World’s largest wetland threatened in Brazil

CORUMBA, Brazil, (Reuters) – Jaguars still roam the  world’s largest wetland and endangered Hyacinth Macaws nest in  its trees but advancing farms and industries are destroying  Brazil’s Pantanal region at an alarming rate.

The degradation of the landlocked river delta on the upper  Paraguay river which straddles Brazil’s borders with Bolivia  and Paraguay is a reminder of how economic progress can cause  large-scale environmental damage.

“It’s a type of Noah’s Ark but it risks running aground,”  biologist and tourist guide Elder Brandao de Oliveira says of  the Pantanal.
Brazil’s exports of beef, iron and to a lesser extent soy  — the main products from the Pantanal — have