Excerpted From:  Swarts, Frederick, "The Pantanal in the 21st Century: For the Planet's Largest Wetland, an Uncertain Future" in The Pantanal of Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay (Hudson MacArthur 2000). Copyright 2000 by Waterland Research Institute.

Value of the Pantanal

Value of the Pantanal It is becoming increasingly appreciated that wetlands in general are among the world's most productive environments and provide innumerable economic, ecological, cultural, recreational and aesthetic values. We can look at such values in terms of wetland components, functions and attributes (Barbier et al. 1997). 

The components of wetland systems include such economically beneficial goods as fish, timber, peat and wildlife. Wetlands likewise provide water supply for domestic, agricultural and industrial uses, and the structure of wetlands may allow for economical water transport. Some wetland systems offer enriched agricultural land as a result of improving the soil fertility through periodic inundation of flood waters. Fish and wildlife provide opportunities for leisure fishing activities and tourism. 

Wetlands also fulfill important functions, such as flood control, groundwater recharge and discharge, water purification through retention of sediments and pollutants, storm protection, water table maintenance and stabilization of climate. Nutrient retention occurs when nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus accumulate in the sub-soil or vegetation and allow eventual circulation back into the atmosphere. 

An attribute of wetlands is biodiversity. Being transitional between aquatic and terrestrial environments, and involving complex interactions among such components as water, soils, topography and biotic communities, wetlands help to preserve biodiversity. This provides not only for a more stable system, but tourism and aesthetic appreciation are also often tied to biodiversity. 

The rich biodiversity of wetlands has led to their being described as "biological supermarkets"; their chemical and hydrological functions have them characterized as "the kidneys of the landscape" (Barbier et al. 1997; Mitsch & Gosselink 1993). 

As a wetland of exceptional size, the Pantanal embodies many of the aforementioned values in a big way. It has one of the most impressive freshwater fisheries on the earth, serving an exceptional biogenetic reservoir. It not only provides an extensive water supply and transport system for its inhabitants, but it serves to remove sediments and pollutants, thus improving the water quality for millions of people downstream. The reduced water velocity in the Pantanal, and its storage of water, create excellent circumstances for mineral uptake by plants, microbial processing, and the settlement of sediments and chemicals such as heavy metals, which are sorbed to sediments (Gottgens 1998). 

Flood control is another major value of the Pantanal. The Pantanal has a regulatory effect on the Rio Paraguay, extensively reducing and delaying the height of the flood peak and thus reducing the flood risk downstream. Because of the Pantanal, the flood peak of the Paraguay is as much as two to three months later than the Paraná into which it empties, avoiding the cumulative impact of these two flood peaks combining downstream. 

But there are also values that are less quantifiable and whose conversion to dollars and cents is beyond current means. This is the aesthetic and peace-of-mind attribute of being in such an ecological paradise. It is the element of experiencing beauty, and the near mystical experience and clarity of mind that comes with being immersed in a natural wonder like the Pantanal. 

Despite these many values, the historical view of wetlands was that they were wastelands. Such a perspective found value in draining, diking and otherwise modifying them in order that the lands serve intensive agricultural, residential or industrial uses. Some wetlands were lost via mining, waste disposal, pollution or redirecting the water for more valued purposes. Thus, we have arrived at a situation today where an estimated 50 percent of the world's original wetlands have been lost, and 54 percent (87 million hectares) of original wetlands in the United States. France, Germany, Italy and Spain have reported losses from 57-66 percent in this century (Barbier et al. 1997). 

The Pantanal wetland faces the same threat. This region is on the verge of major developmental changes. An expanding infrastructure, growth in population, and expansion of industry and farming are all part of the changing reality of the Pantanal and the surrounding highlands at the turn of the millennium. Between major hydrological projects and the everyday encroachments of developers' less desirable accompaniments, the Pantanal region bears ominous signs. 

These signs are particularly disquieting when placed in the context of the striking pace and magnitude of alterations to the aquatic landscape in this century. Our planet has undergone dramatic increases in dams, navigation channels, river-edge deforestations, and so forth. Not only have the world's wetlands declined. Major river systems like the Everglades, Mississippi and Rhine rivers have markedly degraded during just the past 100 years. There are dams on virtually all large rivers in Africa. According to Sparks (1995), most of the 79 large river-floodplain ecosystems in the world have been altered by human activities, and those few extensive river-floodplain systems remaining are diminishing at ever-increasing rates. The Paraguay is one of the world's few large rivers that remains free-flowing. 

It is vitally important to navigate wisely the stress between the Pantanal region's imperative toward economic development and the necessity for environmental preservation. 

In recent years, we have started to recognize that wetlands are treasures, and integral to the quality of our world's ecologies and economies. The question is how to apply the lessons learned to the Pantanal wetland. In light of all that is taking place globally, one recognizes a serious need to identify the challenges to the Pantanal and to be proactive in approaching its management. 

