pathways to a Sustainable Future Projects” are experiential service learning programs that are sponsored and supported by UPF, the Association for Sustainable Development in South and North America and the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (FFWPU). These programs are designed to provide insights that enable a person to better understand the heart of God, our Creator, as well as the vision and efforts made by UPF Founder Rev. Sun Myung Moon to eradicate hunger and promote sustainable development. Participants in these programs have the opportunity to work in communities that have long been neglected and experience first-hand life in the pioneer settlement in Leda.         

This summer’s “Pathways to a Sustainable Future Project,” held from July 3 to July 19, 2016, began with an orientation in Paraguay’s capital of Asuncion. The orientation served to bring the international participants together and provide them with insights into the culture and lifestyles of Paraguay and its people as well as prepare them for the project. The program coordinators shared their hopes and expectations as well reviewed the norms and schedules and the activities, including the walk tours, that were planned.  The excitement of meeting and making new friends was ever-present among the volunteers—11 of whom were from South and Central America, 11 from the U.S.A. and Canada, and 1 each from Japan, Korea, New Zealand and Denmark —in the opening days.

A Visit to a Mennonite Community  

Orientation was followed by a long seven-hour bus journey to the Mennonite community of Loma Plata in the Chaco region of Paraguay. Mennonites hold Christian beliefs that include adherence to a strict code of non-violence. In 1927, a group of 1,300 left their homes in Canada to set up a community where they were guaranteed protection of their religious beliefs. The initial band that made the journey that year faced extreme difficulties in settling in this semi-arid area. Despite over 100 of the earliest pioneers perishing in the first year, the colony was planted and has, over time, become a thriving community. Faith, hard work and cooperation were important elements in turning the situation around for the Mennonites in Loma Plata.

Today, the community exports tons of meat, cheese and milk products daily to different regions around the world while maintaining a peaceful society built on strong religious principles. The example of good governance that the Loma Plata community has established has been researched by missionaries of the Unification Church who see its development as both an inspiration and a practical model for what can be accomplished in settling in a difficult area.

During their one-day visit, the volunteers took a guided tour, visited a museum that covers the history of the Mennonites and the Loma Plata Settlement and viewed a video, as well as visited a large milk processing plant and a slaughter house that takes in 1,300 head of cattle each day. The volunteers asked many questions about the settlement’s history and current situation. After a long day, the group spent the night in Loma Plata and began the next, long leg of their journey in the early morning.

Our Journey Deeper into the Chaco 

The volunteers were eager to start their service work in the community of Olimpo, but the most direct route from Loma Plata to Olimpo consists of long stretches of unpaved roads that can become too muddy to safely travel when it rains. Instead, the volunteers rode on a longer nine-hour drive on a paved road that runs through the quiet port village of Vallemi, a rustic settlement located along the Paraguay River four hours downstream from Olimpo. After an overnight stay in the village, the next morning, the volunteers bundled up in sweaters and coats and loaded six small speed boats headed upstream to Fuerte Olimpo. The cold morning air stung and reminded everyone that July is winter time in the Southern hemisphere.

Fuerte Olimpo: A Unique History  

The quiet community of Fuerte Olimpo, Paraguay is the capital city of the sparsely populated state of Alto Paraguay. Larger than Massachusetts and Rhode Island combined, Alto Paraguay has a population of less than 15,000. You can travel up the Paraguay River by boat to Fuerte Olimpo from Asuncion in two and a half days and when you arrive, you will probably be met by villagers as well as horses, donkeys, goats and other animals.  Fuerte Olimpo is home to 4,300 people who live in a variety of small communities, several of which are home for the regions’ large indigenous population.  

This rustic area of South America played an important role in the work of Rev. Moon, who spent much time here, in the last decades of his life.

In 1999, Rev. Moon utilized the Unification Church’s center in Olimpo to initiate the launching of a pioneer settlement in Leda, Paraguay, a three-hour journey up the river. Japanese members of the church developed a deserted wilderness covering an area larger than New York city into the Leda Settlement, a remarkable community that in recent years has been garnering national as well as international recognition.

