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Vol. 13 No. 2 - April 2007
‘Golden Jubilee Number’

The Protection of the Yabotí Biosphere Reserve,
Misiones, Argentina and its Guaraní People

By: Ghillean T. Prance*

Hidden away in the extreme northeast of Argentina is the Province of Misiones sandwiched between Brazil and Paraguay. This Province is of considerable importance for conservation because it contains what is now the largest contiguous tract of southern Atlantic rainforest. Much of the remaining forest is in the area that has been gazeteered as the Yabotí Biosphere Reserve. The reserve is also home to some of the most traditional villages of the Guaraní peoples who were the original occupants of a large part of Paraguay, Argentina and southern Brazil. For the past four years I have been involved in a cooperative project with the provincial government of Misiones to assist with conservation planning, scientific research and Guaraní affairs in the reserve. This is what I would like to report on in this Golden Jubilee issue of Environews, a publication that I have enjoyed and found all forty-nine issues useful. I extend my congratulations to the ISEB for bringing out Environews so regularly over a period of past 12 years and for the important role played by this publication.

The importance of the area

The Atlantic coastal rainforests of South America are most important because of their high level of endemism of plants and animals. They are one of the designated hotspots of priority for conservation (Mittermeir et al., 2004, Myers et al., 2000). These are the areas considered both biologically richest and the most endangered of all terrestrial ecosystems. This is certainly true for the Atlantic rainforests, especially in the more tropical Brazilian part. Many studies have shown the high level of endemism in the forests (e. g. Mori et al., 1981; Thomas et al, 1998). These forests are also one of the most diverse in the world. Thomas et al. (2007) found that there were 405 species of trees and 53 of lianas with DBH > 5 cm in a hectare of forest in the Brazilian state of Bahia. In spite of such a rich diversity and endemism, only about six percent of the Atlantic forest remains. The protection of the remainder is of vital importance.

It is well known that diversity diminishes with distance from the equator and so the rainforests of Northern Argentina are not as diverse as those of Bahia. Nevertheless, they are vitally important because of the relatively large area that remains and the number of plant species and especially large mammals that survive there.

The Yabotí Biosphere reserve

This reserve contains the largest remaining contiguous tract of southern Atlantic rainforest and so for this reason alone it is important. Some of our collaborators using camera traps have shown that large forest animals still roam the reserve, albeit in too small populations because of pressure from hunting and poaching. We have photos of jaguars, puma, tapir, deer and pigs in the reserve. There are also a few villages of the Guaraní people in the reserve. The core area is a provincial park that is now well protected, but much of the rest of the reserve belongs to various timber concessions. The protection of the reserve is administered by the provincial ministry of ecology. The British Government helped to fund the construction of a field station in the core area. This was completed in 2006 and is an excellent facility for fieldwork and research. I was first asked to visit the reserve in 2001 and to help develop a conservation programme with the ministry of ecology. I was able to obtain a grant from the UK Darwin Initiative to help with capacity building for indigenous issues and management structure of the reserve. This grant is administered through the Eden Project a relatively new British botanical venture that exists to promote the importance of plants to people and to encourage their sustainable use (see: www.edenproject.org). The reserve has also appointed an international advisory committee, which I chair. It comprises experts in conservation from Argentina and four other countries.

The programme Collaborators

The Eden Project/ Darwin Initiative team began work in the reserve in 2004. Our principal counterpart is the provincial ministry of ecology, but we also work closely with the Forestry Faculty of the Provincial University in the town of Eldorado. Botanical inventory of the reserve is being carried out systematically by the Instituto Darwinion from San Isidro near Buenos Aires and our grant makes a small contribution to this work as well. There are a number of biologists working in the province stationed at Iguazu who have formed the research and conservation NGO called Ceiba. We have also involved some of the Ceiba scientists in the work especially with the monitoring of animal populations. Because work with the Guaraní people is important, the programme supports the work of a Ph. D. student in ethnobotany from the University of Corrientes, Hector Keller. He and I are working on the ethnobotany of some of the Guaraní villages in or near to the reserve. Much of our grant is to support the work of local people and so only three of us from the Eden Project are fully involved with the project.

