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Ancient Forest Fighting for Its Life in Paraguay : Environment: Two conservation groups and the Ache tribe work to protect the Mbaracayu Nature Reserve from civilization's advances and torch-wielding farmers.


YGATIMI, Paraguay — Thirty miles north of this dusty outpost, along a bumpy and treacherous dirt road, an ancient forest stands as a Berlin of sorts, a green island amid a sea of deforestation.

It's a forest that is fighting back. The owners and friends of the Mbaracayu Nature Reserve say it is a model for conservation, an attempt to thwart civilization's advance on eastern Paraguay's dwindling forests.

Nearly 400 square miles of forest are lost to loggers every year in this California-size country. To make matters worse, forest land is set ablaze daily by farmers and ranchers to create more open space, producing smoke that impairs visibility and air quality for hundreds of miles.

"The pressure here against saving these forests from destruction is tremendous," Frank Fragano, an environmentalist with the U.S. Agency for International Development, said during an aerial survey of the reserve. "We want to avoid making this place an island."

Owned by two conservation groups, Mbaracayu is a dense, subtropical mix of hardwoods, grasslands and wetlands, home to thousands of species of plants and animals, some extinct or severely endangered in other regions. These include jaguars, tapirs, peccaries, giant armadillos, and the bush dog. Birds like the king vulture, large macaw and bare-throated bellbird nest there.

The park is also the traditional hunting grounds of the Ache Indians, primitive hunters and gatherers whose way of life, until the 1970s, had changed little for 10,000 years.

But the flora and fauna of the 220-square-mile reserve remain little changed, and its lush canopy is a small reminder of the vast, primordial forest that covered much of eastern Paraguay and Brazil.

To save the reserve, Mbaracayu officials plan to expand the park's borders, and they are showing nearby settlers how to farm the land without cutting down or burning trees.

Officials also have enlisted the help of the Ache to maintain the reserve--while helping the Indians protect their culture against modern man's onslaught.

"This is the largest tract of interior Atlantic forest in Paraguay and the reserve is the most important conservation area in Paraguay," said Alberto Madrono, a field biologist who lives and works on the reserve.

"But the situation around here is really serious," he added. "It's appalling that most of this forest has disappeared in the last 50 years when it took thousands of years to create."

In the 1970s, a series of business misfortunes saved Mbaracayu from destruction. A forestry company that owned the land defaulted on a World Bank loan and the bank, as part of its new policy to help preserve wild lands, protected the parcel and sought an appropriate buyer for about decade.

In 1991, the U.S.-based Nature Conservancy and the Moises Bertoni Foundation, a private Paraguayan conservation group formed to manage the reserve, bought the property for $2 million with help from private sources and the U.S. government.

Until then, Paraguay had been largely neglected by international conservation efforts. While the government has set up a small national park system in response to accelerated deforestation, private interests have assumed the task of saving the country's wild lands and created Mbaracayu in the process.

The Paraguayan government, still grappling with democracy after 35 years of dictatorship that ended only five years ago, has supported the reserve, as have the country's urban middle-class and news media.

Some landowners see the reserve as a way to make their own land more valuable. They say they can make more off the land by growing an herb called mate and harvesting palm hearts.

Complaints about the reserve have been few. Mostly, they come from the poor farmers who have settled near the park, said Alan Randall, the Nature Conservancy's director of program development.

Struggling to feed their families, some of the farmers have difficulty understanding why they cannot hunt or log in the reserve, Randall said. Others see the reserve as just another plaything for overbearing foreigners.

"Rather than preaching to the locals about conservation, we are providing a leadership model" to show ways of living with the forest, Randall said. "And they are not particularly bothered by it."

Creating Mbaracayu could not have happened without the Ache, considered among South America's most genetically pure and socially isolated Indians. The Moises Bertoni Foundation was able to secure their support for the reserve by donating land to enlarge the Ache's nearby reservation.

The Ache, some of whom live outside the reserve in scattered huts without electricity and running water, consider Mbaracayu the heart of their territory. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, large numbers of the nomadic tribe were killed by ranchers, sold into virtual slavery or died of disease.

The Ache have been given exclusive hunting rights in the reserve--as long as they use only bows and arrows--and they are free to forage for wild honey, fruits and insect larva. That is expected to help them overcome a decline in health from the sedentary life in their nearby reservation.

In the long run, foundation officials hope to integrate the Ache into the management and protection of the reserve.

Aside from deforestation and an influx of settlers, the biggest problems confronting the reserve are poaching, illicit logging and marijuana-growing within its borders. Several guards are employed to keep out troublemakers.

But officials of the foundation say managing the reserve is not enough. They are trying to educate the public and persuade local landowners to conserve.

"You don't have to cut down trees to make a living."

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