A Rolex Award has given a Bolivian biologist opportunities to spread her conservation philosophy – one that focuses on inspiring local people to save their own environment – to other countries.

When Bolivian biologist Erika Cuéllar won a Rolex Award in 2012 for her conservation work in the Gran Chaco, she never imagined the publicity generated would lead to her being cited in Bolivian schoolbooks or being invited to work in countries as diverse as Oman and Ecuador.

“Winning the Award gave me credibility and independence,” Cuéllar says. “I didn’t have to ask anyone for money. Without this autonomy, the project wouldn’t have got off the ground. What I wanted was for governments to include in their programmes people who are able to understand and share information and who can make informed decisions.”

Her objective for the funds from the Award was to establish a 10-month course involving Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina to train parabiologists (local people trained with field research skills), selected by their own communities, who would go on to become conservationists in the hot and densely wooded Gran Chaco, the second-biggest forest in Latin America. At 1 million km2, it occupies part of Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil, and is home to a rich biodiversity of plants and animal species.

Decisions made locally

It is also inhabited by a variety of indigenous Guarani tribes whose involvement is a fundamental part of Cuéllar’s conservation philosophy. While training indigenous people to work on conservation projects is not in itself new, Cuéllar has aimed for their deeper involvement as field researchers and in decision-making processes, rather than offering one-off employment to local people as field guides and general assistants.

Since 1997, part of Gran Chaco has been protected within the 3.4 million hectare Kaa-lya National Park where Cuéllar has worked since 1999. In 2007, she developed her community-based conservation approach by training 17 men from three ethnic groups – Guarani, Chiquitano and Ayoreode people –living in the Gran Chaco as parabiologists.

One of Cuéllar’s trainees is now in charge of conservation at the Kaa-lya park and new recruits are trained by former graduates of the programme which is now self-sustaining. As it is integrated into the park’s management, no external funding is required.

Cuéllar was adamant from the start that graduates from the programme should receive formal recognition. “They are now recognized as qualified people, although they haven’t been to university,” she says. “This gives people, who otherwise wouldn’t have had it, the opportunity to work in conservation. What I want is for local people’s knowledge to be formally recognized. If indigenous people don’t feel that they are a part of the process, long-term conservation won’t exist.”

A key aspect of her tri-national conservation strategy has been to conserve isolated guanaco populations. Guanacos are, with the vicuña, the only wild camels in South America and, while numerous in the Argentinean Patagonia, by 2012 hunting and competition from livestock had reduced their numbers to around 250 in Paraguay and Bolivia and a similar number in the Gran Chaco region of Argentina.

Despite pressure from ranchers and logging companies, Cuéllar says her tri-national approach to conservation of Gran Chaco’s biodiversity has been successful so far. Her big victory has been to stop people hunting guanaco – which were hunted mainly for sport, not for food.

Guanaco sightings

However, the inaccessibility of Gran Chaco makes it difficult to know how well the species is recovering, Cuéllar says. According to the director of the Kaa-lya park, guanaco have moved into a larger area of the park than before and in recent years more groups with young have been sighted, suggesting the species is recovering. The guanaco needs space and security to breed. Factors such as climate change, increased rainfall and livestock farming further complicate matters. An  increase in the density of woody species is changing the Chacoan pampas system resulting in the loss or degradation of the guanaco’s habitat. Its diet, feeding areas, reproduction areas and social behaviour are linked to these ecosystems.

As yet the park management has been reluctant to take what she calls a more invasive approach, such as relocating animals. “This sort of manipulation of individual animals is a delicate issue in the Chaco,” she says.

After publicity from the Rolex Award raised the international profile of her project, Cuéllar was invited to work in the Jabal Samhan Reserve in the Gulf state of Oman. “The goal was to involve government professionals and local researchers from the Sultan Qaboos University in monitoring the biodiversity of the Jabal Samhan Reserve,” she says of the 11-month project.

“To me the most important thing is working to give local people skills. Ultimately it doesn’t matter much what species or region you’re trying to protect,” Cuéllar says. “When people feel in charge of conserving their own resources, they find the strength to do so. The success of this approach is that it can be applied in diverse situations and environments. It’s not about the programme, but about producing people who can make informed decisions.

Despite the achievements of her programme so far, Cuéllar acknowledges one regret. “My big failure is not being able to involve more women. I actually had more success involving women in Oman than in my own country. I have a great desire to stop working with men, but attitudes among indigenous people are very entrenched. They say it’s ok for me to do what I do as a woman because I’m not from their community.”

Celebrity support

Cuéllar’s reputation continues to spread. She has been invited to start a pilot project in Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park which has been the focus of a long-running environmental campaign backed by Hollywood celebrities and former US Vice-President Al Gore to dissuade the government from exploiting its estimated 800 million barrels of oil.

“I’m going there to do two things,” says Cuéllar. “First to introduce a programme similar to the one running in the Chaco, the second is to apply the parabiologist approach to something more tangible, the infectious [tropical parasitic] disease Chagas. We’re going to train people not as parabiologists or paramedics – I’m not sure what we’re going to call them – but they will be trained specifically in relation to the park.”

There is no vaccine for Chagas, which is spread by an insect that carries the parasite that causes it. Chagas, which can lead to heart failure, affects more than six million people, the vast majority of them in Latin America.

Wherever she works, from Bolivia to Oman and Ecuador, Cuéllar wants to give local people the opportunity to take care of their own territory using their intelligence, knowledge and capabilities to guarantee their future.

Learn more about Erika Cuéllar

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