Pressure on the Pantanal

Can Brazil champion the environmental and ecological cause and preserve the wonders of the Pantanal? Or will it fall victim to pressure from big business?

By Roderick Eime

The expansive Pantanal wetlands form a wide soggy navel in the midriff of the continent of South America. Predominantly in Brazil, the Pantanal overlaps into Bolivia and Paraguay and occupies an area around half the size of France and was inscribed by UNESCO in 2000 for its biological importance.

This ecologically abundant region is anything but a swampy wasteland and is billed by many experts as the world's largest remaining wetland system playing host to over 650 species of birds, 80 species of mammals, 50 species of reptiles, 250 species of fish and more than 90,000 types of plants.

Well-travelled naturalists extol with great verve the wonders of the Pantanal. Unlike the dense jungles of the Amazon which taunt and tease tourists by hiding their rich lode of natural treasures deep in the thick leafy swamps, the comparatively wide open spaces of the Pantanal offer much greater access to the wildlife. Ecstatic "birders" have reported seeing as many as one hundred species in a single day including jabiru, wood stork, roseate spoonbill, southern screamer, bare-faced and green Ibises, golden -collared and hyacinth macaws - the world's largest parrot.

Milling around the broad waterways are herds of capybara (the world's largest rodents) as well as tapir, marsh deer, jaguar, giant river otter, giant anteater, spectacled caiman and giant monitor lizard.

Despite these impressive credentials, the Pantanal plays second fiddle to the Amazon region in the tourism stakes. Instead it relies heavily on agricultural production, specifically soya beans, rice and sugar cane.

Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay all depend on the productivity of the wider region and now an ominous cloud hangs over this wildlife paradise. For more than a decade, the enormous and incredibly ambitious Hidrovia canal project has threatened to transform the Pantanal by dredging some 7.3 million cubic metres of silt and rocks to allow ocean-going vessels to navigate the fragile eco-systems of the Paraguay and Parana Rivers.

In 1999, Brazil backed away from the plan due to severe environmental concerns. Environmentalists savoured a brief victory and the relatively few tourism operators breathed a collective sigh of relief. However, the plan has recently resurfaced; driven this time, not by government enthusiasts, but by private landowners, ranchers and industrialists.

Like many other examples around the world, the elevation of eco-tourism in the region is one way of raising awareness of the looming danger. Despite its low tourism profile, small hotels, lodges and hostels are opening up in the heart of the region and wide-eyed nature-lovers are venturing out into the wetlands in boats, buses and even on horseback.

A good deal of mixed emotion exists within the Pantanal communities, with opposing camps engaging in vigorous discussion over the supposed economic benefits versus the feared environmental impact.

"The whole thing will only benefit big business," says one fishing boat captain who fears pollution from the freighters will ruin his livelihood.

"Maybe the new waterway will create more jobs in the region," surmises the chief of the local Enxet tribe whose people don't have money to buy staple items or medicine.

And there are those who are not afraid to voice their gravest fears, like leading environmental activist, Oscar Rivas, of the Paraguayan group, Sobrevivencia.

"It'll be hell's highway", he said in an interview with National Geographic, "Numerous studies have shown that the dredging of the rivers could seriously affect the Pantanal. There's a chance it will become a desert."


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Adventure Associates is Australia's most experienced tour operator to South America. For more information about tour packages to the Pantanal and Brazil, contact Robyn Smith on 02 9389 7466 or 1800 222 141. Visit the website for more details:

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