Biologist Joseph Sarvary shares a vital message with students concerned about global perils. “Everybody can have an impact — and working for an NGO is one of the best ways to do it,” says the deputy director for Para La Tierra, an NGO that conserves fragile habitats in Paraguay through scientific research, community engagement, and environmental education.
As the chief architect of “Voces de la Naturaleza,” meaning “Voices of Nature,” Mr. Sarvary introduces Paraguayan children to the concept of sustainability. He has earned widespread praise, including a prestigious “30 under 30” award in 2018 from The North American Association for Environmental Education.
Para La Tierra exists because action isn’t optional any more. It’s imperative. Paraguay and its neighbor Argentina have already paid a high price. Cool, lush Atlantic forests that nurture wildlife and consume carbon dioxide are disappearing fast, replaced by hot soy fields hostile to other vegetation and animal habitats.
Some people surrender to environmental degradation and move forward without complaint. Not Mr. Sarvary, who sees disaster looming unless humans step up with any means at our disposal. “We must say and name the things in the world we don’t agree with. Some might be too big and some too small but there is a range of problems that we can have an impact on.”
Toward that end, Para la Tierra hired Mr. Sarvary in 2010 as its first intern. His new assignment landed him on a remote nature reserve in San Pedro, Paraguay’s poorest state. He taught local community members that hunting too many small animals and birds, decimating forests and burning trash posed imminent risk to their environment and health.
Instruction emphasized the consequences for children exposed to burning plastic and other toxic materials in trash piles. The message that air, water and sustainability are connected resonated with young people who want a safer and more livable planet.
Older generations took additional convincing. “Some parents are a bit annoyed when kids tell them that burning the garbage in front of house is bad,” Mr Sarvary admits. “They think we’re teaching them that what parents doing is bad — even though we are always very careful never to say that.”
“We don’t want to be outsiders judging how people live,” says Mr. Sarvary, a Tufts University alumnus. Restraint and diplomacy must balance local necessity with environmental goals. “If they are poor and need firewood to cook dinner, who am I to say they should not chop down trees? There are larger problems at stake than individual nature conservation.”
Attention must be paid to the long term, and that’s where environmental progress is visible, thanks to Para La Tierra. “Whether it’s pollution, hunting, or extraction of wood, kids get the idea they are not just hurting themselves but they are hurting others,” says Mr. Sarvary. “When they read about or hear about other people doing it it’s not an abstract thought any more.”
These days parents report that informed young people come home with straighter backs and increased confidence, more actively engaged not only with their families but with the world around them.
Now based in Pilar (population 28,000) in southwest Paraguay, Mr. Sarvary concentrates on implementing a national environmental curriculum. It’s a huge challenge. An education system where high tech still means wooden desks and blackboards must scramble to address 21stcentury environmental threats.
Nevertheless, Para La Tierra has started mobilizing young Paraguayans to embrace global challenges. The Voces de la Naturaleza network of Eco-clubs is now present in 20 communities across Paraguay using its curriculum to promote the notion that everything is connected. The first step toward engagement is often the longest for underserved children who grow up with the message that their voices do not matter. “We want them to connect to any problem — no matter how small,” says Mr. Sarvary. “Only when they see something they want to change, name and take ownership of it, can solutions start to form.”