When most geographers talk of Paraguay they tend to mention the great Gran Chaco plains, or the sparsely wooded hills east of the Rio Paraguay. They talk of the country’s landlocked character and its relatively sparse coverage of thick and dense vegetation in comparison to the rainforest-rich Amazonian countries to the north. However, there is one feature of Paraguay’s backcountry that remains integral to its national character; one that has begun to draw the attention of conservationists, botanists and eco tourists more and more in the last ten years for its grand beauty, unique biology and interesting location: forests.
Most visitors heading into Paraguay from any one of the neighbouring nations will undoubtedly have considered the country’s curious geography beforehand. Split into two distinct sections from east to west, it’s the famous Gran Chaco plains that dominate all the land on the Pacific side of the Paraguay River. Consequently, most of the country’s population dwells in the country’s western half, enjoying a more predictable climate and varied terrain. It’s here, in this side of the land that the bulk of Paraguay’s forests are found, springing up on the great ridges of the Parana Plateau and edging their way northeast towards Brazil and the Atlantic Ocean.
Most all of Paraguay’s forested regions are now designated under the World Biosphere Reserve of ‘Atlantic Forest’, named so for their stark division from the Andean forests in the west by the Chaco plains of middle South America. Today, they are considered to be some of the most endangered forested areas on the planet, with a wealth of unique geographical features that set them entirely apart from the other wooded parts of the continent.
Indeed, the concerns of scientists today have become so intense that many commentators have claimed that these regions of Paraguay and coastal Brazil are now amongst the very frontline sectors of conservation in the whole world. In Paraguay, where the so called Atlantic Forests once stretched in an endless sea of green, out towards the ocean and the Amazon in the north, there are now noticeable divides between various pockets of woodland, raising concerns that many of the region’s indigenous species are under threat.
In fact, it’s estimated that the Paraguayan Atlantic Forest was once home to no fewer than 1,000 bird species and up to 20,000 different examples of plant life, a high proportion of which was thought to be endemic to the region. But, with only an estimated 2%-3% of the original forest coverage left in the country, there are worries that the current conservation efforts may be too little too late.
But, just because conservation is more needed than ever here, it doesn’t mean that tourism on the ground has to stop. Indeed, it’s generally accepted that the largest remaining tract of continuous Atlantic Forest in Paraguay is to be found in the San Rafael National Park (or the San Rafael Reserve of Manageable Resources if you’re being picky), where many visitors now go to experience this country’s eastern backcountry at its best.
Located over 400 kilometres from the capital of Asunción, high on the Parana Plateau in the east, the park may not be the most accessible in the country, but does remain one of the most-coveted amongst bird watchers, plant enthusiasts and eco tourists of all kinds. This is because it’s still home to some of the country’s most fascinating animal and plant species, including some of the curiously unique mammalian species that exist only in the Atlantic Forest, and nowhere else in South America.
These include the endangered puma, the pack-hunting jaguar and the fascinating tapir; all animals which rely heavily on the delicate ecosystems of the Paraguayan woods. In fact, just strolling through the forests of San Rafael can reveal some of the world’s rarest and most interesting animal and bird species, not to mention some of the most endangered yet beautiful and wild woodland scenery outside of the Amazon.
Today, conservation efforts to preserve what’s left of the once dominant Atlantic Forest of Paraguay are well and truly afoot, with organisations like the Guyra Reta Reserve and the international World Land Trust now managing more acres of land in the country than ever before. What’s more, there are also more ambitious initiatives set on restoring the lost tracts of forested land in the region, with tree planting and education programs aimed at both direct action and awareness raising for the future.
If you’re thinking about making the off-the-beaten-track trip to some of these remaining pockets of forest in Paraguay, then try to make your journey as eco-friendly as possible, always paying heed to the regional conservation directives and environmental laws. It’s hoped that such responsible tourism, along with concerted conservation efforts, will ensure the continuation of the Atlantic Forest regions for generations to come.