Brandon Gustafson may have grown up on Kalifornsky Beach Road here on the Kenai Peninsula, but for the last 21 months he’s been living about 8,000 miles away — in the small town of San Cosme y Damián, Paraguay.
Gustafson is a Peace Corps volunteer focused on environmental conservation, and it was partly his hometown of Kenai that inspired him to join the fight in protecting planet’s ecosystems. Before joining the Peace Corps he was teaching English in Beijing, and after spending a year in China’s capital — where the smog often forces people to wear masks outside — coming back to the bountiful natural landscapes of the Kenai Peninsula was literally a breath of fresh air. It was then that Gustafson knew he wanted to start putting his energy into fighting pollution and climate change.
“Sometimes you just have that one experience that changes how you see things,” Gustafson said.
Gustafson immediately began focusing on local environmental pursuits: participating in river cleanups with Cook Inletkeeper, volunteering at the local food bank and community garden and helping out with the STEM Mentoring Program through the Boys and Girls Club. While speaking with the Clarion, Gustafson pulled out a hat from his time with the Boys and Girls Club that he took to Paraguay as a way of keeping Kenai close, no matter where he was.
“It’s been through the ringer, you know. It’s all frayed on the edges, but I wear it down there every day,” Gustafson said.
At the same time that he was doing his volunteer work in Kenai, around June of 2016, Gustafson started his application process for the Peace Corps. The application process can be rigorous, and Gustafson said that less than a quarter of the applicants actually get accepted into the program. The program looks for qualified applicants who are serious about the long-term commitment of traveling to another part of the world and abandoning their native language and culture. Gustafson said his background in teaching, living abroad and environmental activism helped him secure a spot in the environmental conservation program. Gustafson also studied Spanish and Russian at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, so his multilingualism potentially gave him an edge over other candidates.
It took about a year for Gustafson to get through all the paperwork, interviews, and medical and security clearances that the process entailed, but by September of 2017 he was on his way to Washington, D.C., to start his training and meet with other volunteers from around the country. Gustafson said that in a lot of ways, the volunteers he met from other states were as different from him as the people he would meet in Paraguay, and that experience opened his eyes to the idea that America’s melting-pot culture is not quite as homogeneous as he once thought.
From D.C., Gustafson flew into Paraguay’s capital of Asunción and stayed overnight in a roadside hotel before traveling to the town of Guarambaré for three months of language and cultural training. Paraguay has two official languages, Spanish and Guaraní — an indigenous language spoken primarily in rural villages but understood by about 95% of the countries population. In addition to familiarizing himself with both languages, Gustafson also had to learn about all the cultural norms of the country, such as what to say when you meet someone for the first time, what to do when you enter a school and the role that gender plays in Paraguayan culture.
After three months in Guarambaré, Gustafson finally made it to San Cosme Y Damián, the community he would call home for the next year and a half. San Cosme Y Damián is home to about 7,000 people, mostly subsistence farmers and fishermen, as well as a church built in the 1600s by Jesuit missionaries when the town was originally founded. The missionaries were eventually expelled, but the church remains in use to this day and the Jesuit ruins draw tourists from all over the world. Gustafson described the climate there as lush and “neo-tropical” and said that the growing season is year-round.
“You finish eating a pepper and throw it out into the field, and in a few days you’ve got pepper plants growing.”
Since arriving in San Cosme Y Damián, Gustafson has helped with two major environmentally focused projects. One has involved working with a group of local tour guides to form an NGO that promotes ecotourism in the area. Gustafson has shown the guides how to set up camera traps for wildlife viewing, taught them the tenets of ecotourism and is in talks with the World Wildlife Fund to come to the community and give a presentation on climate change.
The second project has revolved around turning the local high school into an eco-friendly campus. With Gustafson’s help and encouragement, the students there have created recycled art out of old tires and plastic bottles and created a tree nursery on campus using 100% recycled materials and locally sourced trees. Gustafson and the kids — mostly 15 to 18 year olds — went out and identified tree species in the area, picked the seeds and planted them in tires and milk cartons before eventually transplanting them to the nursery.
Other projects Gustafson has been involved in include designing environmentally themed murals on buildings around town and creating “eco-bricks” out of plastic two-liter bottles that are stuffed with trash and can be used as building blocks. The kids in the community are making a bench out of these eco-bricks and are collecting cans to sell to a local recycling plant in order to fund the project.
Gustafson said that almost all of the ideas for the projects have come from the community, and that his role is to facilitate these ideas in an indirect way, helping them become a reality without actively forcing his own ideas into the equation.
“As a Peace Corps volunteer, my job is not to do the project. My job is to work in the background to facilitate, train, listen and encourage wherever I can,” Gustafson said. “I’m not building structures, I’m changing behaviors and shaping belief systems.”
Gustafson knew very little about the Paraguayan culture before traveling there, and only managed to find a few books from the Kenai library on the subject, as well as some old videos on Youtube from Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom filmed in the 1980s. Upon arrival, Gustafson said that the Paraguayan people have been nothing but welcoming to him.
“They are the warmest, most open people I’ve ever met,” Gustafson said. He told a story of walking down the street and being invited by a stranger to drink tereré — a traditional drink made from Yerba Mate — on their porch, only to leave five hours later having made a new friend. Gustafson spends many evenings playing chess and listening to music with the local tour guides, and said the director/principal of the high school has been one of his biggest advocates in getting ideas off the ground.
“It doesn’t feel like I’m an outsider coming in and dictating what to do,” Gustafson said. “We’re meeting as partners with an understanding of where the other is coming from, and together we’re making something awesome for that high school.”
Gustafson admits that although he has been welcomed by the community, being the only foreigner in a town where no one speaks English can be a tough job at times. But when the heat and the unfamiliar food start to get to him it’s the little moments — like when third graders cheer his name as he walks into the classroom — that remind him that he made the right decision.
“That little bit can take you from feeling like nothing, to feeling like the most confident person in the world,” Gustafson said. “They’re a constant reminder not only of what’s at stake, but why you’re there.”
Gustafson has spent his few weeks of home leave catching up with friends and family and returns to Paraguay on Tuesday to finish out his 28-month commitment. After his time in Paraguay is over, Gustafson hopes to bring the best of Paraguayan and Alaskan cultures together and apply what he’s learned in his environmental conservation work to efforts on the Kenai Peninsula.
Gustafson suggested that anyone interested in joining the Peace Corps should do their research, talk to a recruiter, and go into it with no expectations.
“The last thing you want to do is have the United States government spend thousands of dollars on your lodging, airfare and training only to go to your site and in two months decide ‘I’m not happy,’” Gustafson said. “Not only is all that money wasted, but you’re denying the people of that town the opportunity to work with a Peace Corps volunteer. If it’s for you, you’ll know it. If it’s not, you’ll know that too.”