Rivers in the Heart

By Jheri St. James

“Water, gentlemen, is the one substance from which the earth can conceal nothing.It sucks out its innermost secrets and brings them to our very lips.” Jean Giraudoux, The Madwoman of Chaillot

The Republic of Paraguay is a landlocked country in South America. It lies on both banks of the Paraguay River, bordering Argentina to the south and southwest, Brazil to the east and northeast, and Bolivia to the northwest. It is located in the very heart of South America. The name “Paraguay” is derived from the Guarani word pararaguay meaning “from a great river” and the great river is the Parana River, which produces the greatest amount of hydroelectric power in the world. When Italian explorer Sebastian Cabot sailed up that very river in 1526, the surrounding lands were home to many fierce indigenous Indian tribes. Spain's famous navigator, Juan de Salazar, subsequently founded the now capital city of Asuncion in 1537. In short order the Spanish began to colonize the interior and the Jesuits converted the Indians to Catholicism. On the surface Paraguay appeared to be a potentially valuable Spanish dominion but, with no gold found, no silver to be mined, and no local Indians forced into slave labor, this isolated colony remained peaceful, and for the most part, out of the spotlight of the Spanish Crown.

After 250 years of Spanish rule, and the overthrow of the Spanish King by Napoleon, Paraguay finally became independent in 1811, and in fact, was one of the first countries on the continent to do so. Independence in Paraguay fathered dictatorships, revolutions, coups and brutal military rule, as well as a number of costly wars. In the disastrous War of the Triple Alliance (1865-70), Paraguay, like so many of our soil host countries lost two-thirds of all adult males and much of its territory. Paraguay's economy crashed, political infighting continued, and a long series of dictatorships prevailed on into the late 20th century, including the 35-year military dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner, which was overthrown in 1989. Despite a marked increase in political unrest in the last few years, as well as a public assassination and three failed coups, Paraguay has held relatively free presidential elections since 2000. And with Paraguay's access to the Atlantic Ocean through the Parana River, numerous natural resources, and an improving tourism infrastructure - it's a land of opportunity and great promise. Two major regions divide the country. The Paranena, east of the Paraguay River, is a fertile, cultivated landscape, with rolling hills, low mountains and subtropical forests. To the west of the Paraguay River, the hot scrub lands and low plains of the Chaco cover about 60% of Paraguay's total land area. The three largest rivers - the Paraguay, Parana and Pilcomayo - form over 75% of the country's borders.

“I don’t know much about gods; but I think that the river is a strong brown god.T.S. Eliot “Dry Salvages,” Four Quartets

NASA Photo of the confluence of the Paraguay and Parana Rivers

Rivers have greatly influenced the character of the “land from the great river”. The Río Paraguay and Río Paraná and their tributaries define most of the country's borders, provide all its drainage, and serve as transportation routes. Most of the larger towns of the interior, as well as Asunción, are river ports. The Río Paraguay has a total course of 2,600 kilometers, 2,300 of which are navigable and 1,200 of which either border on or pass through Paraguay. River islands, meander scars, and oxbow (U-shaped) indicate frequent changes in course. The major tributaries entering the Río Paraguay from the Paraneña region--such as the Río Apa, Río Aquidabán, and Río Tebicuary--descend rapidly from their sources in the Paraná Plateau to the lower lands; there they broaden and become sluggish as they meander westward. After heavy rains these rivers sometimes inundate nearby lowlands, forming temporary swamps.

About 4,700 kilometers long, the Río Paraná is the second major river in the country. From Salto del Guairá, where the river enters Paraguay, the Río Paraná flows 800 kilometers to its juncture with the Río Paraguay and then continues southward to the Río de la Plata Estuary at Buenos Aires, Argentina. On the upper course, sudden floods may raise the water level by as much as five meters in twenty-four hours. Rocks sometimes come within one meter of the surface during winter and effectively sever communication between the upper river and Buenos Aires. The rivers flowing eastward across the Paraneña region as tributaries of the Río Paraná are shorter, faster-flowing, and narrower than the tributaries of the Río Paraguay. Sixteen of these rivers and numerous smaller streams enter the Río Paraná above Encarnación.


