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Saving Brazil's biomes

Saving the Pantanal: Brazil’s most preserved biome still needs our attention

Author: Ellen Nemitz

The world's largest wetland still requires a serious intervention in order to restore its previous levels of biodiversity. Whether or not this happens will have far-reaching consequences.

©Nathalia Segato

The Pantanal, the largest wetland in the world, is located in South America - spanning across western-central Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay and hosting a significant water and biodiversity reserve. The Unesco Natural World Heritage site is home to a unique set of species, including the jaguar and the hyacinth macaw, as well as an additional 263 species of fish, 122 species of mammals, 93 of reptiles, 656 of birds and 1,032 of butterflies, according to WWF Brasil.

In a 2021 article entitled ‘Sustainability agenda for the Pantanal wetland: perspectives on a collaborative interface for science, policy, and decision-making,’ Pantanal is described as "one of the main hotspots for ecosystem services worldwide" that provides "critical ecosystem services both globally and locally, such as the maintenance of regional microclimates, regulation of river discharge, fishing, water security, native pasture, habitat for threatened species, and wintering ground for migratory species."

Despite recent waves of destructive fires hitting the region, mostly in 2019, 2020 and 2021, this biome remains well-preserved: nearly 83 percent of its original flora is original, according to Cyntia Cavalcante Santos, a conservation analyst at WWF-Brasil. 

This is mainly due to biannual hydrological cycles that flood the Pantanal, turning it into a temporary reservoir. In addition to providing nutrient renewal (as the water gradually drains) and natural flood control, these hydrological cycles prevent some agricultural activities from taking place during flood season, and reinforce an overall respectful relation between people and nature. 

"The Pantanal is one of the few ecosystems in the world in which you have livestock production and, at the same time, biodiversity protection," said Rafael Chiaravalloti, researcher at IPÊ (Institute for Ecological Research) and at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

"There are large healthy populations there that are threatened elsewhere, such as the jaguar, giant otter, hyacinth macaw, Pantanal deer, concomitantly with more than 4 million head of cattle produced every year, [based mainly on] the use of native pasture and extensive cattle farming." 

The project Sustainable Landscapes in Pantanal, carried out by IPÊ, seeks to encourage traditional ways of cattle ranching in the region and certifies farms that maintain a sustainable method of raising animals while preserving biodiversity. One example is the Sustainable Pantaneira Farm seal, created by the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa) in partnership with IPÊ, in addition to workshops and other events that bring together various land owners. 

In the near future, they also plan to offer financial prizes as an incentive to land owners. "In addition to good conservation practices, we also encourage the culture and the identity [of the traditional people], which I think is fundamental for us to be able to have discussions within the conservation area," added Chiaravalloti.

Cyntia Cavalcante Santos also stressed that people - be it farmers, riverines or indigenous communities - play an essential role in Pantanal's preservation.

"Owners of century-old farms, who persist in maintaining best practices respecting the water cycle, the particular dynamics of each 'pantanal' which are different in terms of soil, slope and type of vegetation, pass from parents to kids the practical knowledge to deal with their properties full of so many particularities of the biome and in dealing with cattle," she said. 

"On the other hand, the Pantanal is also rich in 'other people', such as the riverside dwellers and indigenous peoples who possess centuries-old knowledge, established in strategic areas often linked to Protected Areas such as Conservation Units, from which they derive alternative forms of survival and environmental management from native resources."

©Joanne Francis

Changes in natural dyanamics

Vegetation in Pantanal is known for its resilience. Fires make a part of Pantanal’s history: when they are not too widespread and devastating - the opposite of the ones that took place in 2019, 2020 and 2021, when fires had spiralled out of control - the biome knows how to self-regenerate.  Chiaravalloti of IPÊ explained that the environment can restore itself quite satisfactorily. 

Fávia Araújo, a conservation analyst at WWF-Brasil, added that, according to studies, around 93 percent of the affected areas have high or medium potential for natural regeneration. 

Over 2022, forest fires have decreased due to a higher rainfall average and the work of community fire brigades that conducted training throughout the region and spread awareness among the local population. 

"Mainly, I attribute a significant reduction from 2022 to the monitoring, surveillance, enforcement, command and control processes of a framework of institutions that understood that fires needed to stop," said Andre Luiz Siqueira, the director of Ecoa (Ecologia e Ação, or Ecology and Action), another NGO operating in the region.

But despite the remarkable rate of conservation, Pantanal is witnessing a notable decrease in native vegetation, especially species in the forest category, which include the forest and savanna formations of the biome, said Cyntia Santos. This process is intensified by the increasingly evident drought in a place where waters control everything. 

MapBioma, an initiative of the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Estimation System (SEEGs), had built a platform showing the historic series of water surfaces in Brazil; Pantanal wetlands lost nearly 80 percent of its waters from 1985 to 2022.

"Climate changes that occur on different scales also influence the region, altering the dynamics of rainfall, for example and the increase in temperature," Santos explained. 

Other impacts include the advance of dams and hydroelectric projects, which affect the dynamics of the rivers and the suppression or reduction of areas of permanent preservation that protect springs and rivers. This leads to inadequate soil management and an attendant sediment deposition, reducing the flow from the apex to the plain.

Communities for restoration

Communities in Pantanal are gathering to save their homeland - and the biodiversity found there. The Baía Negra Preservation Area (APA Baía Negra) is an area of 6,000 hectares, half of which was burnt by 2020 fires. There, the NGO Ecoa found a way of supporting people who earn a living from nature, while helping biodiversity, in partnership with other institutions and, most importantly, with the local community. 

"We have always worked on the economic chain of the extractivist groups, one of these groups being the Network of Women Producers of the APA Baía Negra, who have lost all their production capacity," Ecoa’s director recalled. "In addition, there was the impact on biodiversity and the state of conservation of this protected area."

The work began about a year ago, and consisted of removing tonnes of trash, including health-care waste, removing Leucaena (River tamarind) - a non-native species of vegetation introduced for pasture and planting thousands of seedlings of native species, such as piúva, aroeira, jenipapo and angelim, in addition to restoring water springs. 

In parts of the area, there has also been deep soil degradation by mining activity, where the biggest challenge is posed. "[That area] would never recover without a deep intervention to provide the minimum conditions for species to grow, so that in the future we can think about restoring and giving it the opportunity to provide the same [environmental] services that it provided before it was totally degraded," Siqueira explained.

Restoring a total of nearly 50 hectares requires dedicated teams. The groups are made up of residents and are coordinated by qualified people hired and paid by the project. 

"They are autonomous people, people who live from fishing, riverines, people who provide services to farms and live off extractivism," said Siqueira. "Of course you can't have a schedule of work as intense as ours for restoration and these people are not paid. This is part of our philosophy: to generate income through restoration work."

Virginia J. Paz, president of APA Bahia Negra, is seeing her homeland being literally reborn from the ashes. "It's an area where we have been planting seedlings, and which will become a very extensive area of reforestation," she shared enthusiastically. "It is just the beginning."

Siqueira is making plans for a map of priority areas for restoration - almost 80,000 hectares - which will be ready in June and enable even more ambitious projects to make Pantanal thrive.   

Image by Ellen Nemitz