Mbaracayu and the Ache

I’m writing this intermittently, as I have to stop every few moments to scratch the multiple oozy mosquito bites covering my body. I look like I’m recovering from the chicken pox, but each bite was well worth the four days I just spent exploring Mbaracayu, the largest remaining stretch of native forest in Paraguay. This UNESCO biosphere reserve, managed by the Fundacion Moises Bertoni, covers approximately  340,000 hectares, bordering Brazil to the East.

Sunrise in Mbaracayu

Sunrise in Mbaracayu

Numerous indigenous communities in varying stages of poverty and pain abut the Mbaracayu reserve. These communities, most of them Guarani, have lost much of their land to surrounding cattle ranches and the rampant deforestation that continues to afflict the native forest outside the reserve. With their land goes much of their culture – though traditions and beliefs vary from region to region, connection to nature is crucial. For centuries the indigenous people depended on nature to provide for them, and they cared for nature in return. I won’t preach to you here about the history of the conquistadors, colonialism, missionaries, and other factors that have led to the current realities faced by the indigenous peoples.
We stopped in with our video camera at a Guarani community to speak with the cacique (community leader) and his family. Even the strongest heart drops a little at the sight of how little these communities have – Tacuari is the poorest community in the region, and possibly in the country. Houses are shabbily constructed out of wood scraps, with dirt floors and a mattress if they are lucky. If there is no wood available, the homes are tents constructed out of garbage bags. This may be adequate for the scorchingly hot summers, but when the temperature drops to two degrees celsius in the winter and the rains flood the lowlands, they are literally left out in the cold. Most of the children don’t have sufficient clothing for colder weather.

An Ache woman and child

An Ache woman and child

The Cacique and his family explained that they often lack food, and have very little land. They are boxed in on all sides by large proprietors with little access to their traditional methods of subsistence. They have land specifically allotted to them by the government, which they are not supposed to rent out, but which they do, for a pittance. The Cacique says they need more assistance, more money and more food from the government. He was forthcoming in the interview, but as one learns very quickly, not every sad story is 100% true – people fall into the roles they think are expected of them, in the hopes that they will receive more in return. As one of our friends from a local NGO told us, many of the communities ask for continued assistance but don’t show any inclination to work to improve their situation. They want all their problems to be resolved through free handouts.  It’s hard to imagine that they are not telling the entire truth, but of course there are many dimensions to every problem  – back again to the “colonization and extermination” issue.
The Ache people have a slightly different story. Until not so very long ago (the mid 70’s), the Ache were a people brutally persecuted on their traditional lands. Paraguayans thought of them as nothing better than “Guayaki” or “forest rats” – a racial slur that was used for decades. They were hunted, killed, and enslaved for sport, and their communities live to bear the scars. In the face of violent discrimination, they have organized themselves and improve their circumstances. We spent a few hours speaking with leaders in the community of Arroyo Bandera.

She's got her eye on the candy

She's got her eye on the candy

Hunter-gatherers by custom, the Ache in the Mbaracayu region have maintained their traditional hunting rights within the reserve – they hunt only with their handcrafted bows and arrows. And yes, they are damn good at it. The Atlantic Forest plays an important role in their customs, and they are deeply tied to nature as a source of life. For example, a woman who is about to give birth will accompany a hunting trip into the forest for several days. Whatever she eats the most in her last days of pregnancy (armadillo, deer, wild pig perhaps) is the name given to the newborn child. Of course these names were not shared with us as outsiders. We met “Juan”, “Pablo” and “Carlos” but no one introduced themselves by their traditional name.

Loving the camera

Loving the camera

Though poor, and constantly struggling to protect the forest they depend on, the Ache always have a smile to share. (This may be because we brought them a soccer ball and school supplies.) One of the caciques invited us into his one room home to charge our camera while we played with his eight beautiful children. The gales of giggles they shared with us when they saw video footage of themselves was priceless. Sitting back here in my apartment in the city, I only hope we can make a real difference, to conserve the remaining forest so these children can continue the traditions of their people.

Living the dream.

I haven’t been very good about writing lately – too little time between adventures to get it down on paper. In case I haven’t already spoken to you, let me start back a couple of months ago. After spending some time here and not really accomplishing anything (read: spending copious amounts of time on facebook), Nicole and I decided to end the frustration by creating our own project.

Look up...

Look up...

