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Environmental News

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 sustainable development. 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 toucans, as well as jaguars, alligators, river otters, iguanas, anacondas, anteaters, monkeys and capybaras, the world's largest rodents.

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 follow."

The IRN is part of "Rios Vivos," a coalition of 300 South American NGOs and allied 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 Vivos. 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 monoculture use."

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 environmental law."

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 traders.

"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 back."


to meander: to move in a sinuous, spiral, or circular course
wetland: low area where the land is saturated with water
: all over the world
stage: step
waterway: watercourse; navigable body of water
heart: (in this context) center
enabling: allowing
roughly: approximately
kite: milano (variedad de halcón)
hawk: halcón
macaw: papagayo
toucan: tucán

alligator: caimán
otter: nutria
anteater: oso hormiguero
rodent: roedor
enforcement: social control
NGOs: Non-Governmental Organizations
barge: boat with a flat bottom for carrying heavy loads
dredging: dragging the bottom of a river
pulled out: withdrew (se hizo a un lado)
spokesperson: vocero
fate: destiny
grain traders: empresas agrícolas, comerciantes de granos