Service as a Path on a Road Called Friendship

The six small boats pulled up to the docking area in Olimpo and unloaded all the volunteers, who enthusiastically carried their bags and walked to the Family Federation Center. Within the first hour after arriving, everyone met with the city’s officials and afterwards walked to the local high school. Awaiting their arrival was the headmaster and teachers as well as 70 of the school’s older students. In an unrehearsed welcoming ceremony, everyone tried their best to communicate with each another (Guarani is the primary language spoken in the village, followed by Spanish, and English was the primary language of most of the volunteers).

When the students were matched to the volunteers and journeyed in small teams to the areas where they would be planting over 200 trees, they communicated both verbally and non-verbally. Organizing the work for such a large group was a challenge. In time, the challenge was met; every team received enough tools, water and soil to plant seedlings in the 200 pre-dug holes that covered a large stretch of the local roads. The cooperation between the students and volunteers was the beginning of a heart-warming relationship that would develop between the volunteers and the local community. 

After the day’s work was completed, many of the children walked with the volunteers to the local church center, where the volunteers were staying, and played football (soccer) with them. Some of those who came would continue to meet the volunteers at every chance they could for the duration of the project.

On the second day in Olimpo some of the volunteers went out early to water the newly-planted seedlings before everyone headed to the San Miguel School. The school had formally finished its academic year the day before but many students came back to the school grounds to greet the volunteers while others stayed throughout the day to help in whatever way they could.  The service work at the school included painting the newly renovated playground equipment and the outside walls of the school, designing and painting a beautiful mural as well as planting 120 trees around the school grounds. Everyone worked with dedication and enjoyed having the younger children around and involved them in a variety of ways. After a long day, all the work was completed with the exception of the mural, which was completed the next morning.

We were not surprised when the work concluded that some of the older children of the community found their way over to the church center and joined in playing sports and games as well as sharing. A bond was developing between the volunteers and the older children.

On the third day in Olimpo, which was a Saturday, the volunteers visited an indigenous community located on the outskirts of the capital. The headmaster, teachers, parents along with 70 students met them as they approached the school. Many members of the community were ready to help the volunteers with their work and brought with them some of their own tools. From early morning until three in the afternoon everyone worked hard planting trees at the school, the soccer field and on neighboring roads. This indigenous community had often felt neglected by the municipality and so were especially vocal in expressing their gratitude towards the Leda Settlement and the volunteers that they had brought.

Many of the community’s older teens worked with the volunteers during the day and also helped organize a football (soccer) match in their community after the service work was completed.  Some community members wanted to know what our plans were on Sunday and so we explained we had a 10:00 a.m. Sunday service at the center, which would be followed by a seminar and then lunch. Afterwards, we were going to water the new seedlings and also take part in a cultural program that the City Council was convening. Some of the local youth casually suggested that they would join us. To our surprise, they did the next day.

A Memorable Closing

At Sunday service at the church center in Olimpo, Rev. John Gehring and Mr. Gustavo Giuliano gave a bi-lingual sermon on, “How to Discover the Greatest Joy.” While the international volunteers added nearly 30 to the size of the congregation it was the addition of 40 local community residents that filled the newly renovated hall. Many of those who spent time with the participants over the past few days brought with them their parents or a friend or a relative. Everyone felt a spirit of great joy, which harmonized with theme of the sermon. 

While Sunday morning provided time to gather as an extended community and appreciate God, the afternoon and evening provided the volunteers time to do some of the things they enjoy most: playing sports and music and dancing, as well as and having friendly exchanges. 

The municipality of Olimpo organized a sendoff on Sunday at the civic center for the volunteers as a way to show their appreciation. We were aware three schools we had worked with had prepared songs and dances, an MC was appointed and a sound system was set up. We realized that our own presentations would in part show to the community our heart of appreciation towards them. We did not know that an audience of nearly 200 people would be waiting to hear and see us.

Early in the afternoon, the participants decided that one of their performances would be a dance to the uplifting song by singer Shakira called “Waka Waka.” A large part pf the group spent much of the afternoon rehearsing. At the celebration, the joyful song provided a great opportunity to dance with a universal enthusiasm and this enthusiasm spread to the audience regardless of age or background. This celebration marked a new beginning for the community of Feurte Olimpo. 

The experiences in Olimpo would not have happened if the pioneers from the Leda Settlement had not made special efforts in recent years to serve the people of Olimpo.


 

Part 2

Our journey’s next leg took us to the Leda Settlement, a place where we hoped to discover something precious about God; the Creation; Rev. Moon; and ourselves. 

