South America’s Atlantic Forest is one of the world’s most biodiverse ecosystems, however centuries of deforestation have left just a fraction of intact habitat remaining. In Argentina, BirdLife’s Forest Accelerator programme has been supporting BirdLife Partner Aves Argentinas to restore forest through the bird-friendly cultivation of Yerba Mate.
Conservation starts with a cup of tea. Given the vast challenges facing the natural world, this may seem like a somewhat simplistic starting point, especially in relation to one of the world’s most degraded forests. However, for BirdLife Partner Aves Argentinas, it certainly rings true, as the wildlife-friendly farming of Yerba Mate – a plant used to make a popular caffeinated drink – is the foundation of a project to conserve and restore parts of one of the world’s most threatened ecosystems, South America’s Atlantic Forest.
Although less well-known than the nearby Amazon, the Atlantic Forest is one of the world’s most important, and threatened, biodiversity hotspots. Once extending from the north-eastern tip of Brazil through to eastern Paraguay, it’s home to more than 930 bird species, of which 223 are found nowhere else on earth. Unfortunately, centuries of deforestation have devastated the biome, and just 16% of its original 1.2 million km2 of forest cover remains, restricted to a series of highly fragmented forest patches in Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina.
Black-fronted Piping Guan, copyright Diego Calderon, from the surfbirds galleries
Key to protecting the forest’s rich diversity is therefore to protect patches of habitat that remain, as well as to link each of them up. To do this, in Argentina, BirdLife’s Forest Accelerator Programme has provided seed funding and technical support to help Aves Argentinas promote the organic agroforestry of Yerba Mate, which is an important crop to farmers across the region. As a native plant to the area, that can be grown under the shade of the forest canopy, if managed sustainably it can provide a vital source of income to local communities and a sustainable financial incentive to protect the forest’s rich array of species.
Certifying rainforest protected
Aves Argentinas’ work, focused in the global epicentre for Yerba Mate production in the province of Misiones North-eastern Argentina, forms part of BirdLife’s wider tri-national Atlantic Forest programme supported by the Aage V Jensen Charity Foundation and the Hempel Foundation.
Sandwiched between Brazil and Paraguay, nearly half of Misiones overlaps with several Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) that support globally important populations of species such as Black-fronted Piping Guan, Vinaceous-breasted Amazon (both Endangered) and Helmeted Woodpecker (Vulnerable). By promoting the bird-friendly agroforestry of Yerba Mate, Aves Argentinas are hoping to increase the connectivity between these KBAs, as well as establish a forest corridor connecting its two neighbouring countries.
At the heart of these efforts has been the establishment of a bird-friendly certification scheme, known as the Yerba CAA (or Cultivo Amigo de las Aves) seal. Developed in 2020-21, the seal is given to farmers that adopt a series of nature-friendly practices. These include production being certified organic, and agreeing to put twice as much land under conservation than is used to produce the Yerba Mate leaves. In return, farmers that sign up to the seal are able to sell their product at a premium.
While good in theory, to get farmers to participate, Aves Argentina had to prove it would work economically. To do this, they produced an extensive business plan for the project, as well as setting up two pilot projects in private forest reserves. . Through these projects, they “showed the technical [and] economic feasibility of the mechanism when planting yerba mate in the shade of forest and the positive interaction between native trees and yerba plantations” says Andres Bosso, Head of North-eastern Argentinian Projects for Aves Argentinas. These pilot projects also provided the perfect rainforest setting to demonstrate to farmers how to farm Yerba Mate in an environmentally friendly way, as Bosso describes having “transformed [the sites] into ‘living classrooms’ in the training sessions and presentation of the CAA Initiative.”
With a new business plan in check, and proof that the CAA seal can benefit rainforest while being economically viable, with further support from the BirdLife Accelerator and communications support from Terranomics, Aves Argentinas is now working to make these organic Yerba Mate projects more commercial. This includes potentially tapping into wider, international markets. “We are [now] focused on understanding and promoting the growth potential of the Yerba CAA, and helping leverage this market-based mechanism to protect some of the most sensitive areas of Atlantic Forest in Argentina,” says Bosso, “[and to] develop a positioning strategy for the CAA Seal and identify market spaces and potential marketing channels for CAA Yerba Mate in foreign markets.”
More buyers ultimately mean more rainforest protected and restored. While this is still an ongoing process, there are early signs it is already having an effect, with Aves Argentinas recently signing agreements with four different Yerba Mate companies and producers. One of these agreements is with the Yerba Mate Producers’ Cooperative La Abundancia, which produces the brand Arapegua Mate. To utilize the CAA seal, Arapegua has agreed to protect 441.5 Hectares of Atlantic Forest, which will safeguard the habitat for several globally threatened birds and endemic biodiversity.
“The Yerba CAA project is just part of BirdLife’s wider 10-year programme to safeguard the Atlantic Forest in Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil,” said Mike Seager, BirdLife’s Forest Programme Coordinator for the America Region. “Yerba CAA is great example of how we aim to incentivize private landholders to protect and restore the Atlantic Forest on their properties. We’re also working with municipal and provincial governments to provide tax breaks, and with financial institutions to offer beneficial loan arrangements to landholders who implement forest-friendly land use.”