Lider Atienza with his bride, my sister-in-law, Ursulina, and their gorgeous little boy, Sebastian.
Continuing my mini-series of interviews of inspiring people in Paraguay, I am proud and privileged to bring you an interview with Lider Atienza, my brother-in-law. Lider combines a gentle and loving heart whilst being a real man's man (someone who has an immense knowledge of the natural world as well as being able to mend vehicles, weld, build houses...basically everything I personally cannot do!). In all that he does, his love of Spirit shines through. Here is his story:
Richard: Lider, you are the site manager of Marianela, this beautiful retreat in Atyra, Paraguay. How long have you been working here?
Lider: Sixteen years now. When the head priest first bought the land, there was nothing here - just forest, cocotero palm trees and scrub.
Richard: What did you have to do when you first started here?
Lider: I was only a child when I first came here, just about 14 years old. I went so school here in Atyra and in my spare time, I came here to help out. I helped to clear the land.
Richard: How did you arrive here? I understand you lived in Pilar in the far south of the country when you were a young child.
Lider: I lived there with the mother-in-law of a friend of our priest, not with my father, as my mother died when I was five. This lady later died and I was moved here to Atyra. The man who then looked after me moved here and he really treated me like a son. My life then changed radically from a life of suffering to a life that offered possibility and love.
Richard: And now you're in charge of the land here and what else?
Lider: I'm the manager of the land, the agriculture, the animals, and the general development and maintenance of everything, including the estate buildings.
The retreat centre, Marianela, on the outskirts of the Paraguayan town, Atyra, in the Cordillera region
We have 76 hectares here in the retreat centre; I'm also in charge of a farm we have near the next town to the east, Tobati. There we have 300 hectares. It's quite a lot of responsibility, but I have nine employees in total helping out. We get more men in when there are special projects on.
Richard: What does Marianela mean to you?
Lider: Well obviously it's my work, but it means much more than that to me, it's my passion, it's my home.
Richard: When I arrived here, it was a surprise for me just how much biodiversity there was here. The birds are dripping off the trees; the natural environment here is so pristine. I remember after we dropped our bags off, just standing still for about an hour, marvelling at the birds and the trees. How many trees have you planted since you've been here?
Lider: We have planted around 10,000 so far, with more to come. When we came, it was land that had been neglected. Where the entrance now is, if you drove a tractor along, it would disappear into the wilderness. There wasn't any good Atlantic Rainforest here, it was just overgrown. Everything that you see here was planted by me over the years.
Just one of the thousands of trees planted by Lider
Luckily, the ground and the climate here is so good that everything that I plant grows rapidly.
We have 56 cows here. We don't have too many because it's not good for the environment, but we try to be as self-sufficient as possible, so we keep some for meat and some for milk.
Lider, right, on his favourite motorbike
Richard: It seems to me that you have the perfect balance here between space for people to meditate in, vegetable and fruit growing, livestock, and forest.
Lider: Yes, the balance is important. In general we try to maximise the reforestation of the Atlantic Forest with having sufficient food for the retreat. We also try to have the right environment for the birds and wildlife; that's why it's like living in an aviary here!
As a by-product, the forest is fabulous because it moderates the incredibly high temperatures we have here in Paraguay. Here in the Cordillera, we're only about 45 miles from the capital, Asuncion, but it's always about 5 degrees cooler which makes it much more liveable for us. As you have seen, much of the year the temperature is up into the mid to high 30s, and sometimes goes higher than 40 degrees centigrade - we're on the Tropic of Capricorn here, so anything you can do to moderate the heat is really important.
Lider in his metalwork shed, fabricating a signpost
Richard: Did you re-forest much Atlantic Rainforest?
Lider: Yes, a lot. There wasn't so much before, but if you get it right, it recovers quite quickly.
Richard: When we visited your farm in Tobati, it was just amazing how extensive and deep the rainforest was. The sounds of the forest, the amount of insects, such as butterflies, the amount of birds - just amazing.
Lider: Yes, there's proper old forest there, as well as the parts that we have re-forested.
My girls and Sebastian picking oranges on the farm
Richard: Is it actually possible to re-forest and have forest as if it were proper old forest?
Lider: It's tricky really. To be properly natural it really takes a very very long time; that's why it's so important not to cut it down in the first place. The forest needs other plants apart from the tall trees, such as 'Ysypo' (a type of vine). When there are storms, having these vines and bushes 'knits' the forest together and prevents damage, especially in high winds. The parts that we re-forest doesn't have all of these other natural plants, so is more susceptible to damage in storms, until it's really re-established itself.
Richard: Is there anything that people from abroad can do to help in terms of re-forestation?
Lider: I'm sure there's something. It's probably best to contribute money to larger organisations that are helping. The ministry is also contributing to re-forestation.
Note: check out this link: https://www.worldbank.org/en/results/2017/10/30/protecting-the-atlantic-forest-creating-a-biodiversity-corridor-in-eastern-paraguay
Richard: Are there a lots of people in favour of re-wilding in Paraguay? There are people proposing that we re-wild back to 50% of the planet. Currently only 25% of the land surface of the planet is properly wild, but a lot of it is in Russia, in Siberia, which isn't so useful to biodiversity as it is so cold.
Lider: The problem here in Paraguay is that many people really care for trees, but the people with money and power think primarily about producing things from the land - beef farming, soya and so on. The grass for cattle doesn't grow in the shade, so the trees are ripped up. They clear fields to grow grain. They use lots of chemicals.
I am pleased to say, however, that we are a totally organic space here. We refer to chemicals and artificial fertiliser as poison. We know about crop rotation. We know about what plants to grow next to each other to prevent the insects eating what we need for ourselves. This is a chemical/poison-free zone! This place is devoted to God, so we will respect it in that way.
We think about all of humanity here. We will not stop planting. Most people do it for income, but we do it for nature. Even people who re-forest often do it for income, such as selling the hardwood. We are different here in Marianela.
A track through the Atlantic Rainforest on the Tobati farm
Richard: What do you think about the balance that 'Pa'i' (The Head Priest) was explaining about in terms of the spiritual life, nature, and the design of the land here. What does this mean to you?
Lider: This is of the utmost importance. People come here for a retreat. With the amount of organic nature that we have here, there is peace; there is space; there is little in the way of noise. People connect to God through what God has made. Nature carries with it the Spirit of God. Here we know how to co-habit the earth with nature. It's birds and green!
Richard: Yesterday we were in the middle of Asuncion. There are many churches there. But to you, what is your church? A building or out here in nature?
Lider: For me, it's not about going into a building - the church is inside us, inside our heart. It's not a physical space. But people need tranquil space outside to connect us to God and to reflect and to meditate. It makes you think about how everything was made. What your surroundings are is so important. Some people in cities don't really get this, which is a shame, they don't see the beauty of all of this, this beautiful creation.
Richard: Even though you work so hard, as a mechanic, doing your metalwork, woodwork, working hard on the land, building, managing your team and so on, do you still find space to be with God, with Spirit here, during the day?
Lider: Yes, there is time to think, in hard times and in good times. It's always there for us. There's always a tranquil time if you seek it out.
Hitching a ride on the tractor with Lider
Richard: I can tell you that this is an incredibly special place, made by your very own hands, and of course by God. Without your work this place wouldn't be here.
Lider: Yes, it's beautiful. It's a place that needs a lot of looking after, through human endeavour but it's all really thanks to God ultimately.