Spectator on preserving Paraguay

Every family has their share of secret shame. This is not the space for True Confessions, but when my husband’s eyes get that distant look of sadness, I know what he’s thinking. Hedges. Miles of hedges that had defined the fields at Wyken since Domesday, and were the habitat of entire civilisations. Hedges that he bull-dozed without mercy, in tune with the mantra of the times: big fields mean big yields/we’ve got to feed the world. But life moves on. By the time we met, he was a Born Again farmer, a member of the 6ft Head-lands and Beetle Bank faith. Wide grass strips framed the fields and hedges were being replanted.

I reckoned I knew the worst about his past and all was forgiven. Until last night. We were on our way to a very big event in Suffolk with Sir David Attenborough and the Ambassador from Paraguay, along with the heads of the World Land Trust (WLT) and Guyra Paraguay. We gathered in the rose garden at Thorpe Hall to witness the signing of an historic document: an agreement that will safeguard the future of the wildest place left on earth: the Dry Chaco in Paraguay. This feels like the signing of a momentous peace treaty. Paraguay, a landlocked country in South America, has only recently emerged from years of dictatorships, and this document requires earthshaking optimism: the ambas-sador is signing away control of three national parks. For the next 10 years, some 2½ million acres, an area the size of Yorkshire, will be run by Guyra Paraguay, an independent conservation organisation based in the country’s capital.

Even better, it will be funded by the small-but-beautiful WLT, which buys up land of great importance to the health of the planet and then turns that land over to the organisations in those countries that can look after it. Unlike dot.com billionaires who sought to save the rainforests by buying them, the WLT buys the land on behalf of the cash-strapped conservation organisations in the countries, shedding the mantle of neo-colonialism as it secures the infrastructure needed to protect the land from poachers, loggers and invaders who clear the land for soya and cattle farming.

The WLT, guided by its remarkable cofounder John Burton, has always put sustainability first. John has no idea where he’ll get the £10 million for this historic salvation of the Dry Chaco, but the miracle is getting the agreement. Compared to that, the money is a doddle. Somewhere between the town of Eye and the barn where we watch the 50-year-old film by Sir David Attenborough called Zoo Quest in Paraguay, my husband confesses new shame: in his twenties, he spent a year in Paraguay working for Liebigs. While he was there, the meat company bought up 80,000 acres of rainforest and cleared it for grazing. It was called Progress, twin sister to Prosperity. My husband looks uneasy. So does Sir David Attenborough watching a younger version of himself on the screen, bottom in the air, digging with his bare hands the hole that’s home to a family of baby armadillos, quadruplets. He gives the babies a little kiss on the nose before stuffing them in cotton sacks and placing them on the ox-wagon, the first stage of their long journey to the London Zoo. Their bereaved mother is never mentioned.

Many are the sins committed through ignorance. Lucky is the man who lives long enough to redeem himself. Sir David wouldn’t kidnap baby armadillos now, and truly no one has done more than this saintly man to inform and alert the world to the precious and vulnerable wilderness left on our planet. My husband’s penitence has been more modest. As he watches the men signing, he looks tearful. I feel more hedges are on the way, along with some serious fundraising for the Dry Chaco.