Threats to the Pantanal's future

What are some of the current challenges facing the Pantanal? 

The Pantanal is often referred to as pristine and intact as characterized earlier in this paper. It is true that the interior of the Pantanal is relatively untouched when compared to many other systems. Population and infrastructure remain low in its more remote regions. But if we consider the watershed itself, there are serious problems, and we cannot discuss the Pantanal independent of the highlands around it. There are also serious problems escalating inside of the Pantanal itself. 

Water Pollution. One increasingly serious concern is water contamination, including mining byproducts, agrochemicals, sewage and garbage. 

A common problem relative to mining operations is mercury contamination from gold mining operations. This is particularly significant in the state of Mato Grosso. Mercury is used to concentrate placer gold, often at concentrations approaching three grams of mercury for every gram of gold mined (Banks 1991). Brazil passed a law prohibiting the use of mercury in gold mining in December of 1988; nevertheless, mercury use and contamination remains a troubling factor as enforcement of the law confronts the reality of many hundreds of digs spread over vast and often isolated areas. High levels of mercury have been found in fish and in fish-eating birds, such as kingfishers and raptors. 

Agrochemicals, including the heavy use of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides in agricultural activities, pose another difficult problem as they are washed into the streams and rivers. Alho and Vieira (1997) note that pesticides, including toxins such as disulfan, endosulfan and thiodan, are "freely used and sold." In many cases, the poor quality of the soil has led farmers to compensate with large amounts of agrochemicals. 

Both untreated, domestic sewage and garbage are likewise discharged into the Pantanal's rivers and wetlands, adding to the organic loading and sediment and chemical contamination. Much of this comes from rapidly-growing domestic centers in the highlands outside of the Pantanal, and particularly in the northern Pantanal. One infamous case of this type is Cuiabá, the capital of Mato Grosso. Cuiabá is located in the watershed of the Cuiabá River and lacks waste treatment facilities. The domestic waste from this major metropolitan area is discharged into the Cuiabá River, one of the major tributaries of the Paraguay River. Overall, the over two-million inhabitants of the Upper Paraguay River Basin contribute millions of gallons everyday of untreated wastewater to the Pantanal, and this situation will become increasingly serious as the population of the basin is projected to double by 2025. 

The inhabitants of the Upper Paraguay River Basin are fortunate to be living in and around such an enormous wetland, one with a remarkable capacity to cleanse much of the natural and man-made organic waste, chemical contaminants and sediments that flow into it. Although this wetland serves as a natural sewage-treatment plant in this respect, the extent to which the Pantanal can process contamination is not well known and the rapidly increasing population in the watershed heightens the gravity of the situation. 

Loss of biodiversity. Another concern is loss of biodiversity. At least 50 species are reported to be threatened or endangered in the Brazilian Pantanal. Such large predators and herbivores as the giant river otter, maned wolf, ocelot, cougar, jaguar, giant anteater, marsh deer and giant armadillo used to be found in large numbers in the Pantanal. Today, these are all listed as endangered or threatened with extinction. 

The main sources of pressure on biodiversity appear to be anthropogenic effects: habitat destruction, poaching, over-fishing, and the business of capturing threatened and endangered species for export or for the Brazilian pet trade. Although big-game hunting is illegal in the Brazilian Pantanal and has been since 1967, considerable poaching remains. It has been slowed but is still significant for big mammals like the jaguar. The hyacinthine macaw, blue and yellow macaw, red and green macaw (or greenwing macaw), blue-fronted parrot, and toco toucan (Ramphastos toco) are captured for resale as pets, part of a $5 billion (US) global business of illegal animal trafficking [figures quoted are in US dollars]. 

The appeal to animal traffickers is obvious: A single hyacinthine macaw can fetch $6,500 to $12,000 in the United States, and the Pantanal remains one of few hyacinthine macaw strongholds. In February of 1999, authorities interdicted an effort to smuggle 24 hyacinthine macaw eggs from Sao Paulo to Pennsylvania, with the value of the eggs estimated at $10,000 each. Likewise, a red and green macaw can fetch between $1,300-$1,800, and a blue and yellow macaw can bring $900-$1,400. In recent years, there has been an increase in Brazilian governmental efforts to stop animal traffickers. Nonetheless, the remote Pantanal environment, and the ease of crossing over the border to Paraguay and Bolivia, present a difficult problem for law enforcement. Confounding the problem is the view of many people that proscriptions against trafficking are foolish or an unfair meddling in an individual's need to survive. 

There is also substantial over-fishing taking place. As with hunting and capturing of animals, there are a number of laws on the books to regulate fishing. However, enforcement is often inadequate. If you remain in a remote area long enough, you can observe open violations of the rules, in terms of fishing equipment used, species taken, numbers caught and seasons fished. Often a specific species making a migratory run is heavily over-exploited. All of which results in acute or chronic ecosystem disruption and loss of biodiversity. 

