Water pollution is one such threat to the integrity of the Pantanal. Among the challenges are mining byproducts, agrochemicals, sewage, and garbage. Mercury contamination from its use in concentrating placer gold is one such problem. Although in 1988 Brazil prohibited using mercury in gold mining, enforcement is difficult given the isolated area and innumerable mines, and high levels of mercury have been found in fish and fish-eating birds. Fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides used in agricultural activities, and washed into the watery environment, are another problem, particularly given that the poor soil has led to the heavy use of agrochemicals. Untreated domestic sewage and garbage are likewise discharged into the wetlands and rivers, much coming from cities and towns in the highlands outside the Pantanal. Although the Pantanal has an amazing capacity to clean the wastes and chemicals, the extent that it can absorb the increased pollution is a concern.

Loss of biodiversity. Habitat destruction, poaching, over-fishing, illegal hunting, and the business of capturing threatened and endangered species for export or for the Brazilian pet trade is causing grave concern about loss of biodiversity. Many species that were once found in large numbers, such as the giant river otter, maned wolf, ocelot, cougar, jaguar, giant anteater, marsh deer, and giant armadillo are now all listed as endangered or threatened with extinction. In all, at least 50 species are reported to be threatened or endangered in the Brazilian Pantanal. Although Brazilian environmental law is significant, enforcement is difficult, especially given that animal traffickers can easily cross over the border to Paraguay or Bolivia.

Fires in the Pantanal

Erosion and sedimentation. The process of clearing land for agriculture, opening of new roads, logging, and extensive burning in the watershed accelerate the natural process of erosion and sedimentation. During September to October, fires are particularly prevalent, as ranchers use it to clear old pasturage and bring up tender, green shoots for cattle grazing, or as an easy means of clearing land for agriculture. Development in the Brazilian highlands, and subsequent land clearing, has lead to extensive deforestation and increased erosion. The seriousness of this threat is evident in the Taquari River, where sedimentation has lead to significant channel alteration, to the extent of the loss of over one hundred farms, branching of the river to where the channel is 30 percent of its former size, and loss of the fishing industry.

Taquari River

Modifications of natural cycles. The natural hydrology of the Pantanal region is also being impacted by construction of local dams and dikes, including by landowners to keep water out of their property. This creates new water-flow patterns and increased flooding outside of these areas, and decline in soil fertility as a result of loss of the periodic nutrient-replenishing flooding.

Paraguay-Paraná Waterway Project. A proposal for developing a Paraguay-Paraná Waterway or "Hidrovia" has been a recurring concern since the late 1980s, when the governments of the La Plata Basin countries (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay) proposed opening up over 3,442 kilometers of the Paraguay and Paraná rivers for good navigation of barge convoys. Economically, this would allow year-round cargo transport from the northernmost navigable portion of the Paraguay River to Nueva Palmira, Uruguay on the Rio de la Plata estuary, connecting to the Atlantic Ocean. Original proposals called for straightening, widening, and deepening the meandering upper stretches of the Paraguay River, including substantial dredging of the Paraguay River, removal of flow-impeding rock outcrops, channel straightening, and dike and dam construction to control the widespread flooding. While this would have potential long-term economic benefits, lowering transport costs, and assist with regional integration, this geological facelift could have considerable costs, particularly to the environment (Margolis 1995, Gottgens 1998 ). One might expect increased flooding, water contamination, erosion, disruption of natural communities, and interruption of natural cycles. The Pantanal might face substantial risk. 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 floodwaters, and serious losses of wetlands could be expected, as water flows more readily downstream. 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 meet opposition on economic and environmental levels and resulted in turmoil as political, economic, and environmental factions staked their claims. Ultimately, the project, as original conceived, was judged no longer viable. However, there is still concern that it will be implemented piecemeal and still impact the Pantanal in a major way (Gottgens 1998).

The Pantanal in Brazil, near Pantanal National Park

Lack of protected areas. There is little formally protected area in the Pantanal, particularly in Brazil, where most of the land is privately owned. There is a small national park, Parque Nacional do Pantanal Mato-grossense (Pantanal National Park), but this is only about 135,000 hectares, and is largely underwater. There is also the Taiamã Ecological Station, consisting of about 11,000 hectares. There is a trend to purchase private land for the sake of protecting parts of the Pantanal. However, the total protected area in Brazil, including national, state, and private protection, is only about 2 percent of the Brazilian Pantanal, with about 98 percent of the Brazilian Pantanal in private ownership.

