Joseph Sarvary

Pilar, ParaguayAge: 28

Tell us a bit about yourself!

I am the Deputy Director of Fundacion Para La Tierra, a conservation NGO based out of Paraguay. Our mission is to protect the threatened habitats of Paraguay through scientific research, community engagement, and environmental education. Over the past 6 years, I have held a variety of roles within the organization. In 2013, I conducted a research project on the ecology of the endangered White-winged Nightjar. From 2012 to 2015, I supervised over 60 interns and volunteers who visited Paraguay to research the local fauna. I am incredibly proud of the amount I have been able to contribute to the overall understanding of Paraguay’s biodiversity as part of this team.

However, in 2016, alongside Karina Atkinson and Jorge Ayala, I really found my passion when we founded an environmental education initiative called Voces de la Naturaleza (Voices of Nature). We recognized that, despite the high output of scientific discoveries, we weren’t having enough of an impact on conservation on the ground. We needed to inspire local people to act on behalf of their nearby nature. With the support of many other organizations, we built an Eco-Club program that focuses on developing "the 3 C’s" (Curiosity, Creativity and a Connection to Nature) in children all around Paraguay. Our program has expanded to clubs in four different departments across the country, reaching hundreds of children every week.

What inspired you to become a champion for the environment and environmental education?

A biologist by training, I first discovered my passion for teaching while conducting school visits in a rural area of Paraguay. While investigating the behavior of an endangered bird species, I hoped to use education, through lectures and activities at local schools, to decrease the illegal hunting and logging negatively affecting the local habitat. These visits changed my life forever. Standing in front of the thirty students sharing twenty desks, with dirt floors underfoot and plastic bags covering the broken windows, I realized that these children had the most to gain from the protection of the forests surrounding them and yet were powerless to affect its fate. They were as voiceless as the trees themselves. At that moment, the idea was born to create a program dedicated to training the children of Paraguay to use their voices to protect what is rightfully theirs to inherit—a healthy planet.

Through Voces de la Naturaleza, I have had the privilege of seeing those same children grow. In our club, they have gained self-confidence, practiced critical thinking, and developed their Voice. The children that inspired me to take action are now acting on their own, building bird-boxes in their local squares and putting on conservation-themed skits for their families. Their creativity and energy are a constant source of inspiration for me.

What advice would you give to the next generation of leaders that are looking to bring about positive change in their communities through EE?

Focus on Connection. More and more studies demonstrate the importance of individuals and communities connecting with nature, but advocates shy away from emotional appeals for nature conservation because our society is so rooted in pragmatic solutions to finite problems. We prefer silver bullets—cleverly-engineered technology or logical psychological approaches. However, inspiring community-based action isn’t so simple. As young leaders, we must channel what make us uniquely human—feelings of awe, surprise, gratitude, and curiosity. These are far more powerful than scary statistics or clever hashtags. Building emotional and personal connections to the issue at hand within your community will make your role as leader much easier.

The issues facing future generations will be some of the most difficult and trying problems that humanity has ever faced. If we approach these global issues as small pockets of unconnected, self-serving citizens, we will fail. We must focus on developing a connection to the planet as a whole, to both the natural world and our human species. We are all in this together and if we don’t start working together, then we are going to go down with the ship, together. 

What pro-environmental behavior do you think would make a big impact if everyone in the world started doing it?

Go outside and take someone else with you. As environmental educators, we are often tasked with helping others understand the importance of a healthy habitat—explaining the intricacies of the food web, the water cycle, or even climate change. But I much prefer to focus on building a connection with instead of an understanding of the natural world. My personal motivation for protecting wildlife is not scientific nor utilitarian. I believe we must protect the planet because it is beautiful. I have been lucky enough to experience the unexpected magic of the wilderness, and I want to share that with the people I love. Experiences in nature, particularly those shared between youth and older mentors, are the leading driver of pro-environmental action later in life. If we could all just spend a little more time walking in the woods with a friend, a child, or a student, we would be doing this world a great service.

It is easy to become discouraged by the scale of environmental degradation that we are up against. As environmental educators, we must focus on inspiring a new generation of eco-entrepreneurs, eco-politicians, and eco-business leaders that understand what is at stake.

If you could be any animal or plant, what would you be and why?

Pinus longaeva. The Great Basin Bristlecone Pine is the longest living organism in the world with the oldest individual recorded as being 5,065 years old. I feel both blessed and cursed with the time in human history that I was born into. On one hand, I have the internet, color television, and memes! On the other, I have refugee crises, melting icecaps, and rising sea levels. It feels as though we are at a tipping point. Breaking the mold of previous generations and taking action might inspire a new inclusive, global society. One without tribalism, xenophobia, and poverty. A society that lives in harmony with the natural world and with one another. But if we continue on our current path of carbon-consumption, deforestation, pollution, and consumerism, then we will effectively poison our planet. In a couple hundreds of years, rivers will dry up, coastal cities will flood, and deserts will spread out from the equator conquering the greatest forests on our planet. Our planet will become Alien. If I were Pinus longaeva, I would get to see which of the two futures we earn.