On a recent visit to the northern Chaco of Paraguay I saw one of the most depressing examples of the misapplication of foreign aid. All over the world I have seen numerous examples of foreign aid failing to help the intended beneficiaries, but this was the first time that I had seen one that involved a major conservation organisation, and that was having the opposite effect to what was intended.
In 2002 a major infrastructure project was funded in the northern Chaco, with extensive headquarters that could house a team of up to 20 rangers plus support staff. Currently there is only a single ranger based there; very dedicated, but on his own. In addition to the headquarters, guard posts were built at other strategic points, and I visited one of the most important at Cerro Leon at the beginning of February 2014.
The building was structurally sound, but the air conditioning units, water pumps and much of the furnishing had been stolen – leaving just bed frames, cupboards, tables and chairs. The building was clearly in use, because the outside was strewn with the remains of Muscovy Duck, peccaries and other wildlife, with rifle and handgun shells littering the ground. It was clearly a base camp for poachers in the Defensores de Chaco National Park. And there was a sign, somewhat battered and peppered by bullets which proudly proclaimed that the building had been funded by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) among others. I presume this was part of the well publicised Parks in Peril programme.
This well intended programme is having the diametrically opposite effect, and I very much hoped that TNC could help address this problem as a matter of priority. When I returned to Britain, I described the situation to staff of TNC and showed them photos of what was happening in the northern Chaco. Their response was disappointing.
They told me “they regret deeply what is happening in the Chaco”, and went on to say “TNC exited Paraguay a few years ago because of lack of funds and we no longer operate in that country. TNC has also changed the way they compose their programmatic cost centers and operating units can no longer accumulate discretionary funding that could be allocated outside of their current project portfolio.”
In other words, the project they funded under their Parks in Peril project is actually placing a national park at risk by providing a base camp for poachers. To my mind funding ill thought through infrastructure projects at the expense of long term conservation is more damaging than doing nothing. The donors feel good, but wildlife suffers, which is why some World Land Trust (WLT) projects involve a commitment for up to 20 years.
WLT is a relatively small NGO, with a total budget of under £3 million last year. This year we are committing around £60,000 to support Guyra Paraguay (Guyra), our conservation partner in Paraguay. In turn, Guyra is supporting SEAM, the Paraguayan Ministry of the Environment (SEAM) which is responsible for administering the national parks.
WLT is also funding three rangers for Paraguay through its Keepers of the Wild programme, and it costs around £500 a month to employ and equip a ranger. Now more than ever the work of these rangers is vital for conservation, so if you or a company you know would like to sponsor one for a year or more, please contact me urgently.