New Delhi: When Erika Cuéllar first saw the sun rise over Kaa-Iya del Gran Chaco in Bolivia, the world’s largest protected tropical dry forest, she wasn’t worried about the hostile climate or that she was miles away from civilisation in one of the most inhospitable environments imaginable.
“I was thinking I am very lucky to do this job,” Cuéllar said in an email interview.
Her childhood friend Leonardo Maffei also remembers those initial, heady days. “I was working at a cattle ranch in a tropical forest, and Erika at Chaco, which is one of the driest forests in the world and people who get lost there die of thirst,” he said in an email. “We used to talk via radio. I asked her about her experience and she answered that the Chaco had something indescribable, that once you start working there, you will definitively love it.”
The feeling endured.
Now 41, Cuéllar has been working in Gran Chaco for more than a decade. She now wants to pass on the skills and the knowledge she has gained to the indigenous people by training them as parabiologists, to protect and conserve their environment.
Known locally as the biologist of the guanacos, a wild ancestor of the domesticated llama, Cuéllar is one of Bolivia’s few acclaimed experts in wildlife conservation.
Described by Charles Darwin as “an elegant animal with a long slender neck and fine legs,” the once-plentiful, cinnamon-coloured guanacos have all but disappeared. Today, less than 600 survive in three tiny herds spread across Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina.
“The environment of the Chaco is rapidly deteriorating,” Cuéllar says in a statement. “Yet we can still protect the guanaco, and what remains of the Chaco, if the three countries work together.”
The Gran Chaco is spread across Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay and hosts about 70 species of large animals, including jaguars, pumas and giant armadillos. The forests and scrubland of the Chaco are also home to 3,400 plant species, 500 bird and 150 mammalian species that are unique to the region. Its rich natural wealth has been under pressure for reasons ranging from boundary disputes, the construction of a gas pipeline, extensive cattle ranching and exploitation of groundwater for irrigation.
In 2007, Cuéllar devised a course to train members of three ethnic groups native to the Gran Chaco—Guaraní, Ayoreode and Chiquitano—as parabiologists, taking the protection and conservation of guanaco and its habitat as a flagship scheme.
The parabiologists hold the key to the survival of the guanacos and the conservation of the Gran Chaco. The local people learn scientific methods, making conservation a long-term employment option, and Cuéllar has been enlisting them as her allies, empowering them as full-fledged investigators and mediators with their communities and involving them in policymaking.
“Having trained parabiologists involved in the political organization is really important for conservation because they are capable of helping their leaders to take the best decisions in order to protect their resources,” Cuéllar said. This bottom-up approach can be applied in other Latin American countries where there are high populations of indigenous people using natural resources, she says.
Investing in parabiologists
Cuéllar’s approach differs from others in that she is proposing “a real investment in training” the parabiologists. She is enabling them to be researchers and not just “data collectors”. “I really would like to see this concept introduced in the government system because in that way parabiologists will be recognized as local technicians and researchers.”
Cuéllar hasn’t always wanted to be a biologist; she wanted to be a doctor. “But I could not study medicine because it was an expensive career,” she says. “I decided to study biology because it was the most similar and the most feasible thing to do at that time.”
As a child in a large family, Cuéllar says she “loved to play with her brothers and did not like dolls.”
After finishing high school, Cuéllar did an undergraduate course in biology at Universidad Autónoma Gabriel René Moreno, Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia. She then earned a postgraduate degree in conservation biology from Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology of the University of Kent at Canterbury and a doctorate in zoology at Oxford University.
She has also founded two Bolivian non-governmental organisations focused on conservation and is the coordinator of the Bolivian Committee for the Species Survival Commission of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
It was not easy for Cuéllar to be accepted by the indigenous people and cattle ranchers in a patriarchal environment. However, she is now known and admired across the nation for her fierce dedication, and mental and physical strength.
Her biggest inspiration was the vast and diverse expanse of the Gran Chaco. “Personally, I was motivated to work at a place which has an incredible biodiversity, but was at the same time, a home for thousands of indigenous people using natural resources directly,” she says in a statement.
The 2012 Rolex Award for Enterprise will help support the extension of Cuéllar’s participatory training programme to two of Bolivia’s neighbouring countries, Paraguay and Argentina, and help preserve one of South America’s last truly wild places. “I think I found the way to meet my dream,” says Cuéllar, “which was working with people and, hopefully, helping them a little.”