Ecology and Spirituality: The view from South America

Interview with Manuel Saldivar (aka ‘Coco’)

Coco sitting at the back of the truck descending back down the hill to Atyra

Above photo: Coco at the back of the truck, descending back down from his land into Atyra.

I’m spending a few weeks with my Paraguayan family, principally in the countryside. It’s brought me in direct contact with incredible people and diverse nature. In the developed world, we’re often looking to the people of the developing world to do more to save the planet, seeing that we’ve already destroyed so much of ours. I couldn’t pass up the chance therefore to interview some people around here about their ecological and spiritual stories to see what we can learn from those who are often on the front line in the fight to save what we have left of our link with the earth and with this precious, divine planet.

Coco is the owner of Coco’s Café in Atyra, a town about an hour and a half’s drive east of the capital of Paraguay, Asuncion. It’s a charming town of around 15,000 population, nestling in the foothills of the Cordillera Hills. Atyra is well known for being the cleanest town in Paraguay – there is no litter anywhere, recycling bins all over the town, and no graffiti to speak of. Thus in my quest to examine the link between ecology and spirituality, it’s a great place to be.

Whilst Coco owns one of the few cafes in town, ‘Coco’s Burger’, his real passion lies out of town high up in the hills. This is his story about his relationship with the natural world and how that connects with him spiritually.

Richard: You’re Paraguayan, of course. How long have you lived here in Atyra?

Coco: I’ve been here for 10 years now.

Richard: We visited your beautiful land up in the hills. Tell me about it.

Coco: I’ve got 8 hectares there. Since I was a little boy, I’ve been interested in everything there is in nature – plants, animals and so on. That’s what gave me the idea to reforest the properties we’ve got up there in the hills – those of my mother and my father and mine. My father cultivated the land in the past, and got rid of lots of trees. So my brother and I decided to reverse all of this and reforest the land.

We have a plan to plant 2,000 trees. Thus far, we’ve got to 1,500!

Richard: Wow, that’s incredible. Presumably you’re going to be reforesting using the local native plants, which would mean those of the now very endangered Atlantic Rainforest?

Coco: Yes, we have currently about two hectares of Atlantic Rainforest. It’s in a part which has rocks and water which flows from springs.

Richard: And for you, what is the importance of reforesting?

Coco: I think in the future of my children, and for the importance of being able to breathe pure air up there in the beautiful Cordillera with my family.

Richard: What kinds of plants are you planting?

Coco: All native plants, especially the rare and endangered hard woods – La Pacho, Paraiso, an incredibly tall tree; also cedros, which are native; also the odd non-native plant that has grown for centuries in these parts, which the birds really like.

Richard: There still seem to many people round here that do not care for nature in the way that you do, especially it would seem, the Brazilian farmers with their mono-culture such as soya. If you could give such people advice about nature, what would it be?

Coco: There are lots of people who are still ripping out trees, but people seem more conscious about it now. When people see me planting my trees, other people see it and recongise it as something that we need to do. Now there are lots of people that talk about planting every time you remove a tree, i.e. take one, plant one. The problem is that there is little Atlantic Rainforest left, and it takes years and years to recuperate.

Richard: It seems to me however, that around Atyra and in the west of the country, people have a deep respect for trees, as there are just so many. When you drive into the town, mostly all you see is trees. Even in the capital, Asuncion, when you look across it from a tall building, it’s mostly just trees that you see.

Coco: People generally really care for nature around here. The birdlife is just amazing. People keep trees that the birds like; they also ensure that there’s water for them. People understand the chain of life and the link between the birds and the trees.

Richard: Talk to me about the birds. What kinds are there here?

Coco: There are 131 species of birds around here. Within the town here we have the San Francisco bird, which is small; also we have cardinals, which are lovely. Up in my land, we have piririta, nightjars, humming birds, eagles, owls, lapwing, vultures, kites, woodpeckers, parakeets….the list is almost endless.

Richard: When you’re up in your land amongst the trees, do you have more of a sense of God, of spirituality?

Coco: There, I always know that there is a greater power that has created all of this. When we see all the beauty of God, it’s impossible to explain. I always tell my children that they don’t have to think about the limits of anything, the end of anything, because there is no end. There is only the infinite. There is no other side to anything, because there’s no end.

Richard: In the future, what are your hopes and fears for this area?

Coco: I think that more and more people are going to try to plant their properties with trees, as people seem to becoming more conscious of the fragility of the problem we face. However, the true deep, ancient forest, I fear for. The pressure of population is endangering it. People clean the land, get rid of the trees, and plant ornamental plants, or clean the land for cattle to graze.

Richard: Many thanks, Coco, it’s been a real pleasure speaking with you.

Some of Coco's trees at dusk

Above: Night falls over Coco's trees.