A few days ago I woke up early, grabbed myself a cup of coffee, and headed over to the airport in order to jump on a plane that would take me to Paraguay. The end goal was to visit Defensores del Chaco, a National Park located at the Gran Chaco region in Paraguay, near the borders of Bolivia and Brazil, and meet Silvino, a forest ranger who has been living over there for the past 44 years.
Shortly after landing in the beautiful city of Asunción, I hopped on a truck and started driving to el Gran Chaco. Little did I know that the travel would take us 13 hours, that we were going to get a flat tire in what seemed the middle of nowhere, and that in order to get through the last 350 km’s of the journey, we would be on an empty and very bumpy road for over 5 hours, with no signal of human life around. Suddenly we started to see a lot of dust. It was impossible for the driver to see clearly what was going on. Minutes later, between all that dust that was clouding the view, we saw one truck, two trucks, three trucks, dozens of trucks, and then I lost count. How come? What was going on?
The trucks were full of cattle. In fact, by the time we reached our final destination at Defensores del Chaco, we crossed over 100 trucks full of them. Not only that, but also a fair amount of bulldozers.
When we arrived, I got to meet Silvino, a true rockstar of nature. Silvino arrived at this land consisting of 720.000 hectares, as a young ranger, 44 years ago. At the time of his arrival, the journey that took me over 13 hours to complete, would take him 9 days because of the lack of roads back in the day. Not only that, but at the time he would live there, by himself, all alone, for periods of 3 months until the government sent him new supplies to get by. At this point, I was already amazed by his story but he had more coming and didn’t make me wait for it. When I asked him about the trucks full of cattle and the bulldozers that I saw earlier that day, he took me on a journey I didn’t see coming. He told me that his most crucial battle was not inside the park itself, but right outside it, close to its borders. Also, this battle didn’t correspond just to him, but it had the economic interest of other people in mind as well. I am talking about the economy of small farmers. He first reminded me how green everything was around the park back in the day, and luckily I didn’t have to only take his word for it, because now thanks to the satellite images available from space I was able to see it in real-time, kind of like a using a time machine, scrolling through a series of time-lapse frames from the area. However, what Silvino taught me next left me speechless. He explained to me that before the cattle are brought to these areas, farmers burn down their territories in order to have pastureland. All these fires not only kill trees but also smaller animals that used to be part of the diet of bigger predators. Here things turned an unexpected spin-off as it was not the typical narrative telling me about how trees produce clean oxygen.
Silvino instead noted that Leopards, in need of food, would break into the farmers' land, and steal one of their cows every now and then. Since farmers didn’t like this at all, they started to kill the Leopards. However, Leopards are very territorial animals, so once you kill one of them you leave that area open for a battle between different Leopards to rule this plot of land. So now farmers don’t have one predator coming after their animals, but many of them. Bear with me though, because this is not the end of it. As farmers kept on killing the Leopards, eventually they got rid of them in some areas, which opened up the land for Pumas, and here lies a big difference. See, Leopards will grab one cow and go away, they just take what they need. Pumas on the other hand, can kill multiple animals, without eating them all, before storming out from the scene. ‘You reap what you sow’ Silvino said. It was the circle of life. In fact, he added, ‘if I had no food, no supplies left, I will be forced to go out and get something to eat one way or another’. As I was mind blown by the beautiful complexity and balance of nature, he added that his biggest challenge has been educating farmers around the park about this. ‘I don’t want people to think I am a lone wolf fighting against human progress, of course not, but we need to find a balance, otherwise, there will be no future for humans and their so-called progress’. Nature is in a fragile balance with itself, and Silvino taught me that even the smallest changes can lead to big disruptions.
During the following days, we saw controlled fires in the farms near the National Park. It was new farmers burning nature down in order to have pastureland. In fact, we even found a dead Leopard, shot by a bullet, that a few days earlier we were able to capture alive with wildlife cameras in the area.
One fact that you must know before we end this article is that from 1985 to 2016 the Gran Chaco suffered a loss of 14.2 million hectares (the size of England). Before ending our visit to Silvino and the rest of the rangers from the area, he wanted to show me a hidden place, ‘a hidden gem’, he said. A place he described as so magical, that I would think I was standing on a whole new planet. We jumped back on his truck and drove for one hour to Cerro León where he encouraged me to watch my steps as there could be various snakes around and lots of spines coming out of trees. After a short hike, where he explained that what I was about to see was one of the biggest carbon sinks of the world and that we should do everything within our power to protect it, we reached a point where he stopped talking and I looked up, because before I was watching my every step as I was trying to be careful on this tricky hill.
What I saw left me speechless. There I was, contemplating over 80.000 hectares of pristine forest. I understand that a picture can not capture all this beauty, but trust me when I say that I’ve never seen so much green in my life. At that point, tears came out of my eyelids and that’s when it hitted me at a personal level. Not only was I able to finally see what our team has been fighting for, but also knowing the science, and the rates of deforestation, it made me feel scared for a minute. I had a wonderful childhood, but now I know that if I ever want to bring a newborn into this world, we must stop deforestation if I want the baby to have a safe environment to play around and discover the wonders of life and this beautiful world. We can not fail to the generations that will come after us. We must help protect places like Defensores del Chaco. Silvino is a rockstar. Nature’s rockstar. Sadly, neither him nor his team receive the recognition they deserve. It’s unbelieve how much knowledge he was able to share with us in such a short period of time. It’s so easy to understand, picture it like this if South America represents the lungs of the Earth, what would you do if you got lung cancer? Stop smoking and go to the doctor in order to heal. Let’s us #GainForest, for you, for us, and for everybody.