- Issue: Spring 2020
- Author: Jill Langlois
- Photographer: Jaime Rojo
By the time Elizete Garciada Costa Soares wades into the deep, warm waters of the Paraguay River, the sky is usually black.
The tiny crabs and bait fish called tuvira, which she captures with a metal screen, come out at night, long after the hot sun that washes over the Brazilian Pantanal has set.
It takes Soares at least an hour to reach the best spots to fish for bait, where the tuvira and crabs hide under the thick green leaves of the water hyacinths that float on the river’s surface. She’ll be gone for at least three or four days, so she brings a tent to pitch along the riverbank. Later, she will sell the bait to other fishers, usually in the nearby town of Miranda.
Soares is well aware of the dangers of her profession—she’s had her fair share of run-ins with jaguars and anacondas in the 26 years she’s been heading out on the river to fish. But she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Life here for us is very fulfilling,” says Soares of herself and her husband. “We have fish to eat; we have bait to sell to make money for other necessities. Even if we don’t have money for meat, we can go out on the river to fish and bring back a piranha to eat with manioc flour. Here, we never go hungry.”
A wealth of biodiversity
At just over 42 million acres, the Pantanal is the world’s largest tropical wetland, created by the convergence of more than 1,200 rivers and streams rushing down from the eastern Andes and the high plateaus of the Cerrado, the vast tropical savanna to the east. More than 10 times the size of Florida’s Everglades, it stretches across the borders of Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay. Its primary waterway is the Paraguay River, which meanders through the three countries before joining the Paraná River and flowing into Argentina.
The Pantanal is a landscape of extremes. Acting like a giant sponge, the upper part of the basin retains floodwaters from October to March, providing natural flood protection for the millions of people who live downstream. It then slowly drains between April and September, leaving discrete pools teeming with wildlife and providing life-giving water long after the rains have gone.
This seasonal rise and fall, the pulsing of water in and out of the surrounding landscapes, is responsible for the wetland’s significant biodiversity. Though often overshadowed by the Amazon, its neighbor to the north, the Pantanal is home to more than 4,700 plant and animal species, including fig and ipê trees, jabiru storks, capybaras, and caiman.
The Pantanal offers “a refuge for a wealth of biodiversity not found in other places,” says Michele Thieme, lead scientist and deputy director of freshwater initiatives for WWF-US.
In addition to being an environmental jewel, the Pantanal is also a tremendous resource for people, says Lucy Aquino, director of WWF-Paraguay: “The Pantanal is one of the most important regions in the world, in terms of services provided to humanity, and one of those regions that supplies food to the world.”
For now, the Pantanal is relatively intact, sustaining more than 270 communities—1.5 million people—in addition to its flora and fauna, and helping to stabilize the climate throughout the region and beyond.
But while much of the Bolivian Pantanal is protected, the overwhelming majority of the wetland, lying in Paraguay and Brazil, is not. In all, conservation areas represent just 4.6% of the Pantanal, and its headwaters in the Cerrado are at particularly high risk.
In recent years, roads, water management systems, hydroelectric dams, large-scale mines, farms, and cattle ranches have begun to change the dynamics of the wetland, threatening the region’s integrity. In addition to poorly planned infrastructure, mining, and agricultural development, the region faces other threats, including the lack of basic sanitation and the construction of canals for navigation.
Moreover, by the end of the century the Pantanal is expected to be much drier and hotter, with potentially devastating results, including extreme droughts and floods, and the possible shrinking of the wetland as a whole. In the absence of a holistic vision, unsustainable development threatens to limit the Pantanal’s ability to function and to adapt to climate change, putting homes and habitats at risk.
There is a tension between communities’ needs for development—for sanitation services and clean drinking water, for example, along with roads and hydropower dams—and the costs of such development to the ecosystem and people alike. But development done right, well-designed and sustainable, would contribute to the wetland’s conservation, says Julio Cesar Sampaio da Silva, who leads WWF-Brazil’s work in the Cerrado and Pantanal. And while the region reaches into three countries, he says, it must be treated as one.
“Considering the Pantanal as a shared territory and developing strategies for shared management—creating a truly shared vision for the region—is fundamental to having effective conservation of these natural resources,” he says. To that end, WWF has long acted as a facilitator in the region, connecting decision-makers from the three countries through its offices in Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay.
