Scottish biologist Karina Atkinson is helping to transform a little-known Paraguayan reserve into a model of scientific conservation and sustainable tourism that benefits the local community.
Karina Atkinson is a young woman in a hurry. Determined, within the next five years, to turn her Paraguayan NGO into a conservation model, she has become a trailblazer in an astonishingly short time. Thanks to her, Paraguay, one of the poorest countries in South America, now has its first organization – Para La Tierra – conducting scientific projects all year round in a little-known natural reserve. Scientists and young interns from around the world are travelling thousands of kilometres to benefit from the programme, and the funds from her 2012 Rolex Award are enabling her to expand her vision for her environmental project.
When she set out for Paraguay from her native Scotland in 2008 to take part in a volunteer programme, Atkinson did so with a sense of adventure. No one she knew had visited Paraguay. “I liked the idea of being a pioneer.” But on arrival she quickly understood that she was totally unprepared. The trip from the airport was not pleasant for the 22-year-old. “From the taxi window, I realized I had landed in the third world and I didn’t much like it. The poverty and my inability to understand what anyone was saying frightened me.”
However, over the next few months, she gained confidence as she got to know the culture and the people – whom she describes as “very friendly, but exceptionally shy”. During a break in her volunteer work, she discovered a natural lake, Laguna Blanca, which she had never heard of previously. “From then on, I didn’t want to leave, and cancelled and rebooked my flight three times in order to stay,” Atkinson explains.
Her personal life, even her way of thinking, has been transformed in the past few years. Paraguay is now her home. “Watching the people and how they live their lives was what made me decide I wanted to be in Paraguay. There seemed so much to learn,” she says. She spends 11 months of every year there as she overcomes obstacles in her project, which has the potential to bring major benefits to the nation and the natural environment.
Trained in genetics and biology in Glasgow, she has given her project a sound scientific foundation. And she is about to undertake a course of research and study (by distance learning) to gain her Master’s degree in zoology from Miami University in Ohio. But, she points out, Paraguay has taught her things about problem-solving she could not learn from any university. “The solutions to everyday problems here, which are different from those that occur in the Western world, are so simple and logical – it’s this approach to problem-solving that really attracts me about taking on the project in Paraguay,” she explains.
In April 2010, Atkinson co-founded Para La Tierra, an NGO dedicated to the conservation of Reserva Natural Laguna Blanca. The 804-hectare reserve lies at the confluence of three major eco-regions: the Upper Paraná Atlantic Forest, the Cerrado (both globally endangered habitats) and the Bosque Central of Paraguay. The eponymously named Laguna Blanca is an artesian lake and the reserve is home to a wide diversity of plants and wildlife, including a number of rare, threatened and endangered species; 283 species of birds have been recorded to date, including 12 globally endangered and four near-threatened species. The flora and fauna of this nation, sometimes described as “South America´s Forgotten Corner”, have received relatively little attention from scientists up to now.
“It’s like paradise,” Atkinson says of the reserve. “I live near the lake, it’s always sunny and each morning I walk out onto the beach. And there is so much to see. There are three different habitats each with different species on the reserve. You never get bored.”
But there are threats to this paradise and to the country’s wildlife – hence Atkinson’s sense of urgency. She explains that a boom in industrial farming has boosted Paraguay’s economy, but the resulting intensive cattle ranching and soya and eucalyptus cash-cropping are encroaching on the natural environment. And, she also adds pointedly, these economic developments have done little to improve the lives of people who live near the reserve.
Under Atkinson’s leadership, Para La Tierra, with three full-time and two part-time staff, is coming to the rescue of the reserve and nearby residents through a combination of scientific research and community outreach. Atkinson and her colleagues are providing the scientific basis for the conservation of the numerous globally threatened species and habitats at the reserve, establishing a collection of local species that has already become a reference for scientists in Paraguay and further afield.
Since its creation, the organization has welcomed more than 150 temporary volunteers and professional scientists, carrying out a total of 29 distinct research projects. Ten articles have been published in scientific journals, with a further 12 in preparation. As well as the initial research station she founded at Laguna Blanca in 2010, Atkinson is now “90 per cent confident” that she will be able to set up another museum in the Paraguayan Chaco. With natural and human history exhibits, it will represent a substantial achievement in the second stage of Atkinson’s project.
Changing local attitudes is perhaps the biggest challenge facing Atkinson and her colleagues. “The adults living in the surrounding communities [near the reserve] initially had no concept of conservation or the value of the habitats near to where they live,” says Atkinson. “All the information we provide in workshops and meetings is new to them, making it difficult for them to believe our words. Some are also angry with us due to the rule changes after the declaration of the reserve in February 2010, prohibiting them from hunting for food and logging for firewood. But in recent months we’ve noticed more local people are coming onto the reserve and more are joining our workshops. These are signs that attitudes are changing, but it’s just the beginning of a long-term process.”
In the long term, ecotourism will bring income to the local community and, for the immediate benefit of residents, Atkinson’s team has built, with part of her Rolex Awards funds, three poultry coops, in villages near the reserve. The coops are providing 300 to 500 chickens every six weeks, ensuring a supply of eggs and poultry for 50 families to consume and sell. The funds from her Award have been extremely useful, Atkinson explains. And the public response to her project, following press coverage in the UK of her Rolex Award, has been “overwhelming”, with both ordinary citizens and people with projects contacting her to ask how they can get involved.
Asked at what point in its development her ambitious project now stands, Atkinson laughs good-naturedly. “Oh, I’m still at the beginning. I need to expand it so that there’s a network of Para La Tierras. To tell you the truth, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to say it’s finished. I want to do so much. But the Rolex Award has definitely been a springboard to make things happen.”
Published in 2013