For 13 years, Erika Cuellar has empowered indigenous communities to do research and monetise their skills. Janaki Lenin met her in New Delhi recently, when the Bolivian biologist received the Rolex Award for Enterprise.

Around the world, forest people, frequently tribals, make work in the wilderness possible for researchers, foresters, and conservationists. In India, the Kadar in Kerala, Irula in Tamil Nadu, Karen in Andaman Islands, and Nishi in parts of Arunachal Pradesh navigate through landscape that looks uniformly the same to outsiders. Not only do they know the haunts of wildlife better than anybody else, they set up camp, cook, and transport gear and rations. Frequently, their superior senses help us outsiders avoid danger.

For all these contributions, these field assistants’ names may be mentioned in the acknowledgements section of reports and scientific publications. Their expertise is rarely recognised officially. Since their skills are superb, they could just as well do the research themselves. But their lack of formal education has always held them back.

Bolivian biologist, Erika Cuellar, achieved what others merely talk about over an evening drink: empower barely literate indigenous communities to do research. She was in Delhi recently to receive the Rolex Award for Enterprise that will enable her to expand the scope of her work.

For the past 13 years, in her homeland, the 41-year-old has worked with the Guarani, Chiquitano and Ayoreode communities in Kaa-Iya National Park, a vast 34,000 sq.km forest almost the size of Kerala. The park protects a part of the Gran Chaco, a tropical dry forest interspersed with swamps, salt flats, scrub, and grasslands. One of the hottest places on the continent, the terrain is tough and forbidding.

Although the main focus of her work was the guanaco, the wild progenitor of the domesticated llama, she has crafted a fresh approach to research and conservation with her programme of training parabiologists.

Erika adapted the concept from Costa Rica. In 1991, overwhelmed by the numerous insects waiting to be identified, Daniel Janzen, an evolutionary ecologist at the University of Pennsylvania, suggested training local people in bug taxonomy, to become parataxonomists. And he succeeded. But Erika wasn’t happy just to teach one narrow field. She told me, “Indigenous people should learn how to study different species, different classes of animals and plants. They should also learn tools of management, how to communicate — a few things that are important for decision-making. Knowing a little of everything builds up their confidence.”

With an award from the Whitley Fund for Nature in 2007, Erika developed a curriculum to train the three communities living in the Gran Chaco in various aspects of ecology. The university that oversaw the course conducted multiple-choice exams because the students cannot write elaborate answers. The desire to study was so strong that 120 people applied. Only 20 were chosen. Erika says, “They don’t read, so studying was very difficult. But they put everything into studying to pass exams.”

One such applicant was Louis, an Ayoreode, who couldn’t read or write. He now knows basic maths, how to use a GPS and microscope, and the principles of taxonomy. When Erika saw the disbelief cross my face, she nodded knowingly as she explained how she had initially refused to let him attend the programme. But he was persuasive and she relented.

Throughout the eight months, Louis attended classes and also struggled to teach himself to read and write. But his literacy skills were still inadequate to sit for the exam. He came up with a novel idea: his wife could read the questions, he would provide the answers, and she would write them down. Astonishingly, the university approved this unorthodox solution, and Louis passed with 55 per cent. He is now qualified to collect data, analyse it, and present the results. Erika became emotional as she said, “All of us are so proud of him. I understood you don’t have the right to judge people. You have to give them the opportunity. This is one of the most important things I ever did — having him in the course, and giving him the certificate.”

Kaa-Iya National Park is unique not only for the many wild animals like jaguar, armadillo, and the guanaco, but also in its origins. In a first of its kind for Latin America, indigenous people campaigned for its protection. Once the government created it in 1997, the area’s tribes managed it. The 20 parabiologists assist their leaders in making management decisions. Not only does the parabiologist programme empower members of the local communities, it also enables scientific governance of the park.

In India, since forest tribal skills rarely have a place in the economy, they are on the wane. The younger generation has no incentive to learn traditional knowledge from their parents. Unless a programme such as the parabiologists’ scheme inculcates a sense of pride in their knowledge and provides a livelihood, we may soon lose these skills and knowledge.

With the aid of the Rolex Award, Erika plans to expand the project to neighbouring Argentina and Paraguay. Both these countries have significant chunks of the Gran Chaco that need protection. The problems are many. Although a National Park exists on paper in Paraguay, the military hunts there. Grasslands are being taken over by trees and shrubs, and cattle are catalysing the problem. This limits the habitat for the guanaco, of which only 400 are left in Bolivia and Paraguay. Erika doesn’t appear fazed by the enormity of what she has taken on; she brims with confidence as she narrates her future course of action and her strategy.

If Louis overcame literacy challenges, Erika had her own share of struggles. The big one was to prove she could work in a man’s world. Although she is half-Guarani, when she first arrived at Kaa-Iya, her tribesmen didn’t accept her. Her project required her to accompany hunters, and some of them thought taking a woman along would bring bad luck. Others felt she wouldn’t be able to keep up with them. The women were suspicious because hunting was an all-night activity, and Erika was the only woman among their men. Erika says ruefully, “I thought that the women would understand me. But the women understood me even less than the men did.”

She demonstrated to the hunters that she was as tough as they were. If she had to walk 10-20 km, she did it without complaining. The going was tough, the terrain was hard, and water scarce. But she willed herself on. Two weeks later, the hunters accepted her presence.

As Erika talks about growing up in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, three things stand out: her grit, determination, and generosity. Her father told her, “I’m not going to stop working until the day I die if you need to study. You don’t have to work while you study.” She says, “In spite of all the economic difficulties we had, I feel very grateful I could study.”

She always wanted to do public service, helping people makes her happy. And the parabiologist programme is her way of giving the opportunity of studying to people who didn’t have it.

Erika says she lives by her father’s advice: “I don’t care if you are a builder or a cook or if you work in a laundry, but do it well.”

She recalls the time when she was to spend 40 days in the company of 14 men. She worried if she would be fine. Her father said, “You are going there to work. You do it well and they will respect you. And maybe…they will help you.”

And they did.