I am inspired over and over again by the dedication and passion that the Paraguayan environmentalists display in the face of ignorance, animosity and even violence.
Early Saturday morning (again at 4:30 am….still completely incapable of human communication), we set out to the San Rafael reserve in the eastern region of the country, part of the Upper Parana Atlantic Forest. San Rafael is owned and managed by a Swiss couple, Hans and Christina. The bright and bubbly pair saw the need for conservation and decided to buy some of the threatened area to protect it. They initiated, and continue to manage, PROCOSARA, an NGO dedicated to protecting the forest through land purchase, reforestation and environmental education.
The weekend was a workshop for 20 local youth who have been elected as “environmental leaders” at their schools. The youth got to learn about the Atlantic Forest and basic conservation, play plenty of games outside, and form lasting bonds with each other. It was motivating to see the enthusiasm they all showed for preserving the planet – kids really do know what’s going on, and they want to TELL you about it! And they can generally tell you in a way that will make you laugh till your abs hurt. They all had a chance to perform a little bit of environmental “theater”, demonstrating how they would teach people in their community about the environment. The results were heartening and hilarious, and got them so riled up that they didn’t fall asleep until well after midnight (though who ever does when they go to camp?)
The reserve was the perfect place for the kids to run around till they collapsed. The Cordillera San Rafael is a stunning location, and the first opportunity I’ve had to truly be immersed in nature here. One of the park guards –slash- forest fire fighters took us on a walk through the reserve, where our senses were overwhelmed by the active peacefulness of nature. If you stand absolutely still, you can hear the songs of birds, and monkeys jumping from branch to branch. Butterflies of every color swirl up around you as you walk, and sunlight streams down between the branches to light the cool dampness that surrounds you. It is a stark contrast to the parched, baking fields that lie only twenty minutes away.
Of course nature isn’t always so pleasant. While gazing through the canopy I managed to disturb a few ant colonies, of which I was notified by intense stinging all over my ankles and up my legs. Tiny devil’s minions, they are! After a frantic “ants in my pants” dance, I managed to rid myself of the beasts, and kept a close eye on the ground from then on.
According to our guide Javier, the life of a San Rafael park guard is anything but peaceful. They have to be ready at a moments notice to head into the reserve and extinguish the forest fires lit by local campesinos and indigenous – hard and dangerous work. Not only are they risking their lives to fight the fires – they are in danger whenever they go near any of the local pueblos. They are hated by many of the local residents, who have yet to understand the importance of preserving the forest, and consider it a personal offence when the fires they set are extinguished. Many of the “guardaparques” have been physically attacked, and even shot at. Christina, owner of the reserve, has also been attacked at gunpoint – luckily she ducked just in time to escape the bullet. Such dedication to a cause amazes me – to risk your life every day for something you believe in so strongly.
Not everything is dark and gloomy though, because I got to meet a baby ocelot!! Maybe the cutest thing I have seen in a very long time (in addition to which I wrote a paper about ocelots in the fourth grade and have been dying to see one every since.) This baby (whom I will name Oscar for now) was found stranded alone on the side of a road nearby, and was brought to the reserve, where he will be raised until he is old enough to go fend for himself in the forest again. Oscar is just about the most darling and beautiful creature I have ever had the chance to encounter, though he is very timid. He lives in a hut with rabbits, who seem quite nonchalant about his presence. They are blissfully unaware that one day he may return in search of bunny for dinner.