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Building a Voice for Nature in Latin America and the Caribbean
Photo Credit: Sarah Gannon-Nagle/USFWS
by Sarah Gannon-Nagle
From the high-elevation forests of Central America’s Talamanca Mountains to the dry woodlands of Bolivia’s Gran Chaco, and from the wild Cerrado savannas of Brazil to the fragile island ecosystems of the West Indies, the complexity and richness of species and habitats found in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) make it one of the most environmentally significant regions on the planet. It is home to an estimated 40 percent of the world’s biological diversity (United Nations Environment Programme [UNEP], 2003).
The region contains the largest freshwater wetlands and tropical rainforests, as well as one of the world’s most important coral reefs, second in size only to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia (USAID, 2005). Its river systems also support remarkable biodiversity; the Amazon River basin alone contains more than 2,500 species of fish, or approximately half of the world’s known fish species (UNEP, 2003). In addition, South America has one of the highest concentrations of mammal species in the world (Ceballos & Ehrlich, 2006), such as the giant otter of the Pantanal, the little red brocket deer of the Andes, and the La Plata river dolphin that inhabits the estuaries of the Atlantic coast. Tropical islands, including those made famous by Charles Darwin for their spectacular endemic species, dot the region’s oceans.
These incredible resources, upon which people around the globe depend for clean air, regulation of climate systems, and medical discoveries, are increasingly at risk. Habitat loss in Latin America occurs at an alarming pace; the region has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world. In addition, climate change is causing unprecedented stress on wildlife and ecosystems. Population growth and the consumption of resources are increasing, which in turn is escalating development. A former Secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt, recently summarized the increasing speed of development in the region: "The construction of infrastructure – dams, roads, pipelines, transmission corridors – is an attempt to do in the space of 10 to 15 years all that has been done in the North American continent in the last 150 years." Without sound conservation planning, it is likely that development will occur at a scale that alters the Amazon basin forever.
The need for increased conservation on a regional scale is made more urgent by the fact that the number of natural resources professionals in much of the LAC region is disproportionately small, due in large part to scarce training opportunities. The number of formal conservation education programs in the United States is approximately twice that of Latin America (Rodríguez et al., 2005), yet the U.S. contains an only an estimated 10 percent of the word’s biodiversity.
Because of the great need for conservation training, capacity building – the promotion and enhancement of in-country management of wildlife and other natural resources – is a central component of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Wildlife Without Borders Latin America and the Caribbean (WWBLAC) Regional Program. The program supports a variety of training opportunities throughout the region. Participants include graduate students, managers of protected areas, natural resource professionals, and community leaders. In the past five years, more than 3,000 people in the region have benefitted from conservation programs supported by Wildlife Without Borders.
WWB-LAC has a 20-year history of cultivating future conservation leaders. The first partnerships established through WWB-LAC have been with three leading academic institutions in the region: the National University of Costa Rica, the Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil, and the University of Córdoba in Argentina. WWB-LAC worked with university to establish wildlife conservation and management programs that are both interdisciplinary and international in scope. While doing so, WWB-LAC has helped more than 400 students gain advanced degrees in conservation. Today, the former students work in 20 countries throughout the region. Many are now professors teaching the next generation of conservation biologists, directors within their respective wildlife agencies, or conservation program managers for non-profit organizations.
This collaborative effort to train conservation professionals began in 1984 with creation of the International Institute for Wildlife Conservation and Management (or ICOMVIS, its Spanish acronym) at the National Autonomous University of Costa Rica. In a recent interview, the Director of ICOMVIS, Joel Saenz, described the program’s inception. "Twenty five years ago, we began working together with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and wildlife conservation directors of Central America and the Dominican Republic, to create the first graduate program in wildlife conservation and management in Latin America. ICOMVIS was created with the unique idea of training conservation professionals through a program that integrates biological and ecological dimensions with the human dimension." Mr. Saenz brings first-hand experience to his work as the Director of ICOMVIS; he was among the Institute’s first recipients of a master’s degree in wildlife conservation.
In the fall of 2009, WWB-LAC convened some of the region’s leading conservation professionals to identify crucial skills and gaps in current capacity building efforts. Participants at the meeting included the directors of the three university programs supported by WWB-LAC and several of the graduates. Their guidance will become the foundation for creating an innovative new training program, one that will complement the existing work of WWB-LAC and its partners. Through this initiative, the program will apply lessons learned from the past two decades, and the expertise of some of the region’s best conservationists, towards the goal of expanding training opportunities. We believe that cultivating highly effective conservation leaders is the best investment to ensure a future for the region’s biodiversity.
For more information about the Wildlife Without Borders Latin America and the Caribbean Regional Program, visit our website and view our short video: http://www.fws.gov/international/ DIC/regional%20programs/lac/lac.html
Ceballos, G. and P.R. Ehrlich (2006). Global mammal distributions, biodiversity hotspots and conservation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA). 103, 19374.
Rodríguez, J.P, J.A. Simonetti, A. Premoli, & M.A. Marini (2005). Conservation in austral and neotropical America: building scientific capacity equal to the challenges. Conservation Biology, 19 (3), 969-972.
United Nations Environment Programme (2003). Global Environmental Outlook – Latin America and the Caribbean 2003. Costa Rica. Retrieved from http://www.unep.org/geo/pdfs/GEO__lac2003English.pdf
United States Agency for International Development (2005). USAIDs Biodiversity Conservation Program FY2004 . Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://www.usaid.gov/our_work/environment/biodiversity/pubs/biodiversity_119_rpt_2004.pdf
Sarah Gannon-Nagle, the outreach coordinator for the Branch of Latin America and the Caribbean in the USFWS Division of International Conservation, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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