Carlos B. Aguirre

Wetlands in Bolivia: Pantanal Preservation and Sustainable Development

(Excerpts from the full paper presented in the uncorrected, advance proof of The Pantanal of Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay, Hudson MacArthur Publishers, copyright 2000 by Waterland Research Institute)

Wetlands occupy an important part of the Bolivian territory and in particular its tropical zone. The Bolivian tropics are composed of three districts — Pando, Beni and Santa Cruz — and extend into the districts of La Paz and Cochabamba. Wetlands in the northernmost district of Pando (63,827 km2) have not been characterized. In the district of Beni, some recent studies were conducted and proposals were made for a systematic classification of wetlands (Miranda 1999). Beni covers an area of 213,564 km2, of which 30,000 km2 correspond to different types of permanent wetlands and over 100,000 km2 are flood areas constituting temporary wetlands during the rainy season (November/December through April/May). 

A high productivity and rich fauna characterize the Beni wetlands. Several wetland related species of mammals can be found there (i.e. Noctilio, Chrysocyon brachyurus, Pteronura brasiliensis, Lutra longicaudis, Odocoileus dichotomus, Tapirus terrestres). Some of the largest are Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris and the river mammal Inia geofrensis. About 70 species of birds are closely related to these wetlands, some very rare (Phistocomus hoazin, Eurypiga helias and Heliocornis fulica). Reptiles constitute another important part of the fauna. Some species are in danger of extinction due to hunting (Caiman latirostris and Melanosuchus niger). River turtles and over 300 species of fish are also characteristic of this region. 

Many of the problems affecting the district wetlands and other wetlands in the country come from draining, and from clearing the land by burning it, which is a method used in cattle raising and agriculture. Local ethnic groups use the latter “technique” to facilitate hunting "wetland deer" (Odocoileus dichotomus). Preservation and sustainable development challenges facing the Beni wetlands include hunting reptiles and other species; the introduction of exotic species such as Tilapia; commercial fishing; pollution by toxic substances; and removing woodlands that block water courses. Because of the rather high degree of human intervention in the region, it is crucial that Bolivia develop a wetland strategy. 

A comprehensive study of wetlands in the district of Santa Cruz (370,621 km2) still must be done. However, valuable information has been obtained for parts of the Bolivian Pantanal, and it will be discussed in the next section. 


The Bolivian Pantanal covers about 10 percent of the total Pantanal area (100,000-175,000 km2). It comprises several zones, two of which, Otuquis and San Matías, became part of the National System of Protected Areas in 1997, and recently were studied systematically. The main areas in the district of Santa Cruz include: San Matías; the north and south of Puerto Suarez — the Caceres Lagoon; the open and low marshes between the San Fernando river and the La Gaiba Lagoon; and the extended marshes around Puerto Bush — Otuquis and Tucavaca. The San Matías reserve and the Otuquis reserve have been systematically studied in some detail (Universidad Autónoma 1997). 


The Otuquis Pantanal reserve covers 1,005,950 hectares, of which 903,350 hectares are designated as a national park and 102,600 as a natural area of integrated management. Rainfall is estimated at 900-1,100 mm/year, with 80 percent of it falling between October and January. The mean annual temperature is 26oC. As a result of the interaction of the temperature, rainfall and height regimes, this zone is classified as "dry temperate forest” (bs-TE). Soils are composed of quaternary sediments of pluvial character. The internal hydrographic network does not posses a defined distribution pattern, being assimilated into a closed basin where water courses are born and die in the Paraguay and Negro rivers. One exception is the Otuquis River in the northern section which runs east and south and drains into the Pantanal, eventually ending up in the Paraguay River. Its flow rate varies between 1.55 m3/sec in September and 33.9 m3/sec in March. Three phitogeographic regions converge in Otuquis, Chaco, Cerrado and Amazonia, and flora and fauna characteristics of each can be found, as noted later on. 


The reserve is almost unpopulated; there are five or six farms. At its northern limit, however, there are ranches and urban populations of importance along the Santa Cruz-Puerto Suarez-Corumbá railway (constructed in 1940-45). In fact, 90 percent of the population in this region (25,426 inhabitants at last census) is concentrated along the railway line. 


