Expanding empathy towards biodiversity: My trip to Paraguay
By David Norman. Field Program Professor
4 min read
This past month of December I spent 20 days in Paraguay, a country where I had worked in the early 1980s with the national biological inventory project, and where I gathered my data for my master’s thesis in 1885.
The goal of this trip was to put the final touches on a small-sized field guide to the amphibians and reptiles of the Paraguayan Chaco. This is a dry area west of the Paraguay River bordering Bolivia which makes up 60% of the country.
My hope is that an accessible field guide in Spanish will aid young Paraguayans interested in getting into nature. Fortunately, some biologist friends had planned a trip to the National Park Teniente Enciso close to the Bolivia border and they kindly took me with them. Being field biologists, they stopped for road kills, so I was able to enlarge my collection of photos of reptiles which will serve as references for future paintings.
Many of the 82 species of birds I observed during this trip are endemic to the short, thorny forest of the Chaco.
It was definitely hot in the Chaco this time of year, but the solution was to imitate what all Paraguayans do under these circumstances – constantly sip terere from a cup filled with ice water.
Terere is the name for the drink when consumed with cold water; when it is drunk with boiling water it is called mate. It is made from a native plant of the same genus Ilex as U.S. Christmas Holly.
It was interesting to see what was going on in Paraguay
In the capital city of Asuncion, I examined specimens from the museum of natural history and gave a conference at the university’s natural science department on the herpetofauna of Costa Rica, and also on how to make inexpensive field guides. It was interesting to see what was going on in Paraguay, some of it positive and some of it negative.
International capital is helping to finance the cutting of the forests in the Chaco to produce beef cattle for export and, where there is fresh water available, for sorghum and soybeans. Because of this, the Paraguayan Chaco is suffering one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world. The Chinese capital is planning to combine the Paraguay River channel with a new rail and highway system going west toward Chile to get timber, grains and other resources out of southern Brazil and Paraguay to the Pacific Ocean for cheaper shipment to Asia. Needless to say, this will drastically increase the pressure on the habitats vital for biodiversity that local governments are ill-equipped to protect.
One of the positive changes is the increase in citizen activism in Paraguay
It seems many Paraguayans have reached their limit in their acceptance of corruption, and many groups carry out “sit-ins” and “blockades” (called “escraches”) at the houses and driveways of corrupt judges, senators, municipal mayors, who have used their power to give construction contracts to those who pay bribe money, who create “ghost” positions in government agencies for their lovers or family members, etc.
While I was there the local ABC Color newspaper was running an article about how a Paraguayan supreme court judge had taken a bribe of US$620,000 to rule in favor of a particular group. It will be interesting indeed to see what will happen in that country in the next couple of decades.