Arriving in Leda 

Sunday evening’s emotional sendoff by the community in Olimpo was followed by our quiet departure for Leda early the next morning. Our group split up, with some traveling by boat, while others made the three-hour journey on open trucks. By boat, the trip upstream presented passengers with a panorama of many square miles of undeveloped natural landscape, with only a rare sighting of buildings or people. As the boats rounded one of the countless bends of the river, the Leda Settlement suddenly became visible.

Observers from the boats could easily catch a sense of how different the well-kept settlement of Leda was from anything else in the area. While the Leda Settlement is huge and covers a landmass larger than Tokyo, most of the settlers’ efforts have focused on about 5 percent of that area. The boats pulled up to shore where local residents greeted the volunteers, who then quickly loaded their luggage onto two pick-up trucks. The trucks drove past beautifully constructed buildings, including a special building that was made for Rev. Moon; two guest houses; and the lab facilities for developing aquaculture and for food processing. The ride continued to the large main building that houses two conference rooms, dining facilities, dorms and special guest rooms, all set next to an Olympic-size swimming pool (the only one in that area of the country). After settling in their rooms, the volunteers joined the Leda staff for a delicious lunch that included fish, meat, vegetables and fruits that were largely grown or caught on the settlement. 

Practicing Principle as a Way of Life

Soon after arriving, everyone took a tour of the grounds and received presentations by members of the original pioneer team, Mr. Michihito Sano and Mr. Nakata, who shared firsthand accounts of the history, developments and current activities of the Leda Settlement. We were moved by the powerful testimony of the hardships faced by the pioneers as they made the foundation for the settlement in Leda.

In order to help us understand the Leda pioneer spirit, our hosts created a schedule of activities and reflection that enabled us to get a taste of what their life is like. We experienced a variety of ways in which Leda members strive to develop food resources and techniques that can help ease the suffering in the world. 

Time Well-Spent 

Our daily schedule began with a time for prayer and spiritual sharing, and the day was usually filled with activities that provided unforgettable experiences. One morning the participants gathered by the vast rows of taro that occupied a substantial piece of land. Taro is the major crop planted on the grounds and the pioneers developed a unique technique of rooting these plants underwater to protect them from becoming “bird food.” Everyone walked either barefoot or with high boots into the submerged muddy fields to harvest by hand the large taro plants thriving there. The taro that was harvested was then bagged and later presented to the Vice President of Paraguay who had personally requested it in order to research its commercial viability.

One of the more physically challenging days we faced happened when we were asked to clear uncultivated land in a way similar to that used by the original pioneers. Our goal was to prepare the land to receive seedlings of neem trees—a valuable plant that yields mahogany-like timber, oil, medicinal products and insecticide. To do this, we used axes, scythes and shovels, disturbing snakes, bugs and other creatures as we labored to clear the land. For the next several days, our sore muscles served to remind us of the work we did that morning.

Everybody likes to catch fish. When you work as a group to trawl a fishpond, then everyone can catch fish. One exciting afternoon we worked as one team and dragged a long net across a wide pond nearly 80 meters long. Pulling the net through a step-by-step advance in the mud gave every one the chance to be part of the harvest. When we finally closed the nets, hundreds of frantic pacu, weighing between 3 and 7 pounds, were hand-carried to nearby barrels. We then shifted to an area where we could cut and clean the fish and ready them for eating.  

Near the dock stands a small but well-constructed police station. This station was created by the Leda Settlement and replaced the old shack that was the previous headquarters for the police.  We saw that the station could use a “facelift,” so we spent a day painting the two-story structure. Working in small teams, this effort went smoothly and much got accomplished in a short time. Some of the volunteers who are artists also worked on repainting the special shield that was the insignia for the police station. Later, several participants shared how they had a deep feeling of satisfaction in being able to make this kind of offering in Leda.

The period in Leda offered everyone the opportunity to fish, ride horses, take hikes and spend time in the pristine natural environment near the shores of the Paraguay River. For many, the environment gave them a chance to understand something about life, themselves, the creation and its wonderful Creator.

A Deeper Understanding of the Founders

As newcomers, we could understand more clearly through our activities at the Leda Settlement Rev. and Mrs. Moon’s vision and concern for the development of this region and how that vision in part has been realized through the tireless efforts of the Japanese missionaries who have pioneered this project. The Leda Settlement is now becoming a cornerstone in a global effort to eradicate hunger and provide a model of peaceful community living.