Paraguay's third largest river, the Río Pilcomayo, flows into the Río Paraguay near Asunción after demarcating the entire border between the Chaco region and Argentina. During most of its course, the river is sluggish and marshy, although small craft can navigate its lower reaches. When the Río Pilcomayo overflows its low banks, it feeds the Estero Patiño. Drainage in the Chaco region is generally poor because of the flatness of the land and the small number of important streams. In many parts of the region, the water table is only a meter beneath the surface of the ground, and there are numerous small ponds and seasonal marshes. As a consequence of the poor drainage, most of the water is too salty for drinking or irrigation.

Because of the seasonal overflow of the numerous westward flowing streams, the lowland areas of the Paraneña region experience poor drainage conditions, particularly in the Ñeembucú Plain in the southwest, where an almost impervious clay subsurface prevents the absorption of excess surface water into the aquifer. About 30 percent of the Paraneña region is flooded from time to time, creating extensive areas of seasonal marshlands. Permanent bogs are found only near the largest geographic depressions, however. The reality of living in a country of many rivers like Paraguay requires the flexibility to adapt to the many changes described above—swamps, floods, haphazard abilities to navigate along the river’s course. Millions of Paraguay’s people live along these many rivers. The construction of the Itaipu dam destroyed the Sete Quedas waterfall, where the Parana fell over a series of seven cascades. This natural feature was said to rival the world famous Iguazu Falls to the south The resulting Itaipú hydroelectric power plant is the largest development of its kind in operation in the world. Built from 1975 to 1991 on the Paraná River, Itaipú represents the efforts and accomplishments of two neighboring countries, Brazil and Paraguay. The power plant's 18 generating units add up to a total production capacity of 12,600 MW (megawatts) and a reliable output of 75 million MWh a year. Itaipú's energy production has broken several world records. In recent years Itaipú alone provided 25% of the energy supply in Brazil and 78% in Paraguay. The power plant is also a major tourism attraction in the Foz do Iguaçú area, receiving around 9 million visitors from 162 countries. The Brazilian city of Foz do Iguaçu, also home of the famous Iguaçú Falls, is located at the Western tip of Paraná State, right at the border with Paraguay and Argentina.

The volumes of construction in Itaipú are impressive. The volume of iron and steel utilized in the dam structure would be enough to build 380 Eiffel Towers, and the volume of concrete used in Itaipú represents 15 times the volume utilized to build the Channel Tunnel between France and England. Itaipú is one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, according to a worldwide survey conducted by the American Society of civil Engineers (ASCE) in Popular Mechanics magazine: " To build [the Itaipú Dam], workers reenacted a labor of Hercules: they shifted the course of the seventh biggest river in the world (Paraná River, at the Brazil/Paraguay border) and removed more than 50 million tons of earth and rock." According to the magazine, "the true marvel of Itaipú, though, is its powerhouse ... a single building that puts out 12,600 megawatts -- enough to power most of California" (Before and after photos right and below…)

Itapu Dam Paraguay

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Gary Simpson, founder of the Common Ground 191 project, has been a concrete artist for many years. Forming sculptures, furniture, desktops and countertops out of concrete are the activities that help finance the Common Ground 191 project. His entire body of concrete work pales beside the massive achievement of the dam at Itaipu. The Common Ground 191 project will culminate in a 50’ by 50’ fresco. Here are some pictures of smaller frescos created by children in the Art Child program in Paraguay. Art Child is an association whose international mission is to unite children around the world by organizing contests and collaborative events related to art and culture. Art Child is an active partner of the program “2001-2010 International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence for the Children of the World” proclaimed by the United Nations and coordinated by UNESCO.

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The United States of America and the Republic of Paraguay concluded agreements to reduce Paraguay’s debt payments to the United States by nearly $7.4 million. In return, Paraguay has committed these funds over the next 12 years to support grants to conserve and restore important tropical forest resources in the southern corridor of the Atlantic Forest of Alto Parana. Special attention will be given to consolidating and enhancing protected areas within the San Rafael National Park Reserve, which contains the richest diversity of native plants and animals in Paraguay.