As for cultural diversity the Otuquis is characterized by the presence of two indigenous communities, Chiquitanos and Ayoreos, who are Creole (Spanish: criollo) peasants and descendants of the Spanish colony; recent colonizers (Quechuas and Aimaras) from the Bolivian highlands; and foreigners, mainly from Brazil. The Ayoreo people (about 838 who live along the railway lines) have a semi-nomad culture, while the Chiquitanos people (about 2,819 in the same area) are a sedentary group partially because of the strong Jesuit influence from Spanish colonization. 


Important economic activities take place around the Otuquis. Tourists number between 8,500 and 10,000 per year around the city of Puerto Suarez. Several new projects are discussed briefly further on, and it is expected that they will be completed within the next five years. In the Free Zone of Puerto Aguirre, commercial visitors number about 250,000 per year. Access is by plane, road and train, but in general the infrastructure is not well developed. Feasibility studies are being carried out to look for better solutions. Mining concerns in this area cover 301 hectares and operate mainly in the “Cerro Mutun” iron ore deposits, which are considered some of the world largest reserves (estimated at 25 million tons of secondary positive mineral reserves, 77 million of primary positive mineral reserves and 330 million tons of probable reserves), and which presently refine 15,000 tons/year of iron ore. 


The San Matías Pantanal reserve covers 2,918,500 hectares. It is located next to the Pantanal Matogrossense National Park in Brazil, permitting a flora and fauna corridor that will enhance preservation efforts in both areas. Rainfall is in the order of 1,400-1,600 mm/year, 80 percent of which falls during the rainy season (October-April). Mean annual temperature is 25oC. As a result of the interaction of temperature, rainfall and height regimes, 50 percent of the zone is classified as a humid temperate forest (bh-TE) and the other 50 percent as a dry temperate forest. Precambrian rocks belonging to the “Brazilian shield” provide the surface with a wavy and rocky physiography without permeability or porosity, and as such they have no capacity for circulation or storage of underground waters. 

The predominant vegetation belongs to the Brazilian Cerrado formation, but because it intersects the Chaco and Amazonian regions, it is possible to find flora and fauna characteristics of each. Fifty-six large and small ranches dot the area with about 534 people. The cultural diversity both in the area and in the areas of influence is represented, as in the Otuquis Pantanal, by Chiquitanos and Ayoreos; Creoles; migrants; and foreigners, mainly from Brazil. The entire Angel Sandoval Province, where the reserve is located, has 10,956 inhabitants. 

The main economic activities are centered around cattle ranching and agriculture (rice and corn). Recently the production of soybeans has increased. Soybean products are the main agro-industrial export of Bolivia. Some uncontrolled forest activities are common. Tourism is extremely limited due to the lack of services. In the town of San Matías outside of the protected area, visitors total 1,500-2,000 per year. New initiatives are planned to attract larger numbers of visitors. Within the reserve and the surrounding area, mining concessions (gold and precious stones) cover 214,643 hectares. 


In recent, but still preliminary studies of the Otuquis and San Matías wetlands, 14 vegetal formations were identified. Of these, nine were found in Otuquis and 13 in San Matías. Eight hundred and seventy-four specimens were collected, and 409 species identified, while the rest were classified to the level of family and gender, with a few unknown. All the material was collected at the Herbarium of the Museum of Natural History of Santa Cruz. The dominant species in the different parcels under study are shown in Figure 1. 


 Several development projects exist in areas within the Bolivian Pantanal. Some of the more important are listed below: 

1) The Atlantic-Pacific Corridor is an initiative of the Bolivian and Brazilian governments, mainly to open routes between the inner Amazon areas to the Pacific. There are two specific proposals, the first to connect Puerto Caceres (Brazil)-San Matías and San Ignacio, which would serve to transport the soybean production in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso to the Pacific. The second proposal would connect Pailon and Puerto Suarez. Such a corridor would integrate several Bolivian small urban and rural communities and provide them access to larger markets. Investment is estimated at $300 million (US). 

2) One development project being extensively discussed is the construction of the Paraguay-Parana Hidrovia covering 3,442 km from Puerto Caceres to Nueva Palmira (Uruguay), opening both rivers for navigation. This is the second largest system in South America. It drains an area of 1,750,000 km2 and has a population estimated at 30 million people. Investment is estimated at US$1.3 billion, with an additional US$3 billion required for operation and maintenance over a 25-year period. This project involves dredging, construction of dams and large movements of land and rocks. The degree of its environmental impact is a matter of discussion. The coalition Rios Vivos, composed of about 300 NGOs, believes that studies undertaken by IDB/UNDP and others are not sufficient for a final decision. Further, they say that little consultation was done with local participants to this point and that it serves only limited private interest groups (Both Ends 1997). In their extensive report, they highlight as a major drawback the lack of research on the behavior of the hydric systems of the La Plata River Basin and the Upper Paraguay River Basin. 

