The largest freshwater
wetland on the planet may disappear by 2050. According to a report released this month by Conservation International (CI) in Brazil
, deforestation in the Brazilian Pantanal has quadrupled in recent years. Already, a staggering 17 percent of the original vegetation has been lost in the region.
South of the Amazon
basin, at the crossroads of Bolivia, Brazil, and Paraguay, the Pantanal is a fragile and naturally fragmented ecosystem, about half the size of California. Tributaries of the Paraguay River flood and recede every year, rhythmically transforming the region from floodplains to grassy savannahs. In addition to critical habitats for a diverse and highly concentrated array of vegetation and wildlife, the Pantanals hydrological system supports and provides certain invaluable ecosystem services to local communities
, such as water purification, nutrient storage, sediment trapping, flood control, storm protection, and climate stabilization.
The devastation of the Pantanal in Brazil can already be seen, says Monica Harris, manager of the Pantanal program at CI-Brazil. Deforestation in the headwaters of the Taquari River, a tributary of the Paraguay River, has caused erosion and siltation, which in turn has permanently flooded hundreds of farms downstream. Many of these farmers have lost their livelihoods.
Fish populations also are declining dramatically, taking a socio-economic toll on local fisheries and river communities.
We have made several key recommendations in this report, says Harris. They include revising Brazilian legislation to better enforce regulations. We also are appealing to local, state, and national governments to help create more protected land.
Only portions of the Brazilian Pantanal are protected, including a cluster of UNESCO World Heritage sites and a conservation corridor along the wetlands border with the Cerrado Hotspot
. More than 99 percent of the wetland is privately owned. Sandy soil and annual floods are poor conditions for agriculture, so land in the Pantanal is primarily used for cattle ranching.
Commercial deforestation and mining activities also are prevalent in the Pantanal, and new government incentives may soon attract more steel producers. Charcoal production also is cited as a cause for concern in the CI report.
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Unfortunately, industry in the Pantanal remains mostly unregulated, and the requirements that are in place are inadequately enforced. Brazilian law requires landowners to protect all natural vegetation surrounding rivers and lakes, and an additional 20 percent or more of their property. Called Permanent Protected Areas and legal reserves, these areas would safeguard vast tracts of the Pantanal, in theory. However, annual floods make it difficult to demarcate the land, and because the law is not enforced, landowners are still able to clear the land.
CI supports a private program that awards small grants to landowners who wish to conserve areas of their property beyond the required 20 percent. Based on their proximity to conservation corridors, the number of endangered and critically endangered species
on their land, and other criteria, grant recipients are provided funds to help offset the costs of either creating a new protected area or managing an existing one. Landowners also conduct environmental education and awareness programs or ecotourism
activities on the protected portions of their land.
The natural beauty and mysticism of the Pantanal lends itself well to ecotourism, which already has become a leading economic alternative for many local landowners, says Harris. However, the industry could benefit from government incentives. Right now, it is difficult to obtain a license to operate a lodge. It involves a process that can take more than a year, compared to a three-month waiting period to obtain a license to log or clear the land.
CI also has explored the economic opportunities of organic production as another sustainable alternative in the Pantanal. Preliminary research shows that raising cattle organically, without clearing the land and by using native grasses, could increase production by 25 percent.
According to the government, industrialization of the Pantanal is imminent, says Harris. But the environmental community is coming together and challenging state governors to rethink the development model being proposed for the area. Safeguarding the area is possible, but it will require the engagement of all stakeholders.
LEARN MORE: We can't do it alone. Find out more about how local communities play a role in global conservation.