We grew to understand that the heart invested in developing the Leda Settlement is embodied in the everyday sacrificial lifestyle of its residents. The experience of seeing, working with and sharing with the Japanese missionaries helped demonstrate the great power generated when a community practices a lifestyle dedicated to “living for the sake of others.”

The Leda Settlement’s spirit is rooted in Rev. and Mrs. Moon’s teachings, which make it clear that when one is blessed, it is important to share that blessing with others. The Leda pioneers have intensively put this principle into practice, specifically exemplified in their concern for the neighboring indigenous villages that, when they arrived, had no functioning school. The Leda settlers deemed it essential that the village children receive a good education and so they invested, built and helped maintain schools in each of the three neighboring villages. 

Restoring Relationships

An important aspect of the teachings of Rev. and Mrs. Moon concerns restoring damaged relationships. As we had discovered while in Olimpo, the relationship between the civic and religious leaders in Olimpo in the past had been very poor. The pioneers in Leda desired to see those relationships improve and they were willing to take the initiative to make sure that this would happen. As part of that effort, a team of young Japanese volunteers went to Olimpo and offered a variety of services to the community and local schools. Free martial arts classes were provided to local school children and the staff of Leda helped make clear plans with local community leaders for the coming of our international team.

Through such efforts at restoring trust and establishing cooperation, this service project could stimulate the development of many friendships. This is a natural result when one’s actions are guided by principle.


 

Part 3

Return to Asunción

Our rich experiences in Leda came to an end when the Aquaban, a large riverboat pulled close to shore at Puerto Leda late Friday afternoon. The Aquaban is a strong, stable boat that serves as the central transportation link for the region. The few roads that cut through the region are mostly unpaved and unreliable. Though speedy, transportation by plane is far too expensive for the regular citizens and rain can also close local airstrips. It is the slow-moving riverboat that serves as a steady and reliable friend to villagers up and down the long, winding Paraguay River. 

Our team, one by one, climbed up the gangplank to the deck of the Aquaban and began the 21-hour boat ride from Leda down river to the town of Vallemi. Onboard the ship, we either slept in hammocks hung in the hallways or stayed in a small cabin with bunk beds. Card games and conversations went on long into the night. The boat was partitioned into little areas where vendors sold their goods because the vessel served as the local store for the many small settlements that nestled on the banks of the Paraguay River.  If you looked down from the deck on arriving at one of those settlements, you could see villagers, animals and goods waiting by the shore in anticipation for the welcoming gangplank of the Aquaban. 

The journey on the Aquaban provided a firsthand glimpse of the way life was lived in community after community along the Paraguay River. We disembarked at Vallemi and made our way to a local restaurant where we dined on pizza. A charter bus was patiently waiting for us to board and begin the nine-hour journey to Asunción.  Fortunately, the roads in this area were paved, providing a relatively smooth ride and we reached our destination late Saturday night. While our boat and bus ride took 30 hours, those passengers who remained on the Aquaban would journey a full three days before arriving at the capital.   

Fellowship and Fun in Asunción 

Returning to the capital city with its nightlights, traffic and miles of streets lined with stores was a reminder that our Chaco adventure had come to an end. We pulled into our small, comfortable hotel, exhausted from the long journey, and quickly made it to our rooms. We were in our final stages of the project and in some ways it was the time for the deepest reflection and the most fun. 

Sunday was a special day—we named it “The International Day of Friendship.” It earned this name because the participants from 12 nations would be spending the day with the Paraguayan members of FFWPU. It is a common practice in the Family Federation to talk about being part of “one family under God,” yet it is always inspiring when we actually have the chance to share together as a substantial expression of that family. This was a day when we would celebrate this fact through a variety of activities, including worship; singing; culture programs; sports and the fine art of eating traditional food.

The spacious church grounds in Asunción offered us plenty of room to enjoy cultural performances, a banquet and impromptu games and activities. Several participants remarked that the sharing they had with both their old and newly-made friends was something that made the day very special. The participants performed several songs and danced the “Waka Waka,”which everyone joined in by listening, smiling and clapping.

Football (soccer) is something that many young people enjoy watching and playing. After the cultural program, we walked to a local field that was reserved for matches for both women’s and men’s teams. Many of the international participants were also experienced and talented players. This combination made for some fun and exciting well-played games and helped reinforce what we called the International Day of Friendship.

