Book Review

  The World's Largest Wetland Landscape

Swarts F. A. (ed.). 2000 The Pantanal: Understanding and Preserving the World's Largest Wetland. Paragon House, St. Paul, Minnesota, USA. 301 pp., US $19.95 (soft cover). ISBN 1-55778-791-3

Review appearing in Wetlands, Journal of the Society of Wetland Scientists

Here, at last, is an entire book about perhaps the world's largest wetland landscape, and as a bonus for those language-challenged North Americans like me, it is written in English. This soft cover volume of about 300 pages contains selected papers and addresses from two World Conferences on Preservation and Sustainable Development in the Pantanal, convened in February and October, 1999 in Washington. DC. Quoting from the editors introduction ".... it is my hope that the serious dearth of information on the Pantanal in English might be addressed,...... allowing the world wide community a better look at this national wonder and the challenge it faces (p. xiiii)," Indeed, it is an informative volume, written by those who know the Pantanal best. The 30 chapters cover 7 major topics, overviews of the Brazilian, Paraguayan, and Bolivian Pantanal; preservation issues; economic development; the roles of international organizations: lessons from other systems; economic development and environmental preservation; and selected conference addresses by some of the notable speakers. 

The first chapter is an introduction and overview of the Pantanal by the editor, Frederick Swarts. Here, we lean that the Pantanal covers about 140,000 square kilometers along the northern-most part of the Paraguay River and its tributaries, within the countries of Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay. Most of it is extensively flooded during the wet season (may to October) and drains slowly southward, leaving an April-to-September dry season. This seasonal pattern dictates the biological diversity and the composition of this vast area.

The Paraguay River is one of the world's few large rivers that remain free-flowing. Nevertheless, human development threatens the future of the Pantanal. Currently, cattle ranching, agriculture, mining (gold, diamonds, iron, manganese), fishing, and tourism are industries that have co-existed uneasily with ecological stability. However, two major mega projects threaten this weak stability: Gasbol, The Bolivia-Brazil Gas Pipeline, is already under construction and is projected to pass through the southern Pantanal: and Hidrovia, a proposed Paraguay-Parana waterway, which proponents hope will open up over 3440 kilometers of the two rivers to year-round barge convoy navigation. It will also make major changes in the hydrology of the Paraguay River that presently maintains the seasonal flooding of the Pantanal. These existing and Proposed human development threats cast a sobering, often, discouraging pall over the Pantanal's future.

Most of the chapters in this book deal more intensively with the geography of and human impacts on the Pantanal that with its ecology. The exception is chapter 7 by Adalbert Eberhard which gives and excellent, although brief, impression of geomorphic structure and hydrology and their relationship to spatial diversity and biology. Nevertheless, little is known about the processes that drive the Pantanal ecosystem, other than a rather limited understanding of the importance of hydrology. In contrast to dearth  of process of ecology, there is considerable discussion of the political and economic ramifications of development and conservation seen from the viewpoint of the different countries involved, was well as the different stakeholders.

The lack of a good discussion of the ecology of the Pantanal is a disappointment that points to the need for extensive ecological process research to understand the system well enough to make reasoned decisions for its management. It is interesting, therefore, to read some chapters that compare the Pantanal with other much more intensively studied systems: the Florida Everglades (Ernest Barnett), the Amazon River basin (Wolfgang J. Junk), and the Korean wetland systems (Soo Young Park and Chan Won Lee). These chapters are excellent synopses of their respective topics that stand alone with or without the rest of the book. Another bright spot is the chapter by Janet Abramovitz about the world-wide shift toward a sustainable economy, a fine "big picture" overview and an excellent primer for everyone. Lest I leave the impression that the Pantanal is lost to development. Noel Brown's chapter presents optimistic examples of people and institutions working together to achieve the goal of wetland conservation and restoration.

"The Pantanal" is an excellent summary of this immense wetland and the problems it faces. It is certainly the best and most comprehensive English-language volume. As with most edited volumes, it is uneven in the coverage of topics and in the content of some the of the chapters, Overall, however, it is an excellent introduction to the Pantanal and a useful reference volume for the serious wetland scientist.


James G. Gosselink

Rock Island. Tennessee, USA 38581