Rapporteur's Report

Final Report on the

International Conference on Agriculture and the Environment in the Paraguay River Basin

As Presented at the Closing Session, June 12, 2001
by Conference Rapporteur, Dr. Thomas J. Ward
Vice President of International Programs
and Dean of the International College, 
University of Bridgeport



Dr. Thomas Ward
From June 8 to 10, 2001, over 130 scholars, researchers, government officials, political leaders, and conservationists from 17 countries met at the Hotel Excelsior in Asunción, Paraguay for the “International Conference of Agriculture and the Environment in the Paraguay River Basin.”  The theme of the Conference was “Building Strategic Partnerships to Make the Paraguay River Basis a Twenty-First Century Model for Sustainable Development.” 

This conference was a natural extension of the first and second World Conference on Preservation and Sustainable Development in the Pantanal, which took place in Washington, D.C. (February and October, 1999). While, in many respects, this conference represented a continuum to the previous conferences, it differed from its antecedents in that it expanded the geographical focus from the Pantanal of the Upper Paraguay River Basin to include other systems of the greater Paraguay River Basin.  Thus, in addition to the Pantanal of Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay, discussed were such systems as the Chaco of Bolivia, Paraguay, and Argentina, and such rivers as the Pilcomayo and the Bermejo.  Demonstrating the scope and impact of this huge geographical region, one conference speaker noted that problems such as sedimentation or changes in the hydrology of the Paraguay River affect not only Asunción or Concepción, but Santa Fe and even Buenos Aires. 

At the opening of the Conference, Conference Chair Marcelo Alonso spoke of the need to seek the input and viewpoints of the players in the region.  He invited participants to ask questions about the Conference’s future agenda.  In his opening remarks, Dr. Thomas  Crisman, who served as Program Committee Chair for this international conference, observed that there is the need for a “landscape approach” to  the  problems of  the region.  As he expressed it, there are, in fact, “many Pantanals” and each faces different problems.  Dr. Crisman noted the interaction that exists between water and land, pointing to how, when land is misused, water is affected.  He also stressed the need to recognize and accept that the landscapes of the Pantanal include a human component and that the human component must be seen as a part of the ecosystem.  He pointed to the need for dialogue and consensus building between farmers and conservationists in the ongoing conversations on the region.  He emphasized that the priority in assuring sustainable development is not preservation but conservation. 

Crisman pointed out that the wetlands serve as an economic resource for building materials, furniture, cattle grazing, water supply, medicine, protein sources, gardens, cash crops, and ecotourism; however, Crisman expressed the view that the current degree of usage of these resources taxes the wetlands’ capacity to recover. Dr. Crisman challenged participants to ask “how to put ecological principles into a product while also serving people.”  He invited participants to reflect on how we assess sound versus unsound approaches to sustainable development.

Dr. Crisman noted that there has been insufficient coordination and communication among experts involved in wetlands management.  While recognizing, as he has in an earlier conference, that there is North-North (US-Europe especially) discussion on experiences in the management of wetlands and other valued ecosystems, and that there is some North-South discussion, there is virtually no South to South (e.g., Latin America-Africa) discussion on the issues.  He noted again the need to build partnerships, the need to build dialogue, and reiterated that people must be seen as part of the ecological landscape of the Paraguay River Basin.  This he felt should be a major thrust of the Conference. 

Notable themes/issues covered in this conference included:

1. Clarification of the Paraguayan understanding of the “Paraguayan Pantanal” and an assessment of its topology and a survey of its current status (from the viewpoint of ecosystems and development). 

2. A survey of the socioeconomic challenges facing inhabitants currently dependent upon the furtherance of agricultural development in the Paraguay River Basin.

3. The ecological conditions of the region and the likely opportunity costs to the human populations and to the ecosystems of this area in the event the oft-discussed Hidrovia becomes a reality (as it is currently conceived).

4. The current impact of agriculture and cattle ranching on the ecosystems of the Paraguay River Basin. 

5. The possible linkage between lessons learned through ecotourism in Africa and the ecotourism industry in Latin America.

6. The current status and the projected future thrust of ecotourism in Paraguay and in the region.

7. Establishment of apparent consensus on a working definition for “sustainable development,” with “sustainable development” described as “Producing what meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs.”

8. Recognition that problems and challenges to the ecosystems of the Upper Paraguay River Basin continue to be addressed on an episodic or reactive basis rather than in tandem with a long-term plan for sound ecological management of a system that has an immediate or quasi-immediate impact upon a vast complex of ecosystems, including the lives of tens of millions of people. 

9. Recognition of the continuing challenge of making accurate ecological assessments of the region due to insufficient data-driven  research and planning.     We learned from Dr. Barry Chernoff, Maria Esther Montano and Ana Lucia Lima Barros Dolabella of research projects that have been successfully undertaken in identifying flora, fauna, threats and opportunities in the Paraguayan, Bolivian and Brazilian portions of the Basin.  Although work has been done in some areas, such as the recent Chicago Field Museum’s efforts to identify fauna and flora of parts of the Upper Paraguay River Basin (the Aqua-RAP expeditions, in concert with Conservation International), and although research in the Brazilian, Paraguayan and Bolivian Pantanal is ongoing if slow, a general database on the ecosystems of the Upper Paraguay River Basin does not exist.  Without a commitment to create such a database (which would be widely accessible), it will not be possible to build a responsible long-term plan aimed at conserving the ecosystems of the region.  As Dr. Chernoff noted, the challenge is “how to turn lists into conservation plans.”

10. There was repeated recognition of the need to include the human factor in addressing challenges to ecosystems.  There was an appreciation that human needs and the addressing of human suffering must be central concerns in the creation of a plan for sustainable development. Dr. Mario Dantas of Embrapa noted that the terms “economy” and “ecology” and their implications need to be tied together. 

Deliberations at the Conference suggested several ways in which the work of the Conference should proceed: 

1. It was noted that it would be valuable for the WCPSDP publication The Pantanal be translated into either Portuguese or Spanish or both.  This would seem to comply with Program Chair Thomas Dr. Crisman’s emphasis on the importance of information and the general recognition of the need for a data-driven  approach to planning. 

2. There was frequent reference made to the need for communication among the players in the region, including the private sector, to assure the implementation of management practices conducive to sustainable development.  Mr. Koo Bae Park, President of Atenil, a principal sponsor of the conference, resonated with this  response, expressing his desire to foster the involvement of a broader academic, governmental, intergovernmental and non-governmental community in elaborating an ecologically sound strategic plan for Atenil’s Porto Casado project in eastern Paraguay. 

3. Former U.S. Ambassador Timothy Towell was among those who pointed to the need to get the conservation message to the public in every circumstance. One of the key issues is to identify media opportunities as well as other modalities so that the message of conservation and sustainable development can reach as broad an audience as possible. 

There was recognition of the need to apprise all sectors of society (domestic and international) of the values that justify and mandate a commitment to protection of the ecosystems of the region. 

Submitted by: 
Dr. Thomas J. Ward
University of Bridgeport 
Conference Rapporteur