All for one
In 2018, the three countries formally signaled their shared commitment to sustaining those resources when they signed a landmark trilateral agreement known as the Pantanal Declaration. WWF offices in all three countries, in the US, and across the WWF network had pushed for and helped guide this agreement. In it, the countries commit to work together to reduce pollution, strengthen water governance, and expand scientific knowledge, while ensuring the rights of Indigenous peoples. That sort of deep, invested collaboration is central to successful conservation work at scale.
“The Pantanal, like any natural area, knows no geopolitical bounds,” says Maurício Voivodic, executive director of WWF-Brazil. “In a scenario where 55% of the Pantanal’s headwaters have already been deforested, an initiative that calls for the integrated and transboundary management of water resources is fundamental for a peaceful and water-secure future.”
Citing the importance of the wetland to those well beyond its boundaries, WWF-Bolivia director Samuel Sangueza-Pardo calls the agreement “a decisive step in integrating Bolivia, Brazil, and Paraguay’s joint commitment to maintain this ecosystem, which is fundamental for the welfare of more than 10 million people.”
“Trying to be pragmatic, trying to be solution-oriented, is really what the Pantanal Declaration represents,” says Melissa Ho, WWF-US senior vice president for freshwater and food. Drawing on more than two decades of project-level experience in the Pantanal, WWF is working to support the initiative by facilitating the collaboration and by helping to strengthen the network of protected areas, support sustainable development, and foster responsible agricultural and ranching practices.
“We look at how to create solutions,” says Ho, “not just fight the threats.”
The Pantanal Declaration comes at a crucial moment. “There’s a window of opportunity for the Pantanal to survive into the future,” says Thieme. “This is a moment in time where development can take one of two different paths. If a sustainable path is taken, there’s an opportunity for that wealth of nature to continue to survive.”
Wanted: Clean water
Throughout the Pantanal, the well-being of the region’s human communities is both increasingly under pressure and inextricably linked to the health of the freshwater system.
Take Sonia Ozuna Ortiz, for example. It takes her four hours to get from her village of Puerto Diana, Paraguay, to the forest where she and the other Yshir Indigenous women from her community collect the materials they use to make baskets. Ortiz learned the craft from her mother, who taught her how to weave the long strips of palm leaves using the tips of her fingers, pulling each knot tight before starting the next.
The women sell their baskets to visitors and in other towns along the Paraguay River. Ortiz earns 30,000 guaraníes ($5) for a small basket with handles that takes three days to make; a large laundry-style basket sells for 200,000 guaraníes ($31).
But getting to the forest isn’t always possible. In the rainy season, the only road connecting Puerto Diana to other Yshir communities and small towns that dot the bank of the Paraguay River is completely washed out. And even when the road is dry, the money Ortiz makes—together with what her husband makes by fishing and selling wood carvings—is often not enough to cover the most basic needs, such as drinking water.
The water the Yshirs drink comes directly from the Paraguay River. Pollution—including contamination from industrial activities, cattle, and even natural-but-dangerous bacteria from wildlife—means families must treat their water with chlorine, and that can be expensive.
Sometimes Ortiz and her husband don’t earn enough to treat the water their five daughters and three sons drink. The two 150-liter plastic barrels that sit in front of their house hold three days’ worth of water—and treating that water costs more than double what Ortiz makes in that amount of time.
Having a water treatment center in Puerto Diana, Ortiz says, would make an immense difference in her life. “It would be much easier,” she says. “We wouldn’t have to worry about buying anything if the water just came out of a tap.”
Communicating a common vision
Finding sustainable solutions to community needs—for roads that are navigable year-round, for jobs, for clean water flowing from a tap—is a formidable challenge that requires a unified approach. And it’s one WWF is anxious to meet.
“The 2018 trinational declaration,” says WWF’s Thieme, “empowers Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay with a common vision for ensuring the future resilience of the Pantanal.” But realizing that vision will require collaborative, climate-smart approaches to sustainable development and conservation at every level, from the national to the local.
