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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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!