- Issue: Spring 2020
- Photographer: Matt Twombly
In the heart of South America, more than 270 communities rely on the Pantanal region’s wetlands for their livelihoods. Indigenous groups, cattle ranchers, and tourism operators all call the region home. Millions more people rely on its water flow for flood control downstream. Development within this unique and vibrant ecosystem must be managed sustainably or we risk losing the Pantanal as we know it. Today, community members across the region are working to conserve this essential landscape and their own way of life.
Ranger at Otuquis
For Vicente Parab, Bolivia’s Otuquis National Park is an extension of his home.
“I represent this Indigenous nation,” says the Chiquitano park ranger. “We have a commitment to nature, a commitment to protect the environment.”
Parab has earned the respect of everyone in the region over the years, from the hunters he convinced to take their sport outside the park even before it was designated a protected area, to the ranchers he helped when they were bitten by deadly snakes.
Now, he also works to promote sustainable development in the Bolivian Pantanal, a part of the region that is largely preserved and that he wants to continue to defend.
Parab knows that unsustainable activity outside of the protected area can have a serious impact on the park. “An infrastructure project that doesn’t consider environmental impacts will affect the entire natural environment of the park,” he says, citing the iron dust from nearby mines being kicked up onto plants by passing trucks and an old road running through Otuquis that cuts off its natural water flow.
“We’ve been talking about global warming for years now and many people say that protected areas will soon be the only forests that exist, creating all our oxygen, all the air we breathe. If we don’t protect them now, we’ll have nothing left.”
Mayor of Carmelo Peralta
“My dream,” says Mirna Orrego, mayor of Carmelo Peralta, “is to give my community clean water before my administration is over.” It’s an ambitious goal, but she is well on her way.
Situated within the basin of the world’s largest tropical wetland, the Paraguayan town is home to some 5,000 families, and has always acquired its water directly from the Paraguay River. But the ships that cross the river and manufacturing plants that dump waste directly into it have made the water from the Pantanal’s main waterway undrinkable.
Thanks to funds donated by WWF to local nonprofit Pro Comunidades Indígenas, Carmelo Peralta is in the process of rehabilitating a water treatment facility that will clean 1,000 liters an hour and serve several Indigenous communities.
When it is up and running, residents will no longer have to treat the water they use daily with chlorine, requiring it to sit with the chemicals for two hours before drinking it or using it to cook a meal.
“It will change everything for us here,” says Orrego. “For the first time, we’ll be able to just turn on a tap without worrying.”
Delson Xavier Castelo
After fishing for decades alongside his wife, Delson Xavier Castelo started tracking the water levels of the rivers around the village of Porto da Manga, where the couple lives, and jotting down a depth reading for each river in his notebook.
On May 31, 2019, for instance, after an extended dry period, the Paraguay River’s level was down to 11 feet. This was an unprecedented drop considering what Castelo, to whom local farmers and fishers turn for information on dry and wet seasons, has seen in his lifetime. Exactly one year earlier, when the Paraguay River seemed to be at its fullest because of flooding, levels had reached almost 18 feet.
The fluctuation, he says, is an obvious sign of climate change and the unsustainable infrastructure projects in the region that exacerbate its effects—especially on the Pantanal’s waters. It makes him concerned for the future.
“Without water,” Castelo says, “there’s no life, there’s no work, there’s no progress.”
Lives next to Tres Gigantes
Sometimes Adolfo Medina leaves a bag of mangoes under his back window for the howler monkeys.
They usually come to the land surrounding his home—a small wooden house that sits on the edge of the Paraguay River, a short boat ride from the Tres Gigantes conservation area—for the bananas, but now the trees are bare. They fell to the ground during the flooding five months ago and haven’t grown back since.
But it’s not just the rising water that concerns Medina. Before moving to the heart of the Pantanal, Medina took on a slew of jobs, including cattle rancher, butcher, and soldier. He even worked as a logger, clearing some of the land right next to where he lives. Eventually, he saw firsthand the devastation caused by deforestation and unsustainable development.
Now, he does everything he can to preserve it. He collects rainwater in two large blue tubs on his roof, powers his house with a small solar panel out front and keeps his garden organic.
He hopes more people will follow his lead.
“People don’t think about their future,” he says. “That’s why they waste the resources we have. Soon there won’t be anything left.”
On the edge of the Miranda River sit a handful of simple wooden houses, home to Joaquim Lopes Bandeira, his wife, Isolina Xavier Bandeira, their seven children, 15 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
Part of the traditional Ribeirinho fishing community, the Bandeira family has long sustained itself by selling the fish they catch and eating what’s left. But in recent years, the number of fish in the river seems to have dwindled. Farms upstream have polluted the water, says Nilsa Bandeira Zwikqr, one of Joaquim and Isolina’s daughters, and deforestation is causing it to silt, trapping fish far from the family’s usual fishing spots.
They’ve tried casting their nets and lines in other parts of the river, but it isn’t enough. Now, they’ve started supplementing their income with a new project: organic honey. Thanks to the bees that pollinate water hyacinths and other flowers deep in the Pantanal, the honey they harvest has a unique pure flavor that Miranda residents love. They often stop by the Bandeiras’ riverside homestead to buy a jar or two, happy to contribute to the local economy and sustainable work that keeps both the family and the biome they live in afloat.
“We have to think about taking care of it,” says Nilsa of the Pantanal, “because it takes care of us too.”