As the go-between for people in his community and authorities working on environmental issues, facilitator Saul Arias is a key link in how that vision plays out on the ground. He works for a partnership among WWF-Paraguay, Guyra Paraguay, and the Institute of Law and Environmental Economics.
Arias grew up in the town of Bahía Negra on the Paraguay River, not far from where Ortiz makes her baskets, and he knows well the challenges of life in the Pantanal. He travels back home frequently from the capital city of Asunción, where he is studying environmental engineering. When it’s not raining, he takes a 25-seat military plane. But if the rain washes out the runway, the only option is a four-day upriver trip on the Aquidaban, a cargo ferry prepped with hammocks and bunks for sleeping.
He has long been involved in conservation issues, and he works for a local organization to educate his community about sustainability. He runs an environmental radio station, gives regular talks at Bahía Negra’s elementary school, and works with the surrounding Indigenous communities to help them continue traditional practices, including Yshir basket weaving.
Bringing both his conservation knowledge and a deep involvement in his community to bear, Arias facilitates territorial planning aimed at determining the best uses for specific plots of land. Technicians in the field collect data on social and cultural issues, he explains, and look at the biodiversity and geography of each area to understand what can be done with it sustainably. Nature-based tourism in particular is an important ally for conservation and sustainable growth in the area.
Arias’s role is to talk with the community about the planning effort, and in turn to speak on their behalf as WWF, government authorities, and partners work to implement the sustainable development vision.
“At first a lot of people thought territorial planning was something negative,” he says. “But after a lot of time and long conversations, they understand that it will benefit them and help them keep their way of life, not hurt it.”
Arias’s community-centered work in Bahía Negra is a microcosm of WWF’s efforts across the region, says Thieme, “from addressing unsustainable ranching practices in the headwaters to mapping river connectivity and supporting renewable energy options that lessen the need for new dams.”
Such coordinated, science-based planning, she says, enables smart decision-making to address current threats to the health of the freshwater system and anticipate future needs. “It tells us, for example, where soy farming and ranching should go and which areas are key to protect.”
The importance of preserving life in the Pantanal—and coordinated planning among the three countries—can’t be overstated, and the Pantanal Declaration affirms a level of commitment that buoys the hopes of those working to foster the resilience, adaptability, and prosperity of the region.
“It’s a work in progress,” says Melissa Ho. “This is a decades-long endeavor, and WWF has that commitment and staying power. This amazing landscape is worthy of our enduring protection for future generations.”
For Pantanal residents like Elizete Soares, that kind of commitment provides hope for the future of the only home they know. “The Pantanal, for us,” says Soares, “is everything.”
The Pantanal is a uniquely dynamic ecosystem. Several ecoregions are woven together by the flow of water that journeys from higher terrain down to lower in the basin and ebbs and flows in these landscapes with the seasons. The complex nature of this vast region is what makes it so rich with biodiversity and with the natural resources that fuel economic activity—but also what makes it so challenging to conserve and develop sustainably.
The extensive circulation of water means that environmental changes in the surrounding regions directly affect the health of the Pantanal, and the health of the Pantanal directly affects the surrounding regions. Impacts in one place can cascade across the entire mosaic of communities and wildlife.
For instance, agricultural chemicals used in the Cerrado, the expansive savanna to the northeast, can be borne along by the Pantanal’s flood pulse and contaminate far-off bodies of water. And some threats, like the planned hidrovía, a massive waterway that would cut straight through the heart of the wetland, would fundamentally alter the Pantanal’s natural hydrological rhythms.
Systems-wide threats require systems-based solutions. Development in the Pantanal must be strategically planned in a coordinated effort across Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay in order to protect the region’s many ecosystem services. The transboundary cooperation and better protective measures to which the three countries committed in the 2018 Pantanal Declaration are critical to developing a more sustainable path forward for this globally significant freshwater resource.
WWF will continue to support and facilitate their efforts and to partner with farmers and ranchers, financial stakeholders, and communities to ensure that economic activity is balanced with the region’s diverse conservation priorities.
Our work on the ground has spanned national borders, ecoregions, and sectors for over 20 years. WWF is committed to embracing the Pantanal’s complexity as a living, flowing, interconnected system, so that it can one day be a model for sustainable development and good governance.
Melissa Ho is WWF-US senior vice president for freshwater and food.