Erosion and Sedimentation. Another serious challenge for the Pantanal is the evident increase in erosion and sedimentation. Human activities accelerating this natural process include clearing the land for agriculture, the opening of new roads, logging, extensive burning, and so forth. A lot of these problems are in the watershed and naturally effect the floodplain. 

Fires of human origin are particularly prevalent in the Brazilian Pantanal and highlands during September-October, and are used by ranchers to clear old pasturage in order bring up tender, green shoots for their cattle or as an easy (and snake-free) means of clearing the land for agriculture. While natural fires have an environmental role, as they have in the Everglades, the extent of human-induced burning is quite remarkable and highly destructive. Well-known conservationist Adalberto Eberhard, founder of Ecotrópica, has remarked that the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso "is the champion of burning." 

In recent years, agricultural development in the Brazilian highlands has been increasing substantially, leading to an accelerated clearing of the land. This deforestation has led to increased erosion and sedimentation of the Pantanal waterways, which in turn increases flood risk, lowers biodiversity and disrupts the overall sediment budgets of the catchment basin. As with other problems in this remote region, there are a number of good federal and state laws to limit land clearing and control erosion, but enforcement lags. For example, laws prohibit landowners from clearing forests all the way to the riverbank, but the restrictions are often ignored. 

The Taquari River highlights the seriousness of the threat posed by erosion and sedimentation. The Taquari River is one of the major tributaries of the Paraguay River and has served as a transportation artery to farms in the interior of the Pantanal. Within the past 10 years, there has been an exponential increase in sedimentation, which many authorities trace to erosion in the highlands. (The impact on the Taquari resulting from changes in the Paraguay River hydrology also needs to be assessed.) This has resulted in substantial alteration of the channel, including the perpetual flooding and loss of over 100 farms, and at one point 70% of the river branches off, reducing the channel to only 30% of its former size. The Taquari River's commercial and sports fishing industries have been significantly degraded. 

In Bolivia and Paraguay there is still a low density of people and low impact, and those areas remain quite well-preserved. However, the increasing population in the Brazilian highlands and in the Pantanal and particularly during the last few decades in Mato Grosso has resulted in increased problems of sedimentation and erosion. 

Modifications of natural cycles. Another challenge in the Pantanal region is modification of the natural hydrology through construction of local dams and dikes. (Major hydrological projects will be discussed in the next section.) The construction of dikes by landowners serves to keep water out of their property and thus enhances agricultural use of the rich alluvial soils for crops and dry land for grazing. However, it also effects new water-flow patters and increases flooding outside of these abuts. Furthermore, the dry lands protected from seasonal flooding through these constructions gradually decline in fertility due to the absence of the natural nutrient-replenishing system provided by the floods (Sparks 1995). This leads to an increased need for commercial fertilizers. The damming of streams similarly alters water-flow patterns, effects sediment budgets and disrupts the natural balance between wet and dry seasons. 

Major anthropogenic impacts on the Pantanal

Four major challenges confronting the Pantanal have been summarized above. If we look at them in terms of human action, we could list seven anthropogenic actions which are particularly deleterious: (1) burning and other deforestations of the watershed, (2) exploitation of fauna by poaching and overfishing, (3) discharge of untreated, urban waste, particularly in the state of Mato Grosso, (4) contamination from agrochemicals, (5) discharge of chemical pollutants, such as mercury through mining operations, (6) poorly planned road construction, and (7) local dam and dike construction. 

In addition, there are two other significant megaprojects of potential concern to the integrity of the Pantanal. 

GASBOL. Gasbol is the common name for the Gasoducto Bolívia-Brasil or the Bolivia-Brazil Gas Pipeline. This $2 billion project will allow the transport of Bolivian gas initially to areas of southern, southeastern and central-western Brazil, with eventual expansion to other regions of Brazil. The first phase of the project involved construction of a gas line from Rio Grande Station, Bolivia (about 30 km south of Santa Cruz) to Rio de Janeiro on the east coast of Brazil, with the pipeline eventually set to connect to São Paulo and Porto Alegre on Brazil's east coast. The first phase was completed in 1999, and the pipeline has initiated operations. 

The Gasbol pipeline goes right through portions of the southern Pantanal. This project does offer quite a substantial economic opportunity for Bolivia and Brazil and provides millions of Brazilians access to lower-cost natural gas. There is, nonetheless, much concern regarding its potential impact on the Pantanal. Although efforts have been made to lessen any harmful effects on the Pantanal, its impact is still to be accessed. 

