In Brazil, Working to Safeguard 1/8 of the World’s Fresh Water

Editor's note: As the world gears up for the Rio+20 conference next week, we’re bringing you stories of how green economies are already being implemented across the globe. Today, Lúcio Bedê discusses CI-Brazil’s efforts to conserve some of his country’s most important freshwater resources.

Brazil is a nation of superlatives. The world’s fifth-largest country by area and population, Brazil’s almost 200 million people live in massive cities, remote indigenous villages and everywhere in between.

With one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, Brazil is currently facing the challenge of developing and providing for a growing population while conserving the vital resources that have sustained life here for millennia. One of those critical resources is fresh water.

Brazilian river basins hold some 12 percent of the world’s fresh water — a resource essential to sustain biodiversity, food production and power generation in the country. Brazil’s rivers link many of the nation’s distant geographies, proving that activities in one region can have significant benefits — or consequences — for places downstream.


The Amazon region alone contains 73 percent of Brazil’s total freshwater supply. Beyond that, it is becoming increasingly evident that these forests — through sheer transpiration and cloud generation — play a significant role in replenishing vital freshwater flows far beyond the river basin’s boundaries, including many of Brazil’s best agricultural lands.

Recent controversy over the surge of large hydropower ventures in the Amazon — Santo Antônio and Jirau on the Madeira River, the Belo Monte dam on the Xingu River and several others along the Tapajós River — underscores the importance of the Amazon’s rivers for local people; many are concerned they will lose essential ecosystem services provided by its waters, such as fishing.


Spanning over 2 million square kilometers (772,000 square miles) in central Brazil, the Cerrado is often overshadowed by the more well-known landscapes that surround it. Yet this tropical savannah is not only a biodiversity hotspot that houses many diverse, threatened species — it’s also Brazil’s agricultural center. As the birthplace of some of Brazil’s major river systems, the Cerrado region is also known as “Brazil’s water tank.”

However, recent agricultural development has replaced nearly 60 percent of the Cerrado’s domain with pastures and vast plantations of soy, cotton, corn, sugar cane and other cash crops. The fast pace of these changes is most alarming; some 85,000 square kilometers (almost 33,000 square miles — an area larger than Austria) of the Cerrado were cleared between 2002 and 2008 alone. Of course, no such deed goes unpunished. In addition to negative impacts on biodiversity, land-use conversion is also threatening the Cerrado’s water supply through erosion, pollution and overuse.


Another vast stretch of Brazilian land whose vital pulse depends on water cycles elsewhere is the Pantanal, the world’s largest wetland, which covers some 151,000 square kilometers (more than 58,000 square miles). An inland meeting point of several large river deltas, the Pantanal is a profusion of meandering channels, pools and bays that render the region an indescribable beauty, teeming with wildlife and fish.

The lush Pantanal thrives through drastic cycles of renewal. Every year the region experiences seasonal floods — born in the surrounding Cerrado plateaus — which act as a deterrent to widespread land conversion.

However, the connectivity between these biomes can be good or bad. How long can a badly hurt Cerrado continue to provide water to the dependent Pantanal? Nature needs these flows to survive — and as creatures of nature, so do we.

CI-Brazil is working with companies, governments, NGOs and other institutions in all of these biomes, focusing its efforts on forest and water conservation. Over the last 10 years with CI-Brazil, I have witnessed an increase in environmental awareness and capacity among Brazilian civil society groups. I have also seen the corporate sector’s growing interest and commitment to sustainability issues, as well as an increasing number of clever initiatives conceived and implemented by the public sector.

CI-Brazil is playing a central role in raising awareness and generating solutions to better integrate human activities with the environment, supporting initiatives to:

Create new protected areas and demonstrate the links between these and the vital ecosystem services they provide in terrestrial and marine environments;

Expand biodiversity conservation, landscape planning and management at the watershed level;

Sustainably manage forests and enhance forest carbon stocks in agricultural landscapes;

Develop ecosystem-based approaches to climate change mitigation and adaptation;

Design and implement projects and programs related to the payment for ecosystem services, such as forest carbon and fresh water;

Conduct training workshops, support stakeholder networks and facilitate farmers’ access to public policies aimed at protecting and restoring forests;

Strengthen corporate engagement in environmental issues such as forestry; and many others.

Finding a balance between the different water requirements for human activities — agriculture, industry and others — and what nature needs will be crucial for the future of our species.

The notion that essential resources that we use every day are directly dependent on intact ecosystems is slowly percolating our science, infiltrating our perceptions. I hope that these ideas will begin to inform the public consciousness and stimulate more conservation-minded behaviors toward water use.

Lúcio Bedê is an ecologist and CI-Brazil’s director of knowledge management.