Karina Atkinson, a genetics graduate from Glasgow University, is the poster woman for voluntourism being a life-changing experience. Last year she was selected as one of the Rolex Young Laureate Awards for the environmental work she’s been doing in Paraguay, at a nonprofit she co-founded at the tender age of 23. Para La Tierra<, said organisation, is an environmental initiative that aims to promote sustainable, eco-friendly tourism in Paraguay by working with the local population to preserve and protect its unique, natural habitats.
This month we featured Para La Tierra in our feature on Volunteer Travel. To find out more about her beginnings, the project and how volunteers can get involved, here is a short interview we conducted earlier this month.
Essential Travel: You came to Paraguay in 2008 as a volunteer, before co-founding Para La Tierra in 2010. What was the turning point for you that pulled you towards starting a project this ambitious?
Karina Atkinson: I first went to Paraguay when I was 22 and felt very young. The organisation I went to work with in 2008 was called Ecosara and I was so impressed by their impact that I thought it must have been set up by loads of people with experience in conservation, business management and science, and was surprised to learn that it had actually been started by one man, Paul Smith, in his 20s - not too much older than me. I realised that if you really want to, you can do anything.
That same year I travelled through Paraguay as a cook on an eco-tour (run by Paul) and saw how beautiful Paraguay was, but also how much of it was being destroyed. There was a real need for conservation organisations to step in and help. In 2009 I resigned myself to starting a new organisation drawing from Paul's experience and my own as a volunteer. I still work closely with Paul six years later.
Essential Travel: There is a diverse range of unique wildlife you work with at Para La Tierra - capuchin monkeys, reptiles and amphibians, butterflies and moths. Do volunteers need any specialised experience to come over and work?
Karina Atkinson : Volunteers need no specialist training or experience. Everything you need to know we will tell you during orientation when you arrive. Just bring your enthusiasm to explore. Of course you can always do some research on some of the species you'd expect to see before you leave home. www.faunaparaguay.com is a great place to start.
Essential Travel: How has the local population responded to you and how important is your (and Para La Tierra's) relationship with the people of Laguna Blanca?
Karina Atkinson : Relationships with the local community are vital for our work because you can't conserve anything without involving people. They need support to understand changes to land use and to find alternatives to previous practices such as hunting and logging. Para La Tierra helps them to do that through environmental education and sustainable income projects.
The local population have shown us a very warm welcome to the community. They are fascinated by our features, which really make us stand out from the crowd. Most weeks we are invited to a party or event in the local area, where volunteers can experience Paraguay with Paraguayans. Take your dancing shoes!
Essential Travel: What are the major obstacles you face as an organisation trying to protect and conserve these unique species?
Karina Atkinson : One of the major problems we face is that destruction is everywhere. We are able to conserve our relatively small reserve, but in the meantime, vast stretches of forest are being destroyed all around us for large-scale agriculture. We need to create more reserves, or at least change the legislation, preventing people from destroying biodiversity corridors, so that we don't end up with isolated pockets of animals and plants with no connection to other areas. If this happens, eventually the reserve won't be able to support them and they may disappear forever.
Essential Travel would like to thank Karina for her time and for all the incredible work she does.more blog posts