Thus began the (time-consuming and technologically challenging) quest of making a documentary film. Though I’ve only had a few opportunities to play with film before, it’s an art I feel has true power to convey meaningful stories. The arc of a bird in flight, or a plea for the future in the words of a child, can reach the hearts and minds of even the most apathetic. We felt a film would be the ideal way to communicate the dire situation that the Atlantic Forest faces. We want to explore the way the people of Paraguay see their precious resource, uncover the reasons behind the devastating deforestation threatening this region, and recognize the individuals and organizations dedicating themselves to the restoration and conservation of the area.
Canon was kind enough to provide us with a new HD camera to capture the stories and wildlife we need to convey our message. The New Zealand and German embassies are also providing us with crucial support for our travel around the country, as we interview those who are willing to share their knowledge with us. After a few weeks of filming we’ve had some amazing interviews and some real jokes.
Our interviews with those who are supposed to be the legal defenders of the forest have been particularly interesting. The prosecutors have fed us a few good lies about how often they go out to stop illegal deforestation, and the number of fines they collect. Having spent time visiting deforested locations, and discussing the lack of legal initiative with other WWF employees, it’s clear to us that the government representatives have no problem bending the truth on camera.
In contrast, one of the park guards at the San Rafael reserve told us during his interview that the average fine handed out to people logging illegally is 15,000 guaranies – the equivalent of three dollars. For anyone who values the life of a tree, that’s heartwrenching. And yet the government continues to gloss over the pleas of those who want to save the remaining forests. No acceptable reason has been given yet as to WHY.

San Rafael

San Rafael

While in San Rafael, we took a trip up to Kanguery, a lookout point and biological reserve owned by Guyra Paraguay. Of course, it was dumping buckets as we shimmied our way to the top of the lookout, trying not to lose our footing. But as magic would have it, the rain stopped long enough for us to get a stunning shot of the entire reserve, framed by a brilliant rainbow. It’s the little successes that keep you climbing.

DSCN0481

The view from below

On the way back we stopped in at a little town (whose name I of course cannot currently remember) where the school is participating in ProCosara’s environmental contest. All the children in the school are working to grow seedlings to plant in their community – the contest is judged on their knowledge of their project, their level of collaboration, and their ability to involve the community in their work. We were lucky enough to have the school “leader” Aldo speak with us about the project. Though maybe speak is a bit of an overstatement – he stared shyly at the ground while his teacher tried to prod answers out of him. Nonetheless, Aldo gave us a few winning smiles and showed us the seedlings he is caring for every day. If every one worked as hard as Aldo, Paraguay might have a chance at renewing their forest.

Aldo, softspoken environmental leader

Aldo, softspoken environmental leader

Three days in the field and we have an amazing start to our story. Next week we are heading up to Mbaracayu, the biggest reserve in the country, to meet with the park guards and the Ache and Guarani indigenous groups. I have no doubt we will meet many more incredible people willing to share their stories and contribute to the protection of the Atlantic Forest.

Serenity in San Rafael

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.

A few of the future leaders

A few of the future leaders

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?)

Games in the sunshine

Games in the sunshine

Sun beams

Sun beams

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.

In the green

In the green

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.

Niki next to a grandfather tree

Niki next to a grandfather tree

Our guide Javier

Our guide Javier

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.

Bliss!

Bliss!

Oscar the Ocelot

Oscar the Ocelot

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.

The new love of my life

The new love of my life

To el Campo

Covered in red soil and tired to the very marrow of my bones, I have returned alive (barely) from my first trip to “el campo”. Speeding along bumpy roads, it is the first chance I had to see Paraguay as she is at heart – calm, warm, languid. There are no stark mountains, no crashing waves. Instead, we pass over rolling red landscapes illuminated by brilliant blue skies. In two days, we visited three different municipalities: Encarnacion, Pirapo and Santa Rita. I should mention here that we left Asuncion at 4 AM on Monday so as to arrive at our first destination at the start of the business day. I still do not consider 4 AM to be a functional hour of the day, so I have some adjusting to do.

The PR Team in the field

The PR Team in the field

Working with the public relations team of Francisco Pereira and Liliana Franco, we set out to promote the new PAL program (Programa de Adecuacion a las Leyes Ambientales). This is an education and training program set up by WWF Paraguay to help land owners comply with environmental regulations. Each landowner must have at least 20% of their land forested (this means either leaving it as is, or reforesting if they have cut down too many trees). Land owners can attain “compliance” by either reforesting, paying compliant farmers for their forested land (similar to carbon trading), or leaving formerly deforested land to regenerate, instead of cultivating it. The overall aim is to bring Paraguay back to a state of environmental health, with a productive and functioning forest.

View of the farm land

View of the farm land


I admire the resilience of the Paraguayan farmers, who continue to persevere in the face of severe drought. Many of their crops have been lost for the year, devastating the economy and their own survival. Though one could point out that they are not exactly environmental heroes, having deforested most of the country to grow extensive soy and corn crops, and thus contributing to the increasingly severe droughts. We met with two farmers in the municipality of Pirapo, a community settled by Japanese immigrants. It seemed very odd to me at first, hearing Japanese people, with very Japanese names, speaking Spanish. As second generation immigrants, they consider themselves completely Paraguayan.

On the job

On the job

Both farmers we spoke with in Pirapo are currently working to bring their property into compliance with environmental laws, by reforesting specific parcels of their land. They took us out through fields of dry soil to the sections where they have started reforesting, and spoke about the importance of complying with the new environmental laws (perhaps because we were there representing the WWF).