The Bolivian Pantanal has considerably more protected area. Montaño (1999) affirms that 90 percent or more of the Bolivian Pantanal has some degree of legal protection, and substantial portions are inside of two recently created federally protected areas. The first is the Otuquis Pantanal National Park (Parque Nacional Pantanal de Otuquis) and contiguous Otuquis Natural Area of Integrated Management (ANMI Qtuquis: Área Natural de Manejo Integrado Otuquis), which occupies 1,005,950 hectares total (903,350 hectares and 102,600 hectares, respectively). The second is the San Matías Natural Area of Integrated Management-ANMI San Matías: Área Natural de Manejo Integrado San Matías-which totals 2,918,500 hectares. These two protected zones, established in 1997, were designed not only to safeguard the Pantanal but also the greater basin, including a variety of other environments, such as subhumid Chaco forests, dry forests, and so forth. It is estimated that the surface area actually occupied by the Pantanal in these areas corresponds to about 12 percent of the San Matías protected area and 24 percent of the Otuquis protected area (Montaño 1999). Furthermore, the San Matías Natural Area of Integrated Management lies proximate to Pantanal National Park of Brazil, thus permitting the establishment of an extensive tract that will aid preservation efforts.

Other issues

Tributary of Miranda River

Ecotourism. Ecotourism is a potential long-term hope for the Pantanal, bringing in tourist dollars to the local communities and thus creating an economic incentive for these communities to preserve the environment. Generally, ecotourism is considered tourism to relatively intact natural areas, which has low impact on the environment, promotes conservation, and provides a beneficial socioeconomic return to the local populations. With tourism being one of the world's largest businesses, ecotourism might offer a profitable, long-range financial medium that could be more lucrative than other, more environmentally deleterious economic activities. However, several obstacles remain to ecotourism's viability. In the Pantanal, there is a serious lack of infrastructure, such as accommodations and transportation. There is a lack of tourist information and trained guides are few. Furthermore, the region remains poorly known in many nations, including the United States. Ecotourism has not yet been substantially developed in the Pantanal region, and in particular the Bolivian Pantanal is practically inaccessible and ecotourism undeveloped, due to lack of tourist facilities and a transport infrastructure (Herrera 1995). The Brazilian portion of the Pantanal is somewhat better situated and is visited by hundreds of biologists and thousands of tourists a year, but much of the Brazilian tourism is centered on fishing. Pseudo-ecotourism packages, versus true ecotourism, can have an adverse effect by disturbing the natural areas, increasing illegal activities, and heightening demand for facilities, infrastructure, and luxury items.

Pantanal scene

Cattle raising. One of the chief economic activities in the Pantanal is cattle ranching. This enterprise is perhaps unique in that it is a widespread economic activity that impacts the landscape, but which many authorities do not see as a big environmental problem. Instead, it is generally presented as a long-term activity that developed in harmony with the environment or which at least poses minimal negative impacts. One reason offered for such a view is that the Pantanal has many, natural grassland areas that do not require the type of deforestation one might find in the Amazon, and also because cattle are often allowed free to graze on unaltered land. Furthermore, extensive flooding during the wet season can limit the amount of cattle raised on a piece of land to the pasturage available when much of the land is submerged. For these reasons, cattle raising is often promoted as a viable economic activity for the future of the Pantanal. Nevertheless, cattle ranching is not without its problems and detractors who see it as a problem. One can observe burning of wild landscapes in order to clear land for cattle or to bring up fresh shoots. Native plant life may be selected against, and the moving of cattle to new pastures can result in widespread loss of native vegetation. There are concerns regarding the effect of cattle grazing on soil erosion and sedimentation and the loss of wildlife refuge for native populations. The impact of cattle grazing on the Pantanal remains hotly debated.

National initiatives. There are also a number of national initiatives directed at management of the Pantanal, with Bolivia active in creating national reserves, and Brazil developing an institutional mechanism via the formation of high-level committees and environmental programs, involving not only federal and state governmental bodies, but also the private sector, professionals, and NGOs.


(Much of the original source of this article was excerpted from Swarts (2000) by permission of the author and the copyright holder, Waterland Research Institute.)

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