Nico Gioioso '12 Johnson Opportunity Grant Winner Studies the Value of Water in Argentina

Nico Gioioso is an economics and Spanish major with a minor in German from Baltimore, Md. He applied for a Johnson Opportunity Grant to spend the summer in Río Cuarto, Argentina, to conduct a survey for an economic valuation of water resources.

One of the few reasons I can crawl out of bed on any given morning is the medialuna--an Argentine passion, and in my opinion, the greatest culinary invention in the world. I walk through the brisk and blustery winter air to El imperio de las medialunas, a bakery and cafe around the corner from my apartment, to enjoy a couple of these namesake honey-dipped croissants and a café cortado. After steeling my nerves for the walk to the bus stop, I reluctantly (small change is a precious commodity in Argentina) cough up the two pesos, fifty centavos to take the #5 bus out to the Universidad Nacional de Río Cuarto (UNRC) to discuss the previous day's work with the professor that I work with, Jorge Dante de Prada. I enter the office of Agronomy and Land Management and greet the professor and Diego, a graduate student with whom I work closely. We enter the data that I've collected from surveying the day before, then pick out another area of the city for me to travel to that day.

This summer, the Johnson Opportunity Grant funded my trip down to Río Cuarto, Argentina, to execute an economic valuation of water resources through a survey that I designed with the help of both Professor Jim Casey here at Washington and Lee and Professor de Prada at the UNRC. Río Cuarto, with a population of about 150,000, is the second-largest city in the province of Córdoba, a region that has seen a population explosion and an enormous ramping-up of livestock and agricultural cultivation within the past thirty years. At the beginning of my stay, I attended the Technological Congress of CREA, a group that focuses on the advancement of efficient and sustainable agriculture in Argentina and Uruguay. At the Congress, I met and gained first-hand perspective from agricultural producers on the future of growth in the region, as well as on the issues with which the region currently copes. Córdoba suffers from different problems in each part of the region, mainly due to this agricultural intensification. The mountainous north, where a devastating amount of deforestation occurs in order to plant crops, has not seen an appreciable amount of rainfall in the past three years. The capital, Córdoba, has seen contamination of its groundwater and a general lack of water, as poor city planning and large population growth have taxed the city's water infrastructure. The south, where Río Cuarto is located, relies heavily on rainfall-produced surface water, but has experienced increased salinization and nitrification due to heavy usage of agrochemicals and fertilizers.

My project is a contingent valuation survey that considers the willingness-to-pay of citizens of Río Cuarto for a program that would protect and regulate the quality of water resources in the region. Through this methodology, a value can be estimated for a public good like water that is not commonly traded in a market, and therefore is often undervalued. My work consists of a door-to-door questionnaire that I carry out in randomly selected parts of the city. I survey in almost all parts of Río Cuarto, from high-rises in the microcentro, to the "suburbs" of Banda Norte, and even to the villas miserias, the poverty-stricken immigrant villages that surround the city like a belt. What has fascinated me most about this experience is the opportunity to converse with the people of Río Cuarto, to come into contact with the perspectives of individuals from all socioeconomic backgrounds. Not only do I learn about their preferences in regards to the program that I study, but also about their families, their backgrounds, their views on Argentina, and their opinions of the U.S. Surveying is difficult, though, and I've had a few doors slammed in my face. Throughout this process, I've gained the greatest respect for those who actually collect the data that researchers use in their studies.

By far, the hardest part of the experience is adjusting to the siesta. What a great concept, I thought to myself before I came down to Argentina--a four-hour nap in the middle of the day! However, when attempting to execute a research project in the South American winter, one comes to covet those warmer hours, especially when trudging along dirt roads after the sun goes down. Nearly every shop shuts down promptly at noon so that workers can head home to eat the main meal of the day and take a quick snooze, then maybe opens back up at 4 p.m. It's a hassle for sure, but one that I have gradually come to embrace. I use the free time to grab a sandwich de milanesa with my friends Santi and Roby from a stand in Río Cuarto's Sarmiento Park. There's always entertainment as we eat, as kids start pickup football matches and try to perfect the skills that will make them the next Diego Maradona or Leo Messi.

Around 4 p.m. I can resume my surveying, and by 8 o'clock I've finished lumbering along the dry and dusty roads to pursue interview appointments I made in the morning and early afternoon. Handing over another jealously guarded $2.50, I hop on the #2 bus, and head out to Professor de Prada's house in Banda Norte. His family has shown an enormous amount of generosity to me, and thankfully has basically adopted me as a fifth child. They have invited me to dinner tonight, which is great because my own cooking often leaves me without an appetite. When I arrive, the extended family, all 20 or so, have crammed themselves into the tables in the garage and have already uncorked a few bottles of Malbec wine. Prof. de Prada's brother-in-law Walter, a self-proclaimed master barbecuer, has fired up the parrilla, a traditional Argentine grill, and there's a perfectly roasted asado with my name on it.