The Paraguayan reserve of San Rafael is being restored in a way worthy of interest
I knew at the age of five that I wanted to get involved in biodiversity. I grew up in a city, but what I really liked was swimming in the springs of the village in my grandmother’s house surrounded by birdsong, or learning from my father how to fish for our dinner. and collect honey.
After graduating as a forest engineer, I volunteered with Guyra Paraguay (BirdLife Partner), a biodiversity protection organization in Paraguay, and five years later, I now help manage our five reserves through the country: design of conservation plans, coordination of personnel, promotion and financing. Being in nature remains my favorite, however. I will never forget my first field trip with Guyra in the Pantanal: I saw 18 species of mammals that day – ocelots, tapirs, three kinds of armadillos. It made me understand what we are fighting for; what is at stake.
These days my main focus is the San Rafael Reserve – 70,000 hectares of rainforest and pampas in southeastern Paraguay. It is a precious holdover from the Atlantic Forest biome, considered the most endangered rainforest on the planet – only 7 percent of the original forest remains – and the second in biodiversity after the Amazonia. San Rafael is especially wonderful for birds, with 440 species, including endemic hummingbirds, woodpeckers and toucans. Eighty of its species are threatened with global extinction.
San Rafael was designated a national park in 1992, but only on paper. Every year, more and more of its forests are lost due to illegal activities: valuable trees are disappearing due to logging, suspicious forest fires are taking more of them, and patches hidden in the forest are being cut down for the cultivation of marijuana. It can also be a dangerous place – illegal armed gangs are in the forest and our rangers are regularly threatened. This led Guyra to fight for this landscape for two decades, and with the help of the BirdLife International nature conservation partnership, we purchased almost 10 percent of the reserve to create the Guyra Reta complex, which we are restoring. to nature.
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Our big breakthrough, however, came with the development of a new agroforestry model centered on yerba mate, the rainforest tea that is Paraguay’s national drink. As of this writing, I had just returned from the harvest festival, so I was in turmoil! The yerba mate (pronounced “matt-ay”) is a species of the Atlantic Forest, strongly associated with endangered birds like the red-rimmed guan and the black-fronted pipe-guan, and most importantly, it thrives on the shadow. This means that we can transform degraded areas of the reserve and its buffer zone into tea cultivation and enrich them with other native trees on the red list of our community nursery, where we have 2,000 plants. We have the research to prove that our plots are just as wildlife friendly, and they provide higher yields for local growers than destructive monocultures such as sugar cane, soybeans, or grains such as corn, which encroach on forest habitat.
The system is sustainable and organic, and what is special to me is that it merges science with age-old knowledge. San Rafael is one of the last places where indigenous Mby’a Guarani people still live off the land, and Guyra is in the process of securing full ownership rights to 550 hectares of their ancestral territory, so they can determine their own future. One of my greatest pleasures is spending time with them: they bless their seeds on the first moon of the season in September and hunt and gather in the forest.
Like everywhere in Paraguay, the Mby’a Guarani are impoverished, struggling to feed their families, and threatened by illegal marijuana producers who promise them a quick return to their land. So we included the Guarani in the yerba mate initiative, which is now building bridges with their farming community around the reserve, because previously they were isolated.
Now in our third year, we now have 50 smallholder farmers in four villages harvesting 30,000 kilograms of shade grown tea. We believe we can multiply this in the medium term, and we have a wider collaboration with Aves Argentinas (BirdLife Partner), to assess the potential of a forest-friendly agriculture along an organic corridor connecting San Rafael to the province of Misiones. , to iconic creatures like the jaguar and the harpy eagle. Seeing a puma picked up by one of our remote cameras when we thought it was locally turned off filled me with joy.
I am sure that involving people and making conservation economically viable for them can be a turning point in saving this endangered landscape from deforestation. Why am I so sure? One of the reasons was the enthusiastic smile of yerba mate grower Pelagio Martinez, who doubled his income from a single hectare of land to $ 3,000, thanks to what he calls “that crazy idea from BirdLife and Guyra” . This makes the hard work quite worthwhile.
This article is part of a narrative series from global environmentalists working as part of Trillion Trees.
This project is part of the BirdLife Forest Landscape Sustainability Accelerator, funded in part by Trillion Trees. The Forest Landscape Sustainability Accelerator helps local partners attract sustainable investments and explore forest-friendly business opportunities that will protect the entire landscape for decades to come.