Biological inventory

One of the basics for a logical conservation programme is the adequate inventory of the species in the area. We have been fortunate to have the collaboration of the botanists of the Instituto Darwinion who have carried out a thorough inventory and constructed a data base of this information (www.darwin.edu.ar). The botanical inventory has also been assisted by the ethnobotanical work since many voucher specimens have been collected as well. Our work has also been able to stimulate the use of camera traps in the reserve to monitor the larger animals.


Our capacity building has taken two forms: in country training and overseas visits. A few Argentineans are being brought to the UK for short courses. So far, two researchers from the faculty of forestry in Eldorado have taken the conservation techniques course offered by the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. The presence of these people in the UK also gives them the opportunity to visit the Eden Project and learn from our work there.

So far, four staff members of the Eden Project have visited the reserve and each time we visit we give lectures and talks to appropriate audiences. In October 2006, we worked together with local ethnobotanists to offer a course in the subject for Latin American students. We had seventeen students from eight countries who took the ten-day course taught by six ethnobotanists. Part of the course took place at the new field station in the Yabotí reserve and this helped to see that the work was completed and acted as an inauguration of the Marcio Ayres Field Station. The station was named after the late Marcio Ayres a Brazilian primatologist who formed the international advisory committee of the reserve, but died before it was convened. During the next and last year of the project training will continue to be an important part of our work.

Restoration ecology

Restoration is an area in which the Eden Project has much experience because, what is now a major visitor attraction, was built in an old china clay mine that was a completely barren area. The Yabotí reserve has within it many areas that are degraded mainly through excess timber extraction and so, advice on forest restoration is also important. Peter Whitbread-Abrutat, the restoration ecologist of the Eden Project, has visited the Yabotí reserve and is formulating a programme to help restore degraded areas of the reserve.

Ethnobotany and the Guaraní

The population of Guaraní are an important component of the reserve. When our project began, the relationship between these people and the provincial governemt was at a low ebb. The Guaraní chiefs were camped in the principle square of Posadas, the provincial capital, to demand an interview with the governor to protest the felling of their traditional forests for timber extraction. Many aspects of our project have helped to change this situation remarkably. This is in part due to the work of ethnobotanist Hector Keller who speaks Guaraní fluently and has worked with many of the chiefs. The provincial government called a moratorium on timber cutting activities in the two concessions that are of most importance to the Guaraní. We are now in the active process of raising funds to purchase the area back to add to the core area of the reserve. This will be of considerable advantage both to the Guaraní and for biological conservation. The attitude of the provincial government towards the indigenous population has made a 180 degree shift during our project and the deputy minister of the environment is frequently seen negotiating with the Guaraní. This increased activity in the reserve has led to the establishment of an integrated sustainable management plan for the reserve (Área de manejo integral).

The ethnobotanical work has documented many plant uses, legends and traditions of the Guaraní. Keller’s work had included quantitative ethnobotanical studies that have shown the large extent to which the population uses the forest and its plants. He has also studied their concepts of the different vegetation types that occur in the reserve. One of the goals of our project is to find ways to enhance the income of the Guaraní in a sustainable way.

Exhibition of Guaraní life

One of our aims at the Eden Project is to mount an exhibition about the Guaraní that live in the reserve in order to inform a wider section of the public about them. We already have information about them on display. We are gathering material for such a major exhibition and already the Guaraní feature in some of our interpretive work.


The setting up of this binational collaborative project has drawn attention to the Yabotí Biosphere Reserve and has considerably enhanced the protection given to it by the provincial government. It has also helped to improve the relationship between the indigenous population and the government and the protection that is given to their traditional lands.  This is helping to ensure the protection of a most important area of the Atlantic rainforest.


I am grateful to the UK Darwin Initiative for support of our work in the Yabotí Biosphere Reserve, to the Eden Project for sponsoring this programme and to the Ministerio de Ecologia RNR y Turismo of the Province of Misiones for considerable collaboration extended to our work. Special thanks are due to Mario Malajovich the principal collaborator from the ministry and the coordinator of much of our work and to Dan Ryan of the Eden Project.

*Prof. Sir Ghillean T. Prance, F.R.S., VMH is a former Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, England. He is a Life Member and an Advisor of ISEB. - E-mail: [email protected]

This article has been reproduced from the archives of EnviroNews - Newsletter of ISEB India.

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