Pantanal, the world’s largest wetland, disappearing finds new report
Rhett A. Butler, mongabay.com
January 10, 2006
Deforestation has destroyed 17 percent of the Pantanal, the world’s largest wetland, according to a new report from Conservation International.
The Pantanal, an area of flooded grassland and savanna covering 200,000 square kilometers during the rainy season, includes parts of Brazil, Paraguay, and Bolivia and is fed by the Rio Paraguay. The wetland is home to some 3500 species of plant and 650 species of birds. About 125 types of mammals, 180 kinds of reptiles, 41 types of amphibians, and 325 species of fish have been found in the region. The Pantanal in an important source of freshwater to neighboring farming areas and downstream urban areas.
While portions of the Pantanal have been officially protected, the ecosystem is threatened by livestock grazing, agriculture, and transportation projects. Recently, South American governments proposed a major waterway project that could significantly impact the region by draining sensitive wetlands. In November 2005 a 65-year-old Brazilian environmentalist immolated himself in a protest against the construction of alcohol factories in the Pantanal.
A news release announcing the findings appears below.
Report shows deforestation threatens Brazil’s Pantanal
Conservation International report
Almost half of the Paraguay River Basin that includes vast Pantanal wetlands already transformed into grazing and crop lands
The capybara, earth’s largest rodent, is common in the Pantanal
Deforestation from increased grazing and agriculture has destroyed 17 percent of the native vegetation in Brazil’s Pantanal, considered the world’s largest wetland.
A new study published by Conservation International sounds an alarm for the Paraguay River Basin, which includes the Pantanal. Continued deforestation at the current rate would cause all of the Pantanal’s original vegetation to disappear in 45 years, according to CI researchers in Brazil.
Overall, opening the region to more grazing and agriculture, including the transformation of native pasture to farmland, has destroyed almost 45 percent of the original vegetation in the Paraguay River Basin. The river basin covers approximately 600,000 square kilometers, 60 percent of it within Brazilian territory. It includes the Pantanal, which comprises 41 percent of the entire basin. The Pantanal is a Brazilian National Heritage site, a significant site of international relevance according to the RAMSAR Wetlands Areas Convention, and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
Caiman in the Pantanal.
The CI scientists analyzed satellite images to compare the proportion of deforested areas with those that still have native vegetation. They concluded that agriculture, cattle grazing and coal mining are the major threats to the Paraguay River Basin, a significant hydrographical drainage of the South American continent.
Titled “Estimated Loss of Natural Area in the High Paraguay River Basin and the Brazilian Pantanal,” the report produced by the Pantanal Program of CI-Brazil depicts a critical situation. As of 2004, it says, approximately 44 percent of the area’s original vegetation had been altered, with some districts in the Paraguay River Basin losing more than 90 percent of their vegetation.
“It is extremely important to conserve the areas surrounding the Pantanal lowlands, because they are the headwaters of the rivers that make up the Pantanal,” said Sandro Menezes, manager of CI-Brazil’s Pantanal’s Program. “These locations contribute to wildlife populations and serve as refuges for the fauna during unfavorable seasons, sheltering species that migrate to avoid floods and climate extremes.”
Satellite view of a section of the Pantanal. Image courtesy of DigitalGlobe
Losing native vegetation causes soil degradation and changes the hydrological processes, which determine the dry and wet cycles and are largely responsible for the biological richness of the region. That in turn can compromise resources such as food and breeding sites offered by the forests and other types of vegetation. An example is the hyacinth macaw, a species threatened with extinction, which depends on a tree commonly called ‘manduvi’ (Sterculia apetala) for shelter and reproduction. Without this specific tree, chances are that the hyacinth macaw will disappear.
According to the report, urgent actions required to reverse the situation include increased government regulation and better coordination of conservation efforts at various government levels (municipal, state and federal); a review of current legislation regarding protected areas and legal reserves for the region; and implementation of a broad environmental restoration program in devastated areas.
Conservation International (CI) was founded in 1987 to conserve Earth’s living natural heritage, our global biodiversity, and to demonstrate that human societies are able to live harmoniously with nature. CI, a field-based organization headquartered in Washington, DC works in more than 40 countries on four continents, drawing upon a unique array of scientific, economic, awareness building and policy tools to help people find economic alternatives without harming their natural environments. CI employs more than 1,000 people worldwide, most of whom are residents of the countries in which they work