Pantanal, the green waterland in the heart of South America, is under threat

The Pantanal, situated in the heart of South America, at the border of Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay, is a beautiful wetland covered with forests, grasslands, lagoons and marshlands. Covering a surface area of over 140,000 km2, it is the world’s largest freshwaterwetland. This vast, green water area is being threatened by agricultural expansion and dams.

The Pantanal is less well-known than the Amazon, but it is of great ecological significance for the whole region, including even the Chaco in Paraguay and Argentina. The yearly floods preserve a unique ecosystem with a rich biodiversity. It is a fragile system that can be easily disrupted.

The Pantanal is like a sponge; all of its water is collected in the north, and is slowly released on the other side, in the south. The area’s water supply depends on the planalto, the highland in the Brazilian district state Mato Grosso and the Cerrado in the centre and north of the country. Anything occurring in those areas, such as the use of pesticides in soy cultivation, is heavily affecting the Pantanal. Thus, the unique wetland is slowly being poisoned by soy production in the north. And this is not all. Rivers are drying up due to the construction of dams. Canalization, on the contrary, makes the water run faster. The area consists of natural dams, such as the Serra do Amolar ridge, which block the water and let it flow at a slower pace. If this process is disrupted, floods could occur and even reach Buenos Aires in Argentina, says Tamara Mohr. She is the team leader strategic cooperation at Both ENDS, an NGO that has been active in the Pantanal since 1994 and wants to strengthen the voice of the local population.

A collaboration between the NGOs Both ENDS, IUCN NL and Wetlands International – known as The Ecosystem Alliance – recently came with an alarming report: “The whole Pantanal, not just the half: Soy, waterway and other threats to the integrity of the Pantanal”. This report identifies not only the canalization of the rivers, but also the expansion of soy production, as one of the factors threatening the Pantanal’s ecosystem. And they are all interconnected. Tamara Mohr: “The Pantanal is not really suitable for soy. Yet, slowly, it is gaining ground. Seeds are being modified. Just like in the Chaco. Institutes in that region are modifying seeds in such a way that they can be used in the Chaco after all.”

“Floods could occur from the Pantanal and reach Buenos Aires in Argentina”

But still: why soy? Tamara Mohr: “The plan is to revitalize the hidrovia (waterway) Paraguay-Paraná from Cáceres to Corumbá and further downstream. Now, it is called the ecovia,and it is for example being promoted by ‘Aprosoja’, the Association for Soy Producers of the Brazilian state Mato Grosso, which promises that ports will be constructed in Cáceres and Murtinho, and that these will benefit the transport sector. For the new minister of Agriculture, Katia Abreu, the major agenda issue is the combination of transport and infrastructure for the expansion of export production. The hidroviais part of her plans. So the cultivation of soy in the area is really being stimulated, as it can easily be transported via these ports.”

The Ecosystem Alliance would prefer the implementation of a moratorium on soy in the Pantanal, just like in the Amazon area, where an agreement between the federal government, the private sector and several environmental organisations has been in place since 2006. In short, a moratorium on soy prohibits the cultivation of soy until a closely monitored plan for land management has been determined. But even the expansion of the moratorium in the Amazon to the Cerrado would already help and certainly have a positive impact on the Pantanal, says Tamara Mohr.

Besides soy and canalization, the construction of 150 dams for the generation of electricity is also threatening the ecosystem of the Pantanal. According to Tamara Mohr, this is related to investment projects. When construction is over, the sites will deliver only two percent of Brazil’s energy, and yet, they will affect fish stocks. Mohr: “The entire area depends on the fragile water system. If a dam causes the river to dry up, the spawning grounds of the fish will be disrupted, resulting in less fish for the local population.”

“The laws which should protect the Pantanal are being broken down”

Together with the local population, the Ecosystem Alliance is trying to find ways to turn the tide. Sander van Andel of IUCN NL: “We try to evaluate if the actions of these diverse industries correspond with current legislation. There are laws that impose restrictions. The Pantanal is an internationally recognised wetland area. Brazil has confirmed this herself. In other words, the Pantanal has a status. But the laws which should protect the Pantanal are now slowly being broken down. We try to provide a counterbalance together with local groups. It is truly amazing to see how much knowledge of and expertise in economic developments, ecology and history the local organizations have. That helps a lot.”

Tamara Mohr thinks the economic value of maintaining an ecosystem such as the Pantanal should also be taken into account. The area attracts many tourists. And there is also the fish catch. Mohr: “For the people living in the Pantanal, fish is a major source of protein and very important for their health. If this is lost, people will have to buy food instead, and this requires money. A clear picture should be drawn of the income people generate from fishery and tourism now, and what they will lose if these sources disappear. The water system in the Pantanal has a huge influence on a much larger area. One third of the dams to be constructed are already there. We do not want these to be torn down or anything. We only want to achieve a more natural flux.”

Sander van Andel: “We support the notion that a natural system should be maintained and kept intact as much as possible, because we think this will be of more economic value in the long run – not to mention of more ecologic and cultural value too.”

“It is amazing to see how much knowledge of and expertise in economic developments, ecology and history the local organizations have”

Tamara Mohr: “We are not against economic development, but we do feel it should benefit the local population. What we want is a dialogue with the soy sector. At least the soy sector and NGOs in the Amazon agree on one thing: it is not possible to work towards expansion in a responsible way without good governance. This can be achieved in the Pantanal, too. In the Netherlands, we have been talking with the government and businesses about responsible soy. The Netherlands is one of the most important soy importers, and we must prevent the import of soy from areas like the Pantanal. Aprosoja is attempting to sell its sustainability system, ‘Soja plus’, as responsible. They have been promoting this in Europe and want companies to acknowledge it as ‘sustainable’. Yet, if you look at the criteria, you will see that these are more concerned with economic – rather than ecologic – sustainability. We are not going to promote that system in the Pantanal. The area is just too vulnerable for that.”

Sander van Andel: “What we want is a dialogue with the soy sector so we can take a closer look together: What do we actually want? What impact do certain developments have, and do you truly realize that? This has been accomplished in the Amazon. To collectively, and especially together with the local population, get an idea of how to achieve a balance everyone can live with. Otherwise you will only get conflicts. The problem, however, is that you will always make more profit by not following the rules. Another problem is that, to investors, the Pantanal – compared to the Amazon – is much less well-known as an area with great ecological value.”