When Scottish biologist Karina Atkinson first arrived in Paraguay to take part in a volunteer program, she was not happy. “From the taxi window, I realized I had landed in the third world and I didn’t much like it. The poverty and inability to understand what anyone was saying frightened me.”
That feeling didn’t last long however, as she made friends with local people. Her discovery of an artesian lake, Laguna Blanca, sealed her fate and in 2010 the 28-year-old scientist 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 and is home to a wide diversity of plants and wildlife, including rare, threatened and endangered species. Prior to Atkinson’s investigations this area, known as “South America’s Forgotten Corner”, has received little attention from scientists.
Despite her friendships with local inhabitants, the conservancy project has not been easy. “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.”
Atkinson’s goal is not only to do research and conserve the space and wildlife, but also to change attitudes of the locals. In 2012 she received a Rolex Award for Enterprise and with some of those funds has introduced an alternative livelihood project– three chicken coops near the reserve provide 300-500 chickens every six weeks and ensure a supply of eggs and poultry for 50 families to consume and sell. She’s hired local staff, three full-time and two part-time, to help with her research, patrol the reserve and do community outreach programs. Eventually, she hopes ecotourism will provide a sustainable income for the local community.
Although she describes her adopted home as “paradise,” she fears for its future and is determined to push forward as fast as she can. A boom in industrial farming (boosting Paraguay’s economy but not that of the local residents) has resulted in intensive cattle ranching and soybean and eucalyptus cash-cropping that are encroaching on the reserve’s natural habitat.
Due to Atkinson’s dedication, many articles about the area have been published in scientific journals and she hopes to set up a museum exhibit of her collected specimens in the Paraguayan Chaco. As more and more light is shed on the importance of the area, the more likely Atkinson’s efforts will have a long lasting positive effect on Reserva Natural Laguna Blanca.