One of our "compliant" farmers

One of our "compliant" farmers

Liliana and Francisco used the opportunity to interview the farmers about their reforestation work – these interviews will be broadcast over the radio in Pirapo, as examples of good stewardship. As Liliana pointed out, big institutions and flashy media are not the best mechanisms for communication in these communities. People trust their neighbors, and if they hear from the farmer down the road that compliance is important, they will be more likely to join the program and start reforesting their own land. Through word of mouth, “el campo” has a chance at regeneration.

Having a smoke in the tractor

Having a smoke in the tractor

In both Encarnacion and Santa Rita, we went to the most popular local radio stations to distribute a short “spot” on the PAL program. While there, we were interviewed on live radio – Francisco and Liliana talked about the program and it’s implications for the community. Nicole and I thought we were only there to listen in, but both radio announcers had other ideas. They were more interested in talking to us about our intentions in Paraguay, and whether or not we were single. Twice in two days, I was broadcast to the local listeners in my mediocre Spanish – YIKES! I can only hope I didn’t make too big a fool of myself.

Back home in Asuncion now, I’m looking forward to the next trip, to meet more members of the community working towards sustainability for Paraguay.

The newest thing on the farm

The newest thing on the farm

The drive home

The drive home

Things you probably don’t know about Paraguay (because I sure didn’t)…

Three weeks I’ve been here, and it feels like months. Every day is epic, as I try and function in a work environment where every word is something I have to concentrate on. Life en Espanol is hard on the brain! I learn something new every day, which isexactly how I like to live life, so I have to say, I am enjoying it to the fullest. Paraguay, as far as I can tell, has HEART. The people are warm and welcoming, and incredibly patient with the new gringa in their midst.

SO, since I am here to work in conservation, perhaps I will elaborate a bit on what needs conserving. Let me start by saying there are plenty of trees to hug, so I will be eternally happy. Paraguay is home to the Atlantic Forest (el Bosque Atlantico), one of 200 ecoregions identified by the WWF as needing critical attention. This forest is one of the most biodiverse areas on the PLANET, with 19 endemic birds, 160 endemic mammals (including jaguars, capybaras, anteaters, and some other crazy looking creatures), 22 endemic primates (your closest cousins), and over 6000 endemic plants.

Koati - WWF Paraguay

Koati - WWF Paraguay

All of this in the 1.300.000 hectares that remain of the forest – imagine how diverse the area was before almost 8,000.000 hectares were deforested for farming.

Toucan - WWF Paraguay

Toucan - WWF Paraguay

Until the year 2004, Paraguay had the highest rate of deforestation in the Americas, and the second highest rate in the world. Over the past several decades, the population managed to reduce the forest to 7% of it’s original size (they were very busy bees). This deforestation completely fragmented what remains of the area, making it nearly impossible for the rare and endemic species to move around and reproduce – seriously endangering their survival. Not exactly a stellar environmental history, but now the Paraguayans are taking steps to try and redeem themselves. In 2005, the government put into place the Ley de Deforestacion Cero (Zero Deforestation Law), essentially prohibiting any further deforestation. A wonderful idea in concept, though of course it appears that in practice, many people are still deforesting for their own financial benefit.

WWF Paraguay

WWF Paraguay

There does not seem to be much enforcement happening at the moment – Paraguay struggles with it’s reputation as the most corrupt country in South America, and people have little faith that the government will actually follow through on their promises. If you happen to have a cousin in the municipal government (highly likely), then you can pretty much do what you want with your land without facing the law.

The WWF is now working with several communities to improve Forest Law compliance. In addition to housing numerous endemic species, the Atlantic Forest protects the Guarani Aquifer, one of the largest fresh water reserves in the world. Continued deforestation threatens the aquifer, as well as the Paraguayan economy. The huge soy plantations and cattle farms that already exist cannot last for long with no water. The farmers are discovering this the hard way in Paraguay’s “worst drought ever”.

Burning Forest for Soy Farming - Foto de WWF Paraguay

Burning Forest for Soy Farming - Foto de WWF Paraguay

Reforestation and environmental protection are crucial if the farming industry intends to survive. This is harder to induce in practice, as it means spending time and money on something that ISN’T soy, and does not create immediate benefits. A tree planted today may not grow to it’s full height for another 10 years, and will not provide any income. The truth cannot be ignored for long though. A farmer tilling his field will feel the heat of the sun burning down on him, will watch his dry crops whither away. He will not be able to ignore the black cloud of climate change, and the realization that he cannot continue pillaging as before.

Cultivated Field and Red Soil - WWF Paraguay

Cultivated Field and Red Soil - WWF Paraguay

The staff at WWF, and their NGO partners, work tirelessly to educate citizens on the importance of conservation and reforestation. I have faith that their message will get across, and that with their help, Paraguay has a brighter future. I’m looking forward to the successes and challenges ahead!