After graduating five years ago a young East Kilbride woman travelled to far-off Paraguay as a charity volunteer.
The posting was only supposed to last three months.
But not only is Karina Atkinson still there, in April 2010 she co-founded what is rapidly becoming a world-renowned conservation project which has won the Gardenhall woman the prestigious Rolex Award for Enterprise.
The award honours extraordinary individuals who possess the courage and conviction to take on major challenges and is given for a new project or ongoing project which deserves support for its capacity to improve lives or protect the world’s natural and cultural heritage.
So absorbed is she in the work she is doing, former Mossneuk Primary and Duncanrig Secondary School pupil Karina, 27, now sees Paraguay as her home – at least for the foreseeable future.
Karina, who graduated from Glasgow University with a degree in genetics and biology, is determined within the next five years to turn her Paraguayan project into a conservation model.
Already, thanks to her, Paraguay, which is one of the poorest countries in South America, now has its first organisation conducting scientific projects all year around.
Her mum and dad David and Eleanor, and her 24-year-old brother Callum, told the News they could not be prouder of her. Yet, when she first arrived in Paraguay in 2008 to take part in a volunteer programme, Karina admits “she didn’t much like it”.
She added: “From the taxi window, I realised I had landed in the third world. The poverty and my inability to understand what anyone was saying frightened me.”
However, she soon gained confidence as she got to know the culture and the people – whom she describes as “very friendly, but exceptionally shy”.
During a break in her volunteer work, she discovered a natural lake Laguna Blanca that she had never heard of previously – and got hooked on the country.
Three times she delayed her return home until accepting she wanted to remain there permanently.
She became co-founder of Para La Tierra, a non-government organisation dedicated to the conservation of Reserva Natural Laguna Blanca, a little-known Paraguayan reserve of 804 hectares which lies at the confluence of three major eco regions. The plan is to turn it into a model of scientific conservation and sustainable tourism – and transform the lives of the people who live there in the process.
Karina now spends 11 months of every year there as she overcomes obstacles in her project, which has the potential to bring major benefits to the nation and the natural environment. The Rolex Award has enabled her to accelerate her progress.
The reserve lies where three major eco regions – the Upper Paraná Atlantic Forest and the Cerrado (both globally endangered habitats) and the Bosque Central of Paraguay –meet It has an artesian lake and is home to a wide diversity of plants and wildlife, including a number of rare, threatened and endangered species; 283 species of birds have been recorded to date, including 12 globally endangered and four near-threatened species. The flora and fauna of this nation, sometimes described as ‘South America’s Forgotten Corner’, have received relatively little attention from scientists up to now.
“It’s like paradise,” Karina said. “I never get bored.”
But there are threats to this paradise – hence her sense of urgency.
A boom in industrial farming has boosted Paraguay’s economy, but the resulting intensive cattle ranching and soya and eucalyptus cash-cropping are encroaching on the natural environment. Under her leadership, Para La Tierra, with three full-time and two part-time staff, is coming to the rescue. Their work has already become a reference for scientists in Paraguay and further afield. Since its creation, they have welcomed more than 150 temporary volunteers and professional scientists, carrying out a total of 29 distinct research projects. Ten articles have been published in scientific journals, with a further six in preparation.
They are also changing local attitudes through their sustained education and community outreach projects.
Karina said in the long term, eco-tourism would bring income. In the meantime they have built poultry houses and incubators to provide a source of food and cash generation.
And Karina confirmed: “The culture still fascinates me and with so much still to learn, I’ll be here for a while yet.”