Gustavo Candia protects Paraguay's wetlands ecosystems by mobilizing citizen sector organizations to change harmful cultivation methods, offer environment-friendly jobs, and design new land use policies. By creating a bilateral environmental protection strategy, he works with institutions in other countries to jointly manage ecosystems across boundaries.
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The Paraná River divides a ten million hectare wetlands ecosystem bordering the Ypoa Lake in Paraguay and the Ybarra Lake in Argentina. Gustavo is protecting the ecosystem by mobilizing citizen sector organizations in both countries through a joint stewardship policy. Wetlands are a key component of freshwater ecosystems, providing flood control, carbon storage, water purification, and goods such as fish, timber, and fiber. Gustavo's understanding of the relationship between the wetlands ecosystem and the people who depend on it has enabled him to develop an environmental protection strategy that balances conservation and sustainable use. He involves citizens on both sides of the river in a broad participatory process that stimulates the adoption of best practices and strengthens understanding of their roles in the effort to forge national and bilateral preservation agreements.
Paraguay is in the early stages of developing effective environmental laws and practices. The first environmental laws governing national parks were enacted in the early 1990s, but the Paraguay Secretariat for the Environment that reports directly to the Prime Minister was not established until 2000. State-level secretariats for the environment are also a recent phenomenon. Government institutions are only just beginning to wrestle with issues like integrated solid waste disposal plans, river basin strategies, and associated land use issues, not to mention much larger and more significant concerns like protecting the Paraná River ecosystems. Wetlands protection is the critical element in preservation of resources. If outlying transition zones are attacked by eucalyptus plantations or rice cultivators, the wetlands will shrink dramatically, reducing biodiversity and economic opportunities associated with ecotourism, biomedical research, and the harvesting and cultivation of traditional species for food. There is already evidence of chemicals and pollution in the wetlands, suggesting that threats to Ybarra and Ypoa Lakes must taken seriously and acted on quickly and responsibly.
Gustavo is mobilizing the citizen sector to change cultivation practices within the Ypoa Park and in the transition zone around the Paraguayan side of the border with Argentina. Working with volunteers, he is building a database of information about the ecosystem and the consequences faced by the people living within the park. Gustavo's goal is to find the residents new jobs in ecotourism and indigenous plant cultivation that will improve their standard of living and let them stay in the park. The first objective of this goal is to link the villages on both sides of the Paraná River into a network of citizen organizations whose voice can be heard on matters of concern to the national parks and surrounding areas. He has developed a curriculum for schools in both Argentina and Paraguay to foster greater understanding of the wetlands' value, their currently dire situation, and practices citizens can take to promote sustainability. He also organizes outreach projects that increase awareness of and promote cooperation with environmental organizations working in the national parks and facilitate cooperation between them. On the Argentine side of the border, Gustavo meets with grassroots organizations, farmers, and government officials in an effort to reduce pressure on the Ybarra and surrounding wetlands. He has engineered a bilateral agreement that will lead to the creation of eco-holes–safe zones for various species of plants, animals, and birds–on both sides of the border. He is also working with teams of international experts on sustainable development issues like bird migration to build a case for the support of his programs by foundations, cultural organizations, environmental groups, government agencies, and businesses and facilitate bilateral cooperation to protect ecosystems. Because communities around the Ypoa Lake on the Paraguay side are relatively isolated, Gustavo travels to villages by boat to inventory their resources and agriculture practices. He assesses cultivation processes in each area to collect best practices and lessons learned to share with other villages around the lake. He also identifies and helps remedy problems like the use of chemical fertilizer and predatory cutting. Gustavo is administrating projects to preserve the park's longevity and keep it available to the public. He has met with large landowners and succeeded in encouraging at least one to donate his land to the government in exchange for tax breaks.
As a student, Gustavo attended a seminary that followed the teachings of Liberation Theology. When he was seventeen years old, the Armed Forces attacked his school, killing two students. Gustavo was disillusioned when the Church stood by and did nothing. He studied engineering at university and became a student activism leader on campus. He was arrested twice and once was falsely accused by the Dean of the Engineering School after he led efforts to admit poor students. In the early 1980s, Gustavo joined the Democratic Popular Movement (MDP) and worked for an oil company subsidiary from 1986 to 1991. His business superiors ignored his political activism, expressing concern only when he was detained by the police. He left the oil company and was elected to the legislature in the first completely free elections ever held in Paraguay in 1993. In parliament, he drafted and negotiated passage of groundbreaking environmental legislation. At the completion of his elected term, Gustavo became Secretary for the Environment in the Central Department, which borders Asunción and includes the Ypoa Lake. He initiated river basin and solid waste planning, set up the Center for Environmental Education, and started various preservation programs in the park. The park fell within his Department, but the surrounding transition zones did not, and as Gustavo learned more about its biosystem, he realized that the solution lay in a broad, citizen-based approach to solving the problem on both sides of the border.