IN PARAGUAY RESERVE, A LONE RANGER FIGHTS FOR THE ENVIRONMENT
By ZOLTAN ISTVAN
National Geographic Channel
c.2003 National Geographic Channel
(Distributed by New York Times Special Features)

In Paraguay's Yvytyrusu National Reserve, dawn arrives in mist
rising
from the mountain rain forest.

In a faded uniform and worn leather boots, Mariono Alberto Martinez,
the
lone ranger in the 60,000-acre reserve, waits for his ride to arrive
along
the dirt road by his concrete home. On the window a sign says, "Those
who
take care of nature take care of themselves."

Martinez, who holds a degree in agriculture and forestry, has worked
in
Yvytyrusu for 11 years. His mission is to protect the reserve from the
forces large and small that threaten it. Miners, loggers and poachers
covet
the natural resources there.

A jeep from Alter Vida, a Paraguayan conservation organization,
arrives
to collect Martinez -- off for another round of visits to villages and
farmers to spread the word about the need to preserve the environment
so it
can continue to sustain man and wildlife.

Yvytyrusu abounds with armadillos, foxes, monkeys, snakes and seven
species of butterfly unique to the reserve. For 15 years no official
sighting of jaguars has been made, but two years ago, residents claim
to
have found jaguar tracks.

The reserve is a South American Eden. A favorite destination is
Salto
Suizo, a 100-foot waterfall. Nine Paraguayan rivers begin in this
region,
nourishing towns hundreds of miles away.

"But there's less and less water every year," Martinez says.
"Logging
and mining are changing the landscape. The pool at Salto Suizo is much
lower than it was a couple years ago."

A major occupational hazard for Martinez is bribery.

In one instance that made the national news, Martinez reported a
bribe
attempt by a Brazilian businessman who, in a subsequent court case, was
barred from operating in Paraguay again.

"It happens to me two or three times a year," Martinez says.
"Companies
and people come to me with gifts and cash and ask me to not report
illegal
logging and mining. But this reserve is my life. I'm not going to let
people destroy it for anything."

Martinez' job also requires diplomacy in working with the local
population -- about 12,000, mainly subsistence farmers.

The ranger has authority to make arrests and to use a firearm, but
he
rarely carries his gun. When Martinez encounters local people cutting
down
trees or starting quarries, he resorts more to persuasion than
prosecution.

Martinez has known and worked with the people for years. He hears
the
story often: Somebody is sick, and emergency money is necessary. The
farmers can't wait a whole season to sell their crops. A quick way to
pay
medical bills is to log a few trees or to dig rocks to sell to gravel
companies.

"Martinez' job is not easy -- he has to be a policeman, a friend and
a
teacher at the same time," says Gesine Hansel, a German researcher and
project coordinator at Alter Vida who wrote her master's thesis at
Gottingen University on Paraguay's medicinal plants.

Hansel works with Martinez trying to help Yvytyrusu residents
develop
ways to grow sellable medicinal plants like doradilla (for stomach
pains)
and jaguarete ka'a (for indigestion).

The plants take up less land than other cash crops like cotton and
sugar
cane. Land is at a premium since expansion in certain protected areas
is
forbidden.

Also, farmers often practice methods that don't take full advantage
of
their land.

A constant threat is slash-and-burn agriculture, when farmers open
up
new land illegally by clear-cutting the trees and burning the stumps
and
underbrush.

On any given day from a high peak, Martinez sees smoke rising from
recently logged areas in the reserve. Within days, forests become
smoldering wastelands.

"Some of the children want to stay here in the reserve and raise
families of their own," says Yvytyrusa farmer Jose Hernandez. "They're
going to need land to farm on. Everyone asks themselves: Is preserving
a
forest worth more than feeding your own hungry children?"

Martinez speaks at meetings in local schools to urge the farmers to
use
sustainable farming techniques like crop rotation.

He shows as well as tells. Martinez cultivates indigenous trees in
his
own nursery and brings along the seedlings, hoping to encourage farmers
to
plant them, too.

"I think the best way to try to solve the problems is by talking and
educating people on sustainable farming and safe environmental
practices.
After all, it's not just my reserve, it's theirs too. In 20 years," he
says, "if there's no forest and rivers left, we'll all suffer -- every
single one of us."