The United Nations created a new
biosphere reserve in Brazil's Pantanal region, the planet's
largest tropical wetland ecosystem.
Biosphere reserves are protected
ecosystems where priority is given to conservation, research and
They are recognized under the United
Nation's Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation's
"Man and Biosphere Programme," which has created
nearly 350 reserves in 85 countries worldwide.
The news comes at a critical stage in the battle to preserve the
Pantanal, as conservationists fight plans to revive an abandoned
project that would create an industrial waterway through the
heart of the region. Biologists hope its new status will attract fresh funding and
investment enabling new, detailed analysis of one of the most
biologically diverse but least-studied environments on Earth. Brazil's government recently
negotiated a US$165 million loan from the Inter-American
Development Bank for sustainable development, eco-tourism and
sanitation projects in the region.
The Pantanal covers an area roughly
half the size of France, spread across the frontier region
between Bolivia, Paraguay and Brazil. Most of the region -
around 140,000 square kilometers - is in Brazil's
central-western states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul. The Pantanal is home to hundreds of
bird species, including kites,
hawks, macaws and
well as jaguars, alligators, river
otters, iguanas, anacondas, anteaters, monkeys and capybaras, the world's largest
The new sanctuary, which includes
higher ground surrounding the Pantanal, spans 250,000 square
kilometers and is the world's third largest biosphere reserve.
Glenn Switkes, head of Latin American
campaigns for a California-based non-governmental organization
called the International River Network (IRN), said: "It's a
symbolic gesture and a step in the right direction, as so little
of the Pantanal is protected.
"Although the United Nations
isn't very rigorous in terms of enforcement and has no legal
power, their reserves do tend to have a moral force and in this
case at least makes Brazil aware that there's a global interest
in the Pantanal. Hopefully, more substantial measures will
The IRN is part of "Rios
Vivos," a coalition of 300 South American NGOs
organizations in Europe and the United States. It was set up to
fight a decade-old plan to establish a 2,100-mile industrial
channel from the town of Caceres in Mato Grosso to Nueva Palmira
in Uruguay. The idea was to build a hidrovia for barges, open 24
hours a day, 365 days a year, supposedly facilitating the export
of soybeans to Europe.
Keeping waterways open all year round
would have required dredging and curve-straightening in many
parts of the River Paraguay, due to the Pantanal's
flood-and-recede ecosystem, with obvious and potentially
devastating effects on the local flora and fauna.
Brazil pulled out of the project - a
joint venture with the governments of Uruguay, Bolivia, Paraguay
and Argentina - three years ago, bowing to international
criticism surrounding the scheme's environmental impact.
But now the world's largest river
shipping firm, American Commercial Barge Lines (ACBL), is
seeking permission to build a port at Morrinhos, a natural
backwater in the Pantanal. The move is being seen as an
underhanded bid to implement the old hidrovia project in stages
and has sparked a global protest campaign initiated by Rios
The coalition is pressing Brazil's
federal government - which is, by law, responsible for
protecting the Pantanal and regulating interstate river traffic
- to undertake the licensing process.
A spokesperson for The Brazilian
Institute for the Environment and Natural Renewable Resources,
the regulatory arm of Brazil's Environment Ministry, said that
it would assume responsibility for licensing the project, though
the move has yet to be made public.
Said Switkes: "That's a direct
result of Rios Vivos' international campaign.
"If this decision is left to
Mato Grosso's government, the project will almost certainly be
approved. Their economic plan is almost totally dependent on
converting the savannah surrounding the Pantanal to soy
According to the IRN, millions of
hectares of savannah have already suffered this fate, leading to
agrotoxic pollution of river systems and silt build-up in the
Pantanal basin. Mato Grosso's government has also agreed to fund
construction of a paved road through the Pantanal to Morrinhos
if the port project is given the green light. Renato Pavan, ACBL's
consultant in Brazil, insisted: "This project will go
ahead. Of course it's important that the environment is
preserved, but that should be through sustainable development.
Our project will meet every requirement of Brazil's
But Switkes said the scheme would
spell doom for the Pantanal: "It is the most important
wetland region on the planet and, instead of being preserved
with a local economy based on tourism, it risks being destroyed
for the gain of a few multinational grain
"Exactly the same thing
happened with the Mississippi, which started out as a very
complex river system and is now so polluted that if you do
manage to catch a fish in it, the safest thing to do is throw it