The Paraguay-Paraná Waterway Project or "Hidrovia." In recent years, a major preoccupation for those desiring a healthy Pantanal has been the proposed Paraguay-Paraná Waterway or "Hidrovia" (sometimes referenced in English as "Hydrovia"). It is a controversial idea that has gained a lot of press in recent years. 

The Hidrovia project is an intergovernmental plan, originated by the La Plata Basin countries (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay) in the late1980s, that proposed opening up over 3,442 km of the Paraguay and Paraná rivers for good navigation of barge convoys. A keystone of the project was to create year-round navigational transport of cargo from landlocked regions in the northernmost navigable portion of the Paraguay River at Cáceres, Brazil to Nueva Palmira, Uruguay on the Rio de la Plata estuary, connecting to the Atlantic Ocean. The Hidrovia project would also serve to promote regional integration. The five governments involved created the Intergovernmental Committee on the Hidrovia (CIH) to promote and oversee the project. 

Original proposals called for straightening, widening and deepening the meandering upper stretches of the Paraguay River, in order that it might become navigable for vessels up to 2.8 meters draft during low-water periods. Proponents envisioned substantial dredging of the Paraguay River, removal of flow-impeding rock outcrops, channel straightening, and dike and dam construction to control the widespread flooding. 

Clearly, the potential long-term economic benefits for the regions concerned were considerable. The project would lower costs for transporting downstream items such as soy beans, oil, corn, cotton, manganese and iron ore. Instead of $60-$90 a ton for truck hauling, river transport would cut the costs to perhaps half of that, from $30-$50 a ton, combined with expected lower costs for river upkeep than road maintenance (Margolis 1995). There also would be benefits in terms of providing landlocked countries with year-round ports, opening areas for expansion, indefinite work for waterway construction and maintenance companies, and the overall economic integration of the region. Based on these concepts, CIH originally saw good prospects for the project, and in 1990 Internave, a Brazilian engineering firm, provided a positive economic feasibility study which essentially called for a "geological facelift of the region" (Margolis 1995, Gottgens 1998 ). 

However, the costs of the project were likewise considerable, particularly when one added in the environmental impact. One could expect increased flooding, water contamination, erosion, disruption of natural communities and interruption of natural cycles. Importantly, flooding could be anticipated to worsen downstream, as the two-to-three-months delay between the Paraguay River's flood peak and the Paraná River's flood peak could be expected to narrow. Water quality for the millions of people downstream would likely be impacted. Fisheries were also expected to be damaged. 

Such a large-scale modification of the Paraguay River could be anticipated to have a serious environmental impact on the Pantanal. It was envisioned that large sections would be drained as water-flow velocity increased down the Paraguay River. Fauna dependent on aquatic environments would lose critical refuges, and the normal regime of flood pulses into the floodplain, so essential for sustaining diversity and productivity, would be disrupted. Farmlands would not be revitalized by the flood waters, and serious losses of wetlands could be expected. Ponce (1995) concluded that blasting rocky sills as a means of deepening the navigation channel would be the most serious intervention, irreversibly impacting the hydrology of the Upper Paraguay River and likely changing the Pantanal forever. 

The original plan of channel straightening, dredging, damming and rock removal met justifiable opposition on economic and environmental levels. Additional studies and assessments were conducted by various non-governmental, governmental and inter-governmental bodies that took into greater account the environmental costs, in addition to the engineering and economic feasibility. Between 1995 -1997, the CIH also conducted a more thorough economic, engineering and environmental impact assessment, supported by millions of dollars worth of technical assistance from the Inter-American Development Bank and the United Nations Development Program. While this later analysis proved to be a vast improvement from the faulty and limited Internave report, it likewise came under strong criticism from reviewers as incomplete and inadequate (Gottgens 1998). All in all, the Hidrovia project generated considerable turmoil as competing political, environmental and economic factions staked out their claims. Over 100 national and international organizations expressed concern over the impact of this project, principally its consequences for the Pantanal. 

The Hidrovia project, as originally proposed, is no longer seen as viable. However, this does not mean that hydrological projects on the Paraguay River and its tributaries will not occur piecemeal and still impact the Pantanal in a major way. Although governmental support for the Hidrovia itself has waned, principally among the Brazilian government, various smaller hydrological initiatives remain of interest. These proposed and actual structural interventions include various actions of dredging and channel straightening of the Paraguay River and its tributaries, some in the Upper Paraguay River Basin and others further south, where their hydrological impact could still affect the upper stretches and thus the Pantanal. Gottgens et al. (1998) note that smaller initiatives can lead to a "tyranny of small decisions," whose cumulative negative impact can actually be worse than a larger, more comprehensively planned project. Furthermore, various interests continue to advocate a commercial waterway into the heart of the continent, even if implemented piecemeal. Thus the Hidrovia project, or its various formulations, remains a vital concern to the Pantanal.

Introduction Description Diversity
Value and threats Protected areas Initiatives
References Links Pantanal book