Elba Muñoz rescues and cares for mistreated monkeys in Chile; Trinidad Vela revived a dry riverbed and saved her Peruvian community from drought; Rubén Pablos has spent 12 years restoring the native Patagonian forest in southern Argentina; and Angela Corvea is cultivating awareness about the environment in Cuba.
“Some people see me as a hero and others see me as a madwoman,” Muñoz, a 58-year-old midwife, tells Tierramérica. She founded the Peñaflor Centre for Primate Rescue and Rehabilitation, 40 kilometres west of the Chilean capital.
Sixty percent of the 6,000 dollars the centre spends monthly comes from Muñoz and her family. The rest is donated by more than 240 “sponsors.” The centre today is home to 145 monkeys of 10 different species. Most were seized from illegal trafficking deals, and the majority arrive sick and injured.
The story began on Dec. 8, 1994, when someone showed up at her door to sell her Cristóbal, a small woolly monkey (Lagothrix lagotheicha).
Muñoz bought him and cared for the monkey as “a son,” never imagining that more and more trafficked or abandoned primates would follow. In 1996 she founded the centre, which has taken in monkeys from circuses, zoos and even a university laboratory.
She has studied primates, visited wildlife sanctuaries, written a book, collaborated in academic publications and given presentations at seminars. Today she is seeking sponsorship from the government in order to obtain private sector financing, says the mother of four.
The Peñaflor Centre holds the only colony of woolly monkeys that has reproduced in captivity in Latin America. Muñoz believes that her effort has helped raise awareness about animal mistreatment. Trafficking of monkeys in Chile has seen a sharp decline, she says.
But, paradoxically, the goal of the centre is to disappear when the last of the animals living there die of old age. “All monkeys in captivity are unhappy. The centre is a prison. It’s the best in Chile, but in the end it’s still a prison,” she says with a note of sadness.
There are people in the world who can make life emerge from what seems to be the epicentre of destruction. In Peru, Trinidad Vela is one such person. She was born 72 years ago in the Amazonian village of Juanjuí, along the Huallaga River, which in the 1980s became a cemetery for victims of Peru’s internal armed conflict, and is now threatened by drug traffickers and deforestation.
There, in a degraded area of pasture land in the eastern region of San Martín, this daughter of peasant farmers, who never finished primary school, planted a forest 14 years ago that revived the flow of a dry riverbed. In 2005, the water saved her local farming community from the worst drought in this part of the Amazon jungle.
“At first, everybody thought I was crazy because I didn’t want to burn off or cut down the weeds, and I began to plant species to recover the flow of our stream. They said ‘she is wasting the land and she’s not working the soil’,” Vela tells Tierramérica. While others planted coca bushes or orange trees, she planted mahogany and cedar to attract native birds, mammals and insects back to their original habitat.
She built her dream accompanied by her daughter, Karina, with perseverance and few resources, making it the only recorded success in restoring the landscape in a pasture ecosystem. Today it is the first private conservation area in the region and bears the name of the recovered stream: Pacunucho.
“After those days without water, the people began to comprehend the importance of the forests, which are necessary to our lives,” says Vela.
In Argentina, Rubén Pablos has led a reforestation project since 1996 in the native forest of the southwestern city of Bariloche. Fires, which in the 1990s decimated 10,000 hectares a year in the Nahuel Huapí National Park, were his wake-up call.
Pablos was born in the suburbs of Buenos Aires. In 1982 he fought in the war against Britain over the Malvinas/Falkland Islands, and in 1990, with no job or profession, he want to work as an artisan in Bariloche.
“I’ve always been interested in nature, but in Bariloche I was very worried about how the forest was being degraded,” he tells Tierramérica.
At first he channelled his concerns by serving as a volunteer fire fighter in the forests. That experience revealed to him that no entity was working to recuperate what the fires destroyed. That is how the Native Andean Patagonian Forest Restoration Project was born.
The initiative includes the Bariloche Forest Nursery, which produces 50,000 seedlings of various species to be planted in reforestation efforts.
“We hold workshops in schools about the functions of the forest, and we take 2,000 kids a year out to plant seedlings in areas affected by the fires,” says Pablos, who describes himself as self-taught and now heads the Asociación Civil Sembrar (sembrar means “to sow” in Spanish).
In 2004 he was able to establish Native Forest Day. Since then, by city ordinance, on the second Sunday of May a reforestation campaign is held in Bariloche. The initiative has been copied by other towns in Patagonia, and the Argentine parliament is studying a bill to make it a national event.
While trees are being planted in Patagonia, in Cuba, Angela Corvea, 59, is busy raising public awareness on the environment.
A retired marine biologist with two decades of experience in environmental education, Corvea divides her time between seminars and workshops in schools and other locations, coordinating the international “Clean Up the World” (A Limpiar el Mundo) campaign in her town, and Acualina, her pioneering project launched in 2003.
All of this gets done without neglecting her daughter Elisa, 24, who has cerebral palsy.
Corvea’s message is aimed at children. “They are like sponges; they take in everything that one plants in their brains. My intention is to alert them and make them concerned, but also keep them busy,” she tells Tierramérica.
With Acualina, a cartoon character on the government-run educational television channels, her ideas have spread across the entire country. The character is a girl, a child philosopher dressed like the ancient Greeks, highlighted by the colours of the Cuban flag. She teaches and counsels about what should be done to protect the environment.
Acualina’s likeness can also be found on posters, matchboxes, calendars, prepaid phone cards, a web site and two books, “Acualina 1” and “Acualina 2”. These days, Corvea is working on the budget to send “Acualina 3” to be printed, while some friends are redesigning the web site.
It is not a quantifiable effort, and it does not boost her retirement pension. But Corvea believes that the most important thing is to continue raising awareness and multiplying efforts, because tomorrow could be too late.
(*Reporting contributed by Patricia Grogg in Havana, Milagros Salazar in Lima, and Marcela Valente in Buenos Aires. This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.) Tierramérica, IPS