Since winning the Rolex Enterprise Award in 2012, Karina Atkinson and her organization, Para La Tierra (PLT), have received much positive attention for their conservation efforts in Paraguay’s exceptionally diverse, and increasingly threatened natural environment— an area known as “South America’s forgotten corner.”
For the past five years, the organization has sought to protect the Reserva Natural Laguna Blanca, a biodiversity hotspot at the confluence of three unique and globally-threatened ecoregions: the Upper Paraná Atlantic Forest, the Cerrado, and the Bosque Central of Paraguay.
Here, Para La Tierra has become a local and international hub of scientific research, a major ecotourism location, and a source of community engagement and environmental education.
Today, the organization has furthered many of its previous projects, and continues to strive towards making the Reserva Natural Laguna Blanca a model for protected areas in Paraguay.
Familiar Challenges, Continued Progress
As one of the poorest countries in South America, Paraguay has been under much pressure to develop economically, especially in the areas of cattle ranching and soybean cash-cropping. The spectre of deforestation, with its various impacts on climate, soil quality, and biodiversity, remains a serious consequence of these activities.
In Laguna Blanca, changing local attitudes and improving knowledge about conservation and the value of nearby habitats has been an ongoing task in helping to mitigate the effects of intensive forest and land use.
“In the year since the Rolex Award ended, we’ve focused on science and education,” said Karina Atkinson, co-founder of Para La Tierra, in correspondence with Innovate Development. “[Recent initiatives include] improving our internship program, employing new professional staff, and developing our tourism engagement activities at the reserve.”
Successful past initiatives, such as the employment of local Guarani forest guards, as well as the establishment of community chicken coups have helped to engage citizens as stakeholders in the task of conservation. These initiatives, Atkinson insists, “have been instrumental in the delivery of our projects.”
Currently, the gathering of scientific data on local animal species has been crucial in attempting to mark Laguna Blanca as an exceptionally unique natural environment. Through the effort of staff and volunteers, PLT’s reptile monitoring program has helped to designate the district around the reserve as the most biodiverse in Paraguay—and soon, they hope, as an Important Area for Reptiles and Amphibians.
With help from small conservation grants, similar field research is helping to demonstrate the ecological significance of the area and its species. The endangered White-Winged Nightjar (PLT’s adopted logo) is known to breed in Laguna Blanca and only two other locations globally. Through a current radio-tracking project, Joseph Sarvary, PLT’s Depute Director, is studying their mating behavior, their range and distribution.
Educational outreach also plays no small part. Through partnerships with other organizations, such as the University of Miami’s Global Field Program Masters Degree, PLT is helping to market conservation research and ground work at an international level.
And more locally, too, with funding from the International Fund for Economic Development, the NGO hopes to increase its presence in local schools, to purchase materials for classrooms, increase youth participation with a small, onsite natural history museum, and generally increase the scope of its educational programs in and around Laguna Blanca.
Economy and Conservation
The value education also extends beyond the classroom and partnerships in scientific research. Under the present reality of economic development in Paraguay, the need to negotiate and work with producers in agriculture and forestry is crucial.
“At the moment there is no stopping the tidal wave of deforestation sweeping through the country,” Atkinson stated. “Our best chance is to educate the soy farmers and cattle ranchers who visit the reserve about the environmental consequences, locally and globally, of agricultural actions.”
And there are indications that this has been working.
Argo Forestal Rio Verde, a eucalyptus plantation adjacent to Laguna Blanca, has begun supporting efforts to conserve the White-winged Nightjar by declaring the bird’s known mating and hunting grounds as non-production zones. In cooperation with PLT, the company also helped to fund a local Earth Day event, teaching children about tree planting and proper disposal of garbage.
Questions about the animal species and ecosystems of Laguna Blanca, Atkinson mentioned, were also recently asked in a game show on Paraguay’s national channel—an indication, more generally, “that people are paying attention.” The questions were taken directly from PLT’s primary educational video.
Within the last year, PLT has witnessed a large increase in visitors to the reserve. The newly-added “Discovery Trail” guides tourists around the visitor centre, engaging them in natural history, information about global conservation, as well as current initiatives undertaken by PLT.
“The biggest change I’ve noticed [within the last year],” Atkinson remarked, “is the tourist interest in Laguna Blanca, not just as a beach, but as a refuge for Paraguayan wildlife that they can be proud of.”
Despite these positive changes, PLT’s progress in scientific research, conservation and community outreach may be jeopardized.
Laguna Blanca is currently up for sale.
In February 2015, the reserve’s protected area status expired, and the present landowners have elected not to renew its designation. Lacking formal protection, the 804-hectare nature reserve is now on the market.
“If the property is bought by a cattle rancher or soy farmers,” Atkinson fears, “all of the work of Para La Tierra will disappear in a matter of years.”
“Not only is Laguna Blanca a landmark for conservation in Paraguay, it’s a centre of environmental education and an opportunity to provide access to nature to thousands of Paraguayan children each year,” she said. “It’s also one of the last places iconic animals such as the green anaconda are known to breed in the country.”
US$2.8 million is required for PLT to purchase the reserve, and the organization has already begun a crowdfunding and awareness campaign.