Juan Maria Carron
 
 

The Pantanal of Paraguay
 
 

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

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This paper focuses on the part of the Pantanal located within Paraguayan territory. Although not as well researched as the Brazilian portion, this ecoregion plays an important role in the ecological and hydrological equilibrium in the Upper Paraguay River Basin. 

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Since the source of water for the wetland lies in the Upper Paraguay River Basin, this watershed is indissolubly linked to the Pantanal eco-region. The widest part of this plain, approximately 300 kilometers wide, is located at the latitude of the city of Corumbá, Brazil, between Corumbá in the west and the city of Rio Verde to the east. Following the river down, the Pantanal area narrows. At Porto Esperança, Brazil, the course of the Paraguay River takes an abrupt turn to the southwest. Here the Pantanal extends along both banks of the Paraguay River, varying in width, almost to the point where the Apa River flows into the Paraguay River below Porto Murtinho. When the Paraguay River, a little to the north of Bahía Negra, returns to its predominantly North-South orientation, it forms the border between Paraguay and Brazil. On the left bank of the Paraguay River, the Paraguayan territory begins and the Pantanal continues with the same ecological characteristics. It forms an area approximately 250 kilometers long and varies in width between 40 and 10 kilometers. The total area is approximately 400,000 hectares, frequently expanding up to 600,000 in the years of greatest rainfall. This is the Paraguayan portion of the Pantanal. 

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This zone coincides with the area of the highest average temperature in the Great Chaco (25o C) and receives an average annual rainfall from 1,000 to 1,200 millimeters. It is located in the district of Alto Paraguay (Departamento de Alto Paraguay). It is worth mentioning here that there are differences observed in the behavior of the water of the Paraguay River above and below the zone called “the hills” (cerritos). The area is composed of hills around Fort Olimpo on the western side and a hill called “Pan de Azúcar” on the eastern side. In effect, the waters above this area move much more slowly. 

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Paraguay has a high proportion of its land covered by wetlands (about 15%); in other words, approximately 6,000,000 hectares. The Paraguayan Pantanal represents about 10% of the total wetlands area (Mereles et al. 1992). 

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The Paraguayan portion of the Pantanal is located totally within the Departamento de Alto Paraguay (District of Alto Paraguay, or “Upper Paraguay”) of the Paraguayan Chaco. Although this district or province has a surface area of 82,349 km2, in 1992 its population was only 11,816 with a density of 0.14 inhabitants per km2. The annual growth was high during the years 1972-82 when the population went from 5,366 to 9,021. Later, between 1982 and 1992, the average annual growth was slower, being 2.7% annually compared to the 5.3% rate of the earlier period. This indicates that the region stopped receiving significant immigration (Dirección General 1993). 

Although the population is sparce, it tends to be concentrated on the margins of the Paraguay River, precisely in the area of the Paraguayan “Gran Pantanal.” There, the proximity to the Paraguay River assures communication between some 30 villages and small towns from Puerto Caballos to the village of Puerto Sanabria as well as the towns located on the other side of the river or farther south. In 1992 (the year in which the population census took place), there were 4,048 inhabitants registered in the area of the Pantanal (Figure 1). This represents 34% of the total population of the district of Alto Paraguay. 

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The population in the area of the Paraguayan Pantanal contains high percentages of households with unmet basic needs. Some 69.9% of families live in homes which are deficient due to the quality of materials or construction and 82.2% lack adequate sanitary facilities. Some 43.4 % have no access to primary school education and 32.9% are below acceptable thresholds in terms of livelihood. Here the levels of Unmet Basic Needs (NBI: Necesidades Básicas Insatisfechas) are significantly higher than the averages for Paraguay as a whole. For the country as a whole, the NBI in housing is 45.7%, in sanitary infrastructure is 34.5%, access to education is 22.8% and livelihood stands at 14.9% ( Mora 1997). 

The population contains a diversity of ethnic types. They are grouped as indigenous population, native Paraguayan population, and Brazilian population or of recent Brazilian origin. 

The indigenous population is mainly individuals of the Chamacoco tribe and some from the Mbayá, located in various riverbank settlements with the greatest concentration in Puerto Esperanza (Matraux 1996, Susnik and Chase 1995, Butler and Gastón 1994). Traditionally, their means of subsistence was linked to what the Pantanal naturally offered: collecting carob beans and to a greater degree palmetto, the fruits and hearts of various species of palm (mbocayá, yata’I - guasu), Caranday palmettos (Copernicia arifera), and the bases of Caraguatá leaves. They supplement their collecting activities with fishing and a certain amount of agriculture with fields of corn, beans, squash, manioc and peanuts. The Chamacocos only recently ceased being exclusively hunters and gatherers (Metraux 1996) Currently the natives of the region sustain themselves through a combination of fishing, hunting, agriculture, cattle raising and employment at large cattle ranches or with timber companies. According to a study done in 1994, the main subsistence resource is fishing, followed by small family agriculture and salaried employment at neighboring large ranches (Butler and Gastón 1994). In February, 1989, the INDI state organization which takes care of native people transferred 21,300 hectares to the Chamacocos, at about 33 km from Bahia Negra. This land, as well as almost all of the Pantanal, runs a danger of being pillaged by cattle farmers. In general, it can be said that the native communities of the area are in a highly vulnerable state due to the insecurity of their land holdings, productive limitations on the lands possessed, limitations on access and use of natural resources, loss of cultural identity, and family destabilization (Taylor et al. 1997). 

