"It was a sad sight," relates Jensen Montambault, CI's Rapid Assessment Program (RAP) manager. "The spring that feeds the Paraguay River was dammed up and a cow was sitting right in the middle of it. There are laws in place to protect headwaters that were clearly being violated."
Montambault had joined 35 Brazilian scientists to survey an area where the Pantanal wetland and arid Cerrado
hotspot converge. Their findings, which included 24 fish species
previously unknown to science as well as an unsettling amount of unsustainable agriculture, underscore both the biological importance of the regions and the challenges faced trying to safeguard them.
Why protect the Pantanal and Cerrado?
The Pantanal wetland is the world's largest contiguous wetland. At 81,000 square miles, it is more than half the size of California and home to one of the highest concentrations of wildlife on Earth. Many of its birds, reptiles and mammals, such as the giant anteater and jaguar, are threatened, making the wetland vitally important for species restoration in adjacent areas: "The Pantanal is connected to all the major biological regions in South America," notes CI-Pantanal Director Reinaldo Lourival. "As such, it spreads species and receives species from these regions."
The Cerrado hotspot presents a profoundly different landscape but one no less important for biodiversity conservation. Covering more than a quarter of Brazil's
territory--an area four-and-a-half times the size of California--the arid Cerrado is Earth's most biologically diverse savannah for birds and plants. More than 800 bird species and 10,000 plant species live in the hotspot.
Despite contrasts, the Cerrado and the Pantanal are biologically bound to one another. They share many of the same species and, equally important, much of the same water. Water that flows through the Cerrado plateaus percolates down into the Pantanal and has a significant impact on the wetland. "In terms of conservation," says Lourival, "you can treat the two separately."
What are the threats?
activities are the primary threat
to both the Pantanal and Cerrado. The Cerrado has seen enormous development over the past three decades, and now more than 75 percent is used for agricultural purposes. This development has helped to feed Brazil's rapidly expanding population--more than 40 percent of Brazil's crops and 50 percent of its meat are produced in the Cerrado--but the effect on the environment has been devastating. Only 20 percent of the original Cerrado is intact and less than 2 percent protected.
In contrast, the Pantanal's rivers, lakes and bogs have prevented extensive development, and the wetland is still more than 80 percent intact. However, ranching has had a significant impact and remains a serious threat, especially in areas where the Cerrado and Pantanal converge.
"Farmers continue to clear for cattle on the edges [of the Pantanal] because it is drier and more profitable," notes CI-Cerrado Director Paulo Gustavo Prado. "This is causing major forest fragmentation, isolating and weakening species populations."
Additionally, clearing Cerrado forest
for agriculture causes silt to flow downstream into the Pantanal, impacting wildlife and disrupting its sensitive ecology.
Damage to Cerrado topsoil also can have a significant impact on the Pantanal. "The Cerrado works like a sponge," explains Prado. "It sustains water that eventually flows down to the Pantanal. Damage to topsoil from agriculture can cause drought conditions by preventing this natural process from taking place."
What is being done?
In a major collaboration with USAID and in partnership
with local organizations, CI has embarked on an initiative to establish a conservation corridor linking the Pantanal and Cerrado. A conservation corridor is a mosaic of land uses
connecting fragments of natural forest and larger protected areas through which species populations can move and expand. The larger protected areas represent the corridor "anchors," where large concentrations of species can thrive, then migrate along the corridor to populate other regions.
Covering more than 360 miles, the Pantanal-Cerrado corridor stretches from the species-rich swamps of the Pantanal's Rio Negro to the brilliant Cerrado savannah of Emas National Park. CI laid the groundwork for the project with a 1998 biological survey in the Pantanal and has since helped to create six protected areas along the corridor. CI is now collaborating with ranches and local communities
to create additional protected areas, reduce the impact of agricultural activities, promote ecotourism
and raise conservation awareness.
Lourival explains, "We are combining an assortment of low-impact land uses to join protected areas and forest fragments across the landscape, restoring the natural connectivity that for millions of years allowed species in the Pantanal and Cerrado to thrive."