The agreements were signed by U.S. Ambassador to Paraguay James Cason and Paraguayan Minister of Finance Ernst Bergen, Minister of Foreign Relations Leila Rachid and Minister of Environment Alfredo Molinas. President of Paraguay Nicanor Duarte Frutos signed the agreements as guest of honor. These debt-for-nature agreements were made possible through a contribution of nearly $4.8 million by the United States under the Tropical Forest Conservation Act (TFCA) of 1998.

The TFCA provides opportunities for eligible developing countries to reduce concessional debts owed the United States while generating funds to conserve their forests. The agreement with Paraguay marks the ninth TFCA deal concluded under the Bush Administration, following agreements with Belize, Colombia, El Salvador, Jamaica, Panama, Peru and the Philippines. These agreements, together with an agreement concluded with Bangladesh in 2001, will generate over $100 million to protect tropical forests over 10-26 years.

Speaking of resources, U.S. Embassies in foreign countries have been a great resource lately, and Ambassador Cason’s office was responsible for the soil collection of the land of the great river. Mr. Bruce P. Kleiner of that office, writes: “Asucion was the first Spanish “capital” in the southern core of South America, founded in 1532, many hundreds of miles upriver from present day Buenos Aires. Itapyta Punta is a rocky outcropping that soars above the Paraguay River, which is flanked by flat flood plains and chaco for most of its run. From Itapyta Punta, one can look out over hundreds of miles of flat Chaco land to the west, and only imagine (as the Spanish did) what treasures and riches lay hidden within the faraway Andes, Bolivia and the route to Peru. Itapyta Punta is a place of dreams, an outpost of possibilities soaring above humid Chaco swamplands. It’s why the Spanish stopped here, precisely, for their first European toehold in far South America.” We send our sincere thanks for this soil, and hope for a picture of Itapyta Punta perhaps sometime. Does anybody know the word for peace in Paraguay?

In general terms, the weather of Paraquay can be divided into two different regions. In the Chaco region, daily high temperatures commonly exceed 100° F (38° C) in the summer months, with only slight variations in winter. Rainfall is light and concentrated primarily in the summer. The Paranena region is warm, very humid and rainy throughout the year. Here, the average winter lows hover near 65° F (18.3° C). In summer, high temperatures in Asuncion average 85° F (28.8° C). On a regular basis, repressive heat and off-the-chart humidity push daily highs into the low 100s. Note that seasons in Paraguay are just the opposite of those in the northern hemisphere.

“Water, thou hast no taste,
no color, no odor;
canst not be defined,
art relished while ever mysterious.
Not necessary to life,
but rather life itself,
thou fillest us with a gratification that exceeds the delight of the senses.”

Saint-Exupery, Wind, Sand and Stars.

Mystery fish caught in Paraguay
Posted on Wednesday, 1 February, 2006

There seems to be a run of mystery catches at the moment, and this one is no exception. This translated article which has been doing the rounds recently covers the finding of a strange 'walking' fish caught in a stream in Paraguay. "A group of Paraguayan fishermen had quite a surprise when they pulled two green fish out of the San Rafael stream in Asuncion's Zevallos Cue district. One of the specimens had hands and feet. Their surprise was even greater when they noticed that the specimen began walking toward the water after having been set down on the ground, according to Paraguay's El Popular newspaper. "It's too much. Seeing such things frightens me. We grabbed the net and brought it home, but we don't know what it is," said one of the protagonists of the story to the neighboring country's newspaper."

Paraguay, the land of mysterious and great river(s), the veins and arteries of our great Mother Earth, some of whose soil enriches the International Wall of Flags at the Common Ground 191 studio in Laguna Beach, California. The components of soil and water are what make concrete for dams and frescos, which provide the seed place for mysterious walking fish, and which will form the basis of the final 50’ x 50’ fresco joining the soils of earth in one place. We honor the rivers of Paraguay.

“I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognized as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable.
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated
By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting

. . .The river is within us, the sea is all about us;”





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