On the other hand, in the study by Rios Vivos the authors foresee an important set of negative impacts — social, cultural and environmental-economic — that would increase flooding and water pollution, affect the existing fisheries, drain lagoons and other wetlands, and expand water transmitted diseases. It is important to emphasize that the Pantanal provides for the exceptional stability of the current Paraguay River flow, and that this stability may be broken by any human intervention (Cebrac-WWF 1994). In addition to the environmental impact, the authors severely criticize the economics of the whole project, since the internal rate of return is very low, less than seven percent. The alternative proposed for sustainable development involves a mixture of transportation modes, using both river and railway transportation. 

3) The Puerto Suarez-Puerto Bush waterway route is an initiative of the Bolivian government that would create a permanent transportation system, mainly to export iron and manganese minerals from the Mutun deposits. Investment is estimated at US$3.5 million. 

4) Puerto Aguirre is a private initiative. In operation since 1985, the port of Puerto Aguirre is located on the Tamengo channel, which recently was dredged at 2 km from Caceres Lagoon and 8 km from Corumbá in Brazil. It serves as a hub for the export and import of processed and non-processed goods. The Tamengo channel permits ships of up to 1,200 tons to navigate between eight to 10 months of the year and up to 1,500 tons during the rainy season. Economically, it generates about US$40 million per year. 

5) The Bolivia-Brazil gas line was inaugurated on February 9, 1999. It covers 3,069 km between Rio Grande Station (30 km south of Santa Cruz) to Sao Paulo and Porto Alegre in Brazil. The Bolivian portion, covering 557 km, was built at a cost of US$435 million, out of a total cost for the project of US$2,015 million. In April, 1999 it was slated to initiate operations by transporting eight million m3/day of natural gas and is expected to reach 30 million m3/day in seven years. The line runs almost parallel to the railway. Near the town of El Carmen, it crosses the northern part of the Otuquis Pantanal. The right-of-way covers 30 m, including the working space. The permanent right of way is 17 m and the line is buried 1.5 m below ground. A detailed environmental impact study was undertaken (Dames & Moore 1996) and an Environmental Management Plan and a Plan for the Development of Indigenous Communities were produced. The first plan established a detailed integrated environmental strategy for construction to minimize and mitigate the impact. The second plan contributed significantly to the consolidation of native territories, particularly providing support for their land claims.

6) Several firms are planning to construct thermoelectric plants using extensive Bolivian gas reserves to produce electric power for sale to Brazil. Also, there are plans to construct additional gas lines into Brazil to produce electricity in plants there. Construction of the San Javier (Santa Cruz, Bolivia) -- Cuiaba (Mato Grosso, Brazil) gas line is almost ready to begin operating, pending government authorization. 

7) Deficiency of tourism services on the Bolivian side of the Pantanal influences visitors to use the Brazilian services in Corumbá, across from Puerto Suarez. For this reason several initiatives have been undertaken to develop the tourist industry in the region. Three of these are of importance: the expansion of the Hotel Pantanal services at Puerto Quijarro, the ecotourism project of the Spanish NGO “Amigos de Donana,” and the project “tourist territorial planning” of the Blackstone Corporation (Blackstone 1997). Cattle ranches in the region have good potential to serve as centers of tourism, and in interviews conducted in the recent past, owners have agreed to integrate themselves into the plans to develop tourism. The lagoons of La Gaiba, Uberaba, Providencia and Caceres offer a high potential for tourism because of the biodiversity and scenery. 


It is clear that the preservation and sustainable development of the Pantanal by the three national stakeholders -- Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay -- will require a multinational effort and a well-defined project. Two main objectives of such a project would be: a) To create "a common vision," and b) To create and strengthen the management capacity of the public and private sectors within the participating countries. In proposing such a joint effort, we recognize that many civilian projects and initiatives for research, management and participation are already underway. The main idea behind the construction of a "common vision" for all participants will involve bringing together both conceptual and actual results into a sustained developmental framework, and further develop management capacities based on the experience, identification and execution of the new initiatives.