Paraguay’s Atlantic Forest
So, to my right, there’s a rustle in the undergrowth. I turn quickly, scanning the mottled green of the Atlantic Forest, hoping to see where the sound’s coming from… but it doesn’t look like there’s anything there.
I hesitate, just briefly in case something emerges from the bushes, and then turn back to the path and keep going. It’s at this point I remember reading that there are jaguars in this part of Paraguay and I start to question my decision to go exploring the wilderness on my own.
Already I’m slightly on edge. I seem to be in a running battle with the spider population of the forest and they are starting to win.
Their webs stretch across the narrow path I’m walking along and I have to move slowly to make sure I see them in time to avoid being caught with the other insects. One time, while I was distracted trying to photograph a moving butterfly, I had wandered right into a web.
It’s not particularly manly to shriek but I am man enough to admit that’s what I did. Who knows if they are dangerous spiders but I am not planning to find out. It seems odd that I am so scared of them, after all, they’re the ones who are spineless.
There isn’t much to do but accept that this is animal territory.
Somewhere (who knows how close) a jaguar is probably hunting its prey (hopefully not me); birds are shrieking from the treetops; all around insects are buzzing and flitting through the air between the foliage.
Occasional sounds from the dry leaves on the ground indicate more mysterious creatures are nearby; and of course the aforementioned spiders are waiting in anticipation with their hungry little eyes and hungry eight legs. I am no longer in man’s world.
The problem is, though, that man is encroaching upon this world and that’s what has brought me to the San Rafael region of Paraguay. The once mighty Atlantic Forest is being destroyed by humans. Non-profit organisation Pro Cosara is fighting to preserve what’s left and I have come to see their work.
The Atlantic Forest was once more than 2 million km squared and covered eastern Paraguay, northeastern Argentina and a large part of coastal Brazil. Now it is less than 7 per cent of its original size. It’s become one of the world’s most endangered ecological systems.
In the jungle areas that remain, animal and plant species face extinction. More than 8,000 species exist only here and, as the land is cleared, they face the prospect of being wiped off the planet forever.
Pro Cosara in Paraguay
Christine and Hans Hostettler run the Pro Cosara organisation. Originally from Switzerland, they moved to Paraguay more than 30 years ago when “this whole area as far as you can see was forest”.
Now most of the land has been turned into crops as locals began growing soya beans to make a living. One of the main jobs for Pro Cosara is to educate the farmers about sustainable practices to try to limit the damage to the Atlantic Forest.
Christine and Hans live a simple life, but a fulfilling one. They have a natural good humour that shines through when we talk over meals. Hans has a tendency to make a joke in Spanish and then laugh much longer than would be appropriate.
It never is inappropriate, though. It’s actually infectious and you can see how happy they are, living in their own piece of the wilderness that they get so much satisfaction out of trying to protect.
Working with the staff of locals, they also monitor and patrol the reserve. Sometimes it’s by foot and sometimes it’s in the light plane that Hans built from a kit.
“He’s logged 380 hours of flying in it”, Christine tells me before Hans interrupts. “It’s actually 400”, he corrects… and then laughs for what seems like a minute.
From the plane they are looking for anything from bushfires to wood poachers, who steal trees from the forest to sell. One day I get a shock when I turn up at lunch to find four heavily-armed police officers at the table, getting GPS coordinates from Hans.
One of the other big focuses at the moment is on awareness and fundraising. That’s one of the reasons why Pro Cosara is happy to host tourists for a few days.
The proceeds from the (very modest) cost of lodging goes right back into the organisation and there’s a hope that foreigners will spread the word when they get back home.
And why wouldn’t they? This is a part of the world that you don’t hear much about but there’s a potential environmental disaster looming if the deforestation continues at this pace. Even those spiders deserve better than extinction.
The nitty gritty travel details
To get to Pro Cosara I caught the bus from Encarnacion and got off at Ynambu where I was picked up by Christine. The bus leaves twice a day at 8:00 and 11:30 and takes about three hours. It costs about US$25 for a night’s accommodation and three meals. There is also camping available. You can explore the San Rafael reserve on your own or pay the local people to guide you through it. Oh, and definitely go for a swim in the lake – it’s beautiful! For more information check out this link.