Changing Planet

Developing an International Conservation Project Around Gran Chaco

Earlier this year Rolex announced the five winners of the 2012 Rolex Awards for Enterprise, who are being honored in New Delhi, India,  on November 27. This profile looks at the work of 2012 Laureate Erika Cuéllar, a conservationist who is training local people in three countries to protect South America’s Gran Chaco. “Cuéllar has already proved herself as an inspirational and innovative negotiator who has gained the respect of indigenous people and political leaders alike. Her Rolex Award for Enterprise recognizes these attributes and will support this extension of Cuéllar’s participatory approach to preserving one of South America’s last truly wild places,” Rolex says.

“The largest of Bolivia’s national parks, the Kaa-Iya del Gran Chaco, boasts the unlikely combination of South America’s hottest, driest weather and 70 species of large mammals, including jaguars, pumas and giant armadillos, living in the largest protected tropical dry forest in the world,” says Rolex in press materials for this week’s Rolex Awards for Enterprise ceremony. “This harsh and inhospitable environment has been the workplace of scientist Erika Cuéllar for more than a decade.”

Cuéllar has spearheaded participatory conservation with the indigenous Guaraní people who live on the boundaries of the park. She has worked towards improving grassland management and local capacity building by training local people to take ownership of the conservation of their habitat, Rolex adds.


To protect the Gran Chaco, the Kaa-Iya National Park was created in Bolivia’s far south-east in 1997. Erika Cuéllar joins Jorge Secundo "Tatu", a parabiologist, in front of a painting of Guaraní leaders. Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, 2012. Photo: ©Rolex Awards/Thierry Grobet.


“Encouraged by her successes in the national park, Cuéllar’s sights are now set on the wider Gran Chaco region, which spans parts of Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. The Gran Chaco counts a variety of indigenous tribes, nomadic hunters, gatherers, fishing communities, farmers and cattle ranchers as its human inhabitants. The forests and scrublands are also home to 3,400 plant species, 500 bird and 150 mammal species, many of which are unique to the region,” Rolex says in a news statement.

“But for more than a century, the Gran Chaco’s natural wealth has been systematically eroded. Species’ habitats have been disrupted by a military zone resulting from a longstanding boundary dispute between Bolivia and Paraguay. Construction of a gas pipeline from Bolivia to Brazil, extensive cattle ranching and agricultural encroachment, as well as exploitation of groundwater for irrigation have also taken a toll on the Gran Chaco’s rich wildlife.

“A notable casualty of these man-made factors has been the guanaco, the wild ancestor of domesticated llamas, which Charles Darwin described as “an elegant animal with a long slender neck and fine legs”. An estimated 500,000 of these cinnamon-coloured animals roam the vast plains of the Patagonian steppe but only a fraction of these persist in the Gran Chaco, represented by three isolated and remnant populations in Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina, each numbering less than 200 individuals.”


For the last decade, Erika Cuéllar has been studying the only confirmed population of guanacos in Bolivia. She hopes to stop the decline of this camelid and other species in the Gran Chaco by training local parabiologists in research and conservation. Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, 2009. Photo: Courtesy of Erika Cuéllar.


“In 2007, to help protect this species and its habitat, Cuéllar devised a course to train members of three ethnic groups native to the Gran Chaco (Guaraní, Ayoreode and Chiquitano) as parabiologists. In conservation, parabiology is accepted as a powerful and sustainable approach, since local people learn scientific methods and ultimately gain the skills required to lead and maintain environmental protection,” according to the Rolex statement.

“As native inhabitants, parabiologists are also an influential means of conveying the value of conservation to indigenous communities, and the scheme has received national and international attention.

“Cuéllar now wants to extend her approach in Argentina and Paraguay and formalize the model to make conservation a viable long-term local employment option. She also aims to include the parabiologists in policy-making, by involving them in a tri-national Gran Chaco conservation strategy. The guanaco will serve as the flagship species but ultimately the parabiologists will take responsibility for the wider conservation of their local areas.”


Parabiologists are trained in the best methods to monitor the diversity of plant and animal life in the Gran Chaco. Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, 2012. Photo: ©Rolex Awards/Thierry Grobet.


“Cuéllar has already proved herself as an inspirational and innovative negotiator who has gained the respect of indigenous people and political leaders alike. Her Rolex Award for Enterprise recognizes these attributes and will support this extension of Cuéllar’s participatory approach to preserving one of South America’s last truly wild places,” Rolex says.

In recent months, Erika Cuéllar’s Gran Chaco project has advanced significantly, Rolex says. “As the wider Gran Chaco region spans parts of Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina, she needs to be in contact with government agencies across a wide region to ensure the implementation of her vision.”


Erika Cuéllar (pictured) believes that it is impossible to conserve the Gran Chaco without involving local communities. Gran Chaco, near the town of San Jose. San Jose, Bolivia, 2012. Photo: ©Rolex Awards/Thierry Grobet.


“I’ve been able to formalize the initial contact with governmental biodiversity authorities and counterpart organizations in both Paraguay and Argentina,” says Cuéllar. “The support from the Rolex Award has transformed the initial idea of an international conservation effort into reality. Having the possibility to travel and meet governmental authorities has made a big difference in terms of reaching agreements and obtaining real support.”

In her native Bolivia, she has held a series of meetings with community and local government authorities. “The Award has helped me build upon previous positive experience working alongside parabiologists in various research and conservation projects in the Bolivian Chaco,” says Cuéllar. “I was able to meet local representatives in order to reinforce the previous initiative with local authorities – mainly the municipality of Charagua – and also the Kaa-Iya National park administration.”

The involvement of local people in conservation projects generally does not go beyond short-term, one-off employment as field guides and general assistants. “The Rolex Award allowed me to hire three parabiologists as part of the research team that will develop this international conservation project,” she says.

“The Rolex Award itself is a tremendous source of support for my profile in the conservation area,” she adds. “Recently I was awarded the Marie Curie Annual Award for Scientific Bolivian women by the National Academy of Science of Bolivia.”

Forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. He has 120,000 followers on social media. David Braun edits the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. Follow David on Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn

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