Bethan John, our Roving Reporter, meets a team of Bolivian conservationists with an ambitious aim: to produce the first field guide to the birds of Bolivia that will increase environmental awareness - and help their nation develop sustainably. Can they succeed?
On my recent trip across Central and South America, volunteering with World Land Trust’s (WLT) conservation partners, Bolivia was one of those countries that got under my skin.
Traveling across it is like finding yourself in a surrealist film set. One minute I’m watching pink flamingos wade through red and green lakes at the foot of snow-capped mountains, the next I’m wandering across an island of towering cacti surrounded by a vast and glaring desert of salt.
Despite its environmental richness, as you travel through Bolivia it’s clear to see that it’s one of the poorest nations in South America; its people struggling to cope with a weak economy, rapid population growth and environmental destruction. This means the country is seeking ways to develop quickly.
This development follows the usual global models of growth and the race is on to produce petroleum products, farm land on an industrial scale, and exploitation and destruction of natural resources such as forests for timber. But there is an exciting and alternative movement in Bolivia made up of people trying to follow a sustainable path.
Unfortunately, the reference points for a more organic model of economic growth are thin on the ground. Few Bolivians are aware that they live in one of the most biologically rich countries in the world with the potential to offer economic and social benefits.
How can a field guide make a difference?
During my three weeks with the Armonía team, my role was to create a simple website to showcase their Birds of Bolivia Field Guide project.
I soon learnt that staff of Armonía were doing much more than just publishing a book. Rather, they were undertaking an ambitious three step mission: to raise environmental awareness, to increase ecotourism to support the economy, and to train naturalist guides.
Sebastian Herzog, Scientific Director at Armonía, told me: “We have years’ of experience coupling environmental protection and awareness raising with improved livelihoods for our people. With this vision in mind, we are investing all the revenue from the book sales into the country’s sustainable development, as well as raising environmental awareness locally, regionally, and nationally.”
So, what will be achieved?
Bolivia is the sixth richest nation in the world for bird diversity, and for many countries bird watching forms an important segment of their economy. In the USA alone, some US$82billion (£49.2billion) is spent annually by 48million birders on bird watching trips and equipment. Imagine what a tiny proportion of those funds could achieve in Bolivia.
The publication of a Bolivian bird guide will significantly increase the number of foreign birders that travel to Bolivia. In light of this, Armonía will invest part of the revenue from the sales of the book into providing workshops to help train local naturalist guides and to focus community-run ecotourism ventures on supporting small, local businesses.
Importantly, Armonía will produce cheap field guides in Spanish. The average cost of most titles is equivalent to 25-30 per cent of the minimum monthly wage in Bolivia, which makes continuous learning impossibly expensive for Bolivian ornithology students. This will greatly increase local people’s awareness, knowledge and appreciation of their natural heritage and biodiversity. This will lead to better conservation efforts, while unlocking the economic benefits of increased ecotourism.
Momentum for conservation
During my time in Latin America, working on this project with Armonía was my proudest accomplishment. They’re a small team and an underfunded organisation, but they are enthusiastic, hard-working and passionate. Armonía’s vision of coupling social and economic empowerment, with environmental protection is simply inspiring.
I have no doubt that Armonía will succeed in creating a momentum for conservation action within Bolivia. This will have the power to save numerous species and their habitats from the threat of extinction, while supporting some of the poorest people in South America.
WLT is supporting Armonía with funding for land purchase in Bolivia's Beni savanna. You can support Armonía's conservation efforts by donating to WLT's Buy an Acre appeal and putting Bolivia in the comments box on the donation form.