Paraguay reconsiders value of tropical forest


MBARACAYU, Paraguay -- Since 1989, when a military coup && ended the 35-year dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner, there has been a democratic awakening in Paraguay, and interest in safeguarding the country's natural resources has blossomed.

A major focus of this attention is Mbaracayu, a 225-square-mile extension of Brazil's Atlantic Forest system. It is one of the last great tracts of privately owned subtropical forest in South America.

"Mbaracayu is unique because physically there is no larger piece of land that is virtually undisturbed," said Alan Randall, Paraguayan program director for the Nature Conservancy, one participant in a coalition of governmental and private entities seeking to protect the larger of Mbaracayu's two parcels on Paraguay's eastern border with Brazil.

Alwyn H. Gentry, senior curator of the Missouri Botanical Gardens, called Mbaracayu "one of the most important remaining examples of 'alto parana,' a high-forest type unusually rich in endemic species, found there and nowhere else."

Mbaracayu is not formally part of the Atlantic Forest, which once ranged thousands of miles along Brazil's coast and which the International Conservation Union in Switzerland considers one of the two most endangered rain forests in the world, along with one in Madagascar.

It is, however, a vital haven for numerous Atlantic Forest species that have disappeared from the forest proper.

"It is the last refuge for many species," said Mr. Randall. "It is a bird sanctuary and is particularly rich in fruits and nuts which provide subsistence for the local Indian population."

The two parcels of land that make up the Mbaracayu property, one of 143,000 acres, another of 27,000, have been owned since 1979 by the International Finance Corp., an arm of the World Bank that gained title because of the bankruptcy of a timber company.

While the properties, which are about 50 miles apart, have been maintained and their borders protected, the land is threatened by poachers, landless peasants and those wishing to develop the land.

The Moises Bertoni Foundation, a Paraguayan conservation group started in Asuncion in 1988, has forged an unusual preservation alliance.

It involves the World Bank, the Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Government of Paraguay and AES Barbers Point, a private U.S. company that is financing a survey of Mbaracayu property to determine the amount of carbon that will be sequestered by preserving the existing forest.

In a precedent for the World Bank, the International Finance Corporation is selling a property below market value to a conservation organization.

After the Paraguayan government rejected a debt-for-nature swap, International Finance asked $8 million for the larger Mbaracayu tract, but it has agreed to sell it to the Nature Conservancy for $2 million.

The first grant of $500,000 from AID's Regional Global Climate Change Fund has been pledged to the conservancy to establish Mbaracayu as a nature reserve.

The Nature Conservancy will purchase the property in behalf of the foundation.

As part of the agreement, the Paraguayan government has agreed to buy the smaller tract with the intention of establishing agrarian reform settlements.

Because the Mbaracayu forest is far from Paraguay's navigable rivers, it was protected from European colonists. Spanish traders looking for the leaves of a locally grown tea, yerba mate, first entered the forest in the 16th century.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, Brazilian slave traders also foraged the forests of Mbaracayu, but its isolation continued to provide a sanctuary for local Indians, the Ache.

Today the Ache live in two villages adjacent to Mbaracayu but still use the forest as their traditional hunting grounds. Plans to preserve the wildlife and plant communities of the forest also include programs to allow the 1,000 remaining Ache to hunt and gather there and to help them make the transition to agriculture and animal husbandry.

"It is so quiet here, you feel like you are king of the world," said Raul Gauto, executive director of the Bertoni Foundation, leading visitors on a trail under the forest canopy.

The Mbaracayu property holds a range of habitats. Fifteen percent is low transition forest (up to 49 feet tall), 80 percent is high, dense forest (up to 131 feet, depending on the depth of the soil) and 5 percent is natural grasslands, wetlands, rivers and caves of ecological, biological and archaeological significance.

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