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The native Paraguayan population involves descendents of, or are former workers of, the companies which exploited quebracho bark to obtain tannin. This activity was very important in the 1950’s and 1960’s. It later diminished in profitability until the tanneries closed at the end of the 1980’s leaving people abandoned, without work and without compensation. They now precariously survive through fishing and small agricultural activities. The Paraguay River is almost the only means of transportation by which fish products can be sent to Asunción. There are also two important detachments of the Paraguayan Navy: one at Bahia Negra and the other on Isla Margarita. 

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The arrival in the country of people of Brazilian origin is linked to the sub-division of existing large properties previously dedicated to the extraction of quebracho for the production of tannin. 

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Among the various alternatives which are being discussed for building a route to unite the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the alternative which the Brazilians believe is best, especially the state of Mato Grosso do Sul,is the construction of a bridge which unites Porto Murtinho with the settlement of Carmelo Peralta. Continuing from there, the construction of an international route would pass through the Mennonite settlement located in the central chaco, later using the Trans-Chaco route to Mariscal Estigarribía, capital of the district of Boquerón (Departamento de Boquerón) and on to connect with Fortín Infante Rivarola, located on the Bolivian border. This would allow Bolivia to connect to the Chilean ports on the Pacific Ocean, especially Iquique. This would mean that products of the states near Brazil, especially agricultural products, could easily arrive at the Pacific coast. The benefit for Paraguay would be that the Mennonite colony could export its dairy products. The construction of this route must be carefully researched in terms of possible damage to or environmental impact on the area by the movement of hundreds of trucks passing by daily. This would result in a greater penetration of Brazilians into the Paraguayan Chaco for which new laws and regulations would have to be created. 

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The subdivision and settlement of land as well as the means for which it is developed will probably have the greatest impact on the ecological characteristics of the Paraguayan Pantanal. In the period after the war with Bolivia, land facing the Paraguay River was sold to foreigners at “give away” prices, beginning at the Fuerto Olimpo zone up to Puerto Casado,. It was mostly used for the extraction of “quebracho colorado,” a very hard species of wood which produces a resin used in the manufacturing of tannin. These land properties had areas of between 100,00 and 840,000 hectares. Further to the south was the Carlos Casado Company, an Argentinian enterprise with an area of 871,000 hectares, and the firm of Puerto Sastre with an area of 371,078 hectares. These companies built railroad lines to transport wood from their properties to the ports where the factories were located. When the reserves of quebracho began to be depleted, the companies closed their factories, abandoning thousands of workers who had been employed by them. Simultaneously or successively the land was put to various uses ...

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There is ample environmental legislation in Paraguay covering almost every aspect related to the protection of wetlands.  For example, Title II of the National Constitution, Law 350/94 which ratifies the Ramsar Convention for the protection of wetlands; Law 294/93 for environmental impact evaluation; Law 352/94 for protection of wild areas; and Law 716/96 for crimes against the environment. Unfortunately, the greater part of these laws are not enforced and they are very unsatisfactorily obeyed. The Comptroller General of the Republic of Paraguay made a special survey of the situation of lands in the district of Alto Paraguay in which he detected various irregularities (Contraloría General 1999). Among the most important were: 

-- The reserve zone of Rio Negro National Park constitutes the principal, protected, wild area situated in Paraguayan Pantanal. But 26,333 hectares of this ecological preserve have been illegally transferred to private individuals. 

-- According to Paraguayan Law, the only legal clearing activities are those which have previously filed an environmental impact statement and have an approved land use plan. During inspection trips done between September 1994 and August 1995, the Forestry Service of the Republic of Paraguay detected 14 important infractions of these laws.  . . . The report states, “…the destruction of the environment will be difficult to restore since they used tractors with chains to clear and later burn the land, totally destroying the microflora, the microfauna, and the habitat for thousands of wild animals.” The at risk area detected during these trips was 68,000 hectares. Through later inspections, a much larger area was found to be in grave ecological danger. 

In light of this situation, the Paraguayan Agency for Environmental Regulation (Dirección de Ordenamiento Ambiental del Paraguay) and the National Commission for the Defense of Natural Resources of the National Congress (Comisión Nacional de Defensa de los Recursos Naturales del Congreso Nacional) made an inspection tour in the zone of Alto Paraguay at the end of 1995. They arrived at these main conclusions: Current land use is fixated on one production system which is the cutting and burning of forests for the production of cattle … totally eliminating the forest mass at the root … the land use plans being proposed are very superficial. These activities are producing modifications in the habitat and altering the soil cover…the poorly thought out use of natural resources indicates a long term, acute degradation of the ecosystems. 

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In light of the above, the report proposes a series of recommendations to protect the ecosystem. The Comptroller General of the Republic is urging agencies of the executive branch in Paraguay to demand implementation of these recommendations. Both the National Congress as well as the Paraguayan Environmental Enforcement Agency support this environmental protection program. However the results until now are insignificant. 

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The Paraguayan Pantanal is still a very poorly understood area. It will be necessary to do more research on its fauna and flora. It will not be enough if the ecosystems linked to the wetlands are not protected. To do that, it would be appropriate to take the following measures: 

1. Land use in the zone can no longer be exclusively linked to raising cattle in pastures planted in old forest areas or savannas. Paraguayan organizations propose that clearing areas be limited to areas no more than 500 meters wide and leave 50 to 200 trees per hectare of clearing. Clearing with chains should be prohibited. 

2. Strict enforcement of the laws and ordinances protecting the environment is urged. 

3. More protected wild areas must be created, establishing an effective watch over them to avoid ecological assaults. 

4. Conditions for the sale of public lands should be regulated both for citizens and for foreigners. 

5. Together with participation from the private sector, an organization should be created with the public sector, and with the support of international agencies, to preserve and sustainably develop the Pantanal. 

 

Proceedings

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