Report on the
Conference on Agriculture and the Environment in the Paraguay River Basin
Presented at the Closing Session, June 12, 2001
Conference Rapporteur, Dr. Thomas J. Ward
President of International Programs
Dean of the International College,
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
themes/issues covered in this conference included:
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).
A survey of the socioeconomic challenges facing inhabitants currently dependent
upon the furtherance of agricultural development in the Paraguay River
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).
The current impact of agriculture and cattle ranching on the ecosystems
of the Paraguay River Basin.
The possible linkage between lessons learned through ecotourism in Africa
and the ecotourism industry in Latin America.
The current status and the projected future thrust of ecotourism in Paraguay
and in the region.
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.”
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
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.”
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.
at the Conference suggested several ways in which the work of the Conference
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.
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.
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.
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.