Our last day in Asunción was filled with many experiences that included a courtesy call to Vice President Afara (report below), a tour and interview with Diario ABC Color, shopping and time for evaluations and reflection. ABC is the largest media outlet in the nation and the interview provided the participants an opportunity to share their story in the paper’s widely circulated Sunday edition.

Our last meeting as a team was a time for reflection and stimulating conversations, as we touched on issues that spoke to our hearts. This was followed by the participants writing commitment letters to remind them of what they planned to do when they returned home. A short graduation ceremony offered the project organizers—Mr. Sano, Mr. Nakata, Mr. Giuliano, Rev. Carol Pobanz and Rev. Gehring—time to share their thoughts, hopes and inspiration prior to passing out the graduation certificates.

Perhaps the highlight of the day was an emotional flower ceremony, a time when each person shared a special message with every individual in the room while passing a flower. The bonds that we had all formed through our shared and rewarding experiences were written in our hearts. The meaning of our declaration that we were “one family under God” was now something we would never forget. 

The following is a short account of the meeting of project participants with Paraguay’s Vice President, Mr. Juan Afara.


 

Report on Special Meeting with Vice President Afara

Taking a picture with the Vice President of a nation, even one who is serving as the “Acting President,” can be viewed as a simple public relations event. Over the past three decades, I have accompanied numerous teams of international volunteers in their meetings with high-ranking government officials. These meetings are often part of the daily protocol that such officials go through as they fulfill their public responsibilities. They serve as a good way for a leader to recognize a positive contribution made to their nation and are generally a means to promote goodwill. But our meeting with Vice President Afara was more meaningful since the Vice President had already built a working relationship with those at the Leda Settlement.

One distinct difference in our meeting is that we brought with us three huge bags of taro plants weighing nearly 300 pounds. We harvested these plants in the muddy fields of the Leda Settlement.  The Vice President has a strong background in agriculture and is looking for ways to further develop the nation’s economy, especially in the poorer regions. During his recent visits to the Leda Settlement, he became especially interested in the wide variety of taro species being grown there, as well as in the unique methods through which they are cultivated. The gift of taro was presented so that the agricultural department could research the qualities of the various taro species being raised in Leda. 

When our group of mostly young representatives gathered in the Vice President’s office, we were met by someone genuinely interested in why we had traveled from around the world to the distant Chaco region of his country. What was our motivation?  What was it that we were able to do?  Was our experience one that encouraged us to return to our countries and tell our friends and family about the good people and things we discovered in Paraguay?  Vice President Afara sincerely appreciated a presentation of 40 representative pictures of the group’s activities narrated by participant Mira Brown. 

As the presentation continued, we enjoyed the tasty Paraguayan snacks that were distributed to everyone. Once the slides concluded, the Vice President offered his thanks, and posed a number of intelligent and friendly inquiries. After several personal introductions, he made himself available for both formal and informal pictures. The short meeting stretched to 30 minutes, during which his phone rang a number of times, but the Vice President chose instead to focus on the people in the room.

Vice President Afara’s closing remarks made us all feel appreciated. We walked out of the room and into the corridors, sharing excitedly about our opportunity to meet the second highest political leader of the nation. It took a few moments to realize that important business was transpiring in the surrounding rooms before we settled down into quieter but upbeat exchanges.

After our meeting, we were told that on his last visit to the Leda Settlement he offered the community a much-needed grinding machine for the taro root. While this kind of support is welcomed, it also especially highlighted a new level of recognition by the government and the Leda Settlement. 

Today, in greater numbers, people at all levels of society are coming to recognize the Leda Settlement’s pioneering efforts as the realization of an important part of Rev. Sun Myung Moon and his wife, Dr. Hak Ja Han Moon’s global vision and inspiration. Rev. and Mrs. Moon’s insights in regard to fighting world hunger have often been overlooked by the media and other sources. Yet, in part, their vision and hopes are finding their fulfillment in the South American nation of Paraguay. It is also the growing hope of people such as Vice President Afara that Rev. and Mrs. Moon’s vision will continue to be substantiated in Paraguay, as well as in many other areas of a world thirsting for peace.      

To learn more about the Leda Project and to get involved, please visit the Leda Project’s official website at ledaproject.com.

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