- In Paraguay, just 13 percent of the original Atlantic Forest cover still remains, and what is left is highly fragmented.
- The one exception is the San Rafael Reserve, 730 square kilometers (281 square miles) of mostly intact Atlantic Forest.
- Despite its official protected status, Sanchez says the San Rafael Reserve is threatened by logging, poaching and forest clearance for agriculture.
Freelance photojournalist Matthew Sanchez recalls a confrontation between police and rangers with non-profit conservation group Pro Cosara that occurred on his last night staying near the San Rafael Reserve in Paraguay.
“The rangers found, if I remember correctly, a cart or wagon that was loaded with illegally-harvested timber,” Sanchez told Mongabay. “The police, I’m not sure if the rangers called them or what, told the rangers it was better for them, the rangers, to back off and leave.”
When he heard this story, Sanchez was staying at the private reserve of Pro Cosara founders Hans and Christine Hostettler, which lies adjacent to the San Rafael Reserve and is a haven for endangered wildlife that was once found throughout the Atlantic Forest of Paraguay.
The private reserve, Sanchez told Mongabay, serves as something of a model for what Pro Cosara hopes to achieve through its conservation efforts in the San Rafael Reserve, established in 1992 by the Paraguayan government.
Booming global demand for soy has led to large areas of Atlantic Forest being converted to “endless and monotonous stretches of farmland,” Sanchez wrote in a blog post.
The Atlantic Forests of South America stretch from northeastern Brazil down along the along the Atlantic coast and inland as far as northern Argentina and eastern Paraguay. They provide habitat to as many as 8,500 species found nowhere else on earth, and are said to be second in terms of biodiversity only to the Amazon.
Brazil alone was once home to more than 1,000,000 square kilometers (386,000 square miles) of Atlantic Forest, but the World Wildlife Fund estimates that just 7 percent now remains. In Paraguay, just 13 percent of the original Atlantic Forest cover still stands, and what is left is highly fragmented.
“The one exception is found in the San Rafael Reserve,” Sanchez wrote. “The reserve covers 730 square kilometers (281 square miles) in the southeastern provinces of Itapúa and Caazapá. The unique type of forest found here is known as Upper Paraná Atlantic Forest.”
Despite its official protected status, Sanchez adds, the San Rafael Reserve is threatened by logging, poaching and forest clearance for agriculture.
That’s why Pro Cosara rangers regularly patrol the forest looking for illegal loggers and poachers — who are often sport hunters looking for a thrill, not subsistence hunters violating the reserve’s protected status to feed their families. That’s why the group also works with local communities to promote greater awareness of the need for conservation of the last remaining intact Atlantic Forest in Paraguay and the incredible biodiversity it harbors.
But progress is “painfully slow,” Sanchez writes.
“Proper education is lacking in local communities. Poverty in Paraguay remains high. As a result, many people struggle simply making it from one day to the next. The temptation of utilizing whatever resources a dwindling forest can provide is often too great for many. Such has been the case with logging and forest clearance for small-scale farming. Corrupt and indifferent authorities have only worsened the situation.”
Sanchez took a series of photos during his time in Paraguay to help raise awareness of the plight of the San Rafael Reserve.
“I loved just walking through the forest alone photographing the insects, the trees, the plants, the small birds,” Sanchez told Mongabay. “It was peaceful and therapeutic.”
All photos by Matthew Sanchez.