By José Pedro Martins
The Pantanal is an immense region spanning 147,574 square kilometers, and is part of an even larger area, the Upper Paraguay River Basin, which totals 362,376 square kilometers on the Brazilian side alone — an area twice that of Uruguay. While its biome, or ecosystem, is the best preserved of the six that exist in Brazil — given that only 15 per cent of its original vegetation has been deforested — there are already serious signs of trouble, as evidenced by the ongoing slaughter of alligators and the lack of proper waste disposal.
Hefty economic interests are spilling over into this southwestern region, raising concerns among environmentalists, scientists and, above all, its people, whom are all united in the pursuit of sustainable development for this part of the country.
Unfortunately, little attention is currently paid by the Brazilian and international communities to the Pantanal — the world´s largest wetland — located between the states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul. This is contrary to what happens in the Amazon, and it flies in the face of the fact that the Pantanal is a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Natural World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve.
A clear indicator, however, that the Pantanal is occupying an increasingly important place on the Brazilian scientific agenda has been the creation of two new scientific institutions in recent years, both overseen by the Ministry of Science and Technology and focused directly or indirectly on the area. These are the National Research Center of the Pantanal, based at the Federal University of Mato Grosso (UFMT) in Cuiabá, and the National Institute of Science and Technology for Wetlands, also under the coordination of UFMT.
The big question is how the Pantanal can develop within a sustainable framework, while retaining its extraordinary biodiversity and natural resources. Additionally, it must also be determined how rearing livestock will continue in the region.
Farm animals have lived on the Pantanal since the early 18th century and, unlike what is happening in the Amazon, there has not been intensive deforestation to create pastures, as indicated by a study coordinated by the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa)-Pantanal, which included the participation of several NGOs.
Cattle from the marsh feed on both natural grass and crops, but even in the dry season the food supply is abundant. The animals look for food in the capões, or hammocks. These tree clusters that look like islands can be home to dozens of plant species.
Organic farming is already being practiced, and there is a strong tendency towards expanding the number of certified livestock in the Pantanal, according to the president of the Brazilian Association of Organic Livestock, Leonardo Leite de Barros. “Conscientious consumerism is here to stay,” he said during a roundtable at the 5th Symposium on Natural and Socioeconomic Resources in the Pantanal, held in late 2010 in Corumbá, Mato Grosso do Sul.
There are about 4 million heads of cattle on the Pantanal, accounting for 2 per cent of Brazilian beef, out of a total 200 million heads — one of the largest populations in the world.
Fishing, another resource
“I´ve always been passionate about fish,” admits Dr. Emiko Kawakami de Resende, who arrived in 1985 to work at Embrapa-Pantanal and today heads the institution. Kawakami explains that in those early years, there was a breakthrough in understanding the Pantanal thanks to the efforts of researchers, institutions such as Embrapa-Pantanal, the Federal University of Mato Grosso do Sul (UFMS), and UFMT, among others, in addition to the anonymous and generous support of people like Américo Sousa.
Sousa, 62, a fisherman since the age of 12, knows “everything” about the dynamics of the Pantanal´s rivers. And half of those five decades of direct contact with the Paraguay basin´s waters was devoted precisely to support the research of experts from Embrapa and other organizations. With seven children, Sousa says he “owes everything” to the rivers and to the fish.
It is people like this that have spearheaded a new outlook for the Pantanal, which has the possibility to follow paths towards truly sustainable development that take into account the idiosyncrasies of the ecosystem and demands, dreams and challenges of the local population.
However, while the people of the Pantanal are passionate about the rivers, animals, and life in the region, the difficulties are numerous.
A survey conducted by UFMS agricultural engineer Marcos García de Henrique dos Anjos and others, interviewing 35 families totaling 198 people directly or indirectly involved in artisanal fishing in Porto Murtinho, Mato Grosso do Sul, noted some important obstacles, such as the disparity in quality of life indicators between rural and urban populations.
In rural areas, 57.14 per cent of those surveyed had no deeds for their homes, and 21.4 per cent lived in a casa cedida, a home lent for free by the owner — often an employer, a relative, or an institution — to the tenants.
In urban areas, however, 57 per cent had their own homes. Still, only 5 per cent of households in the city had sewer access while 48 per cent used septic tanks. In rural areas, 64 per cent used well water and, in the city, 95 per cent of homes were serviced by the state sanitation company.
An important tool, which tends to be used often when planning for the sustainable use of natural resources in ecosystems such as the Pantanal and the Amazon, is socio-economic zoning. A study by Cristhiane Oliveira de Graça Amânciom along with others from Embrapa-Agricultural Biology was carried out in the riverfront community of Castelo, in Corumbá. Socio-economic zoning revealed, among other things, that 59 per cent of respondents had only primary education, the local market still worked mainly through the barter system and, with the decline in livestock, fishing has played an increasingly larger role as a source for animal protein.
“Like other communities surveyed, the one we see here has suffered from an absence of public policies aimed at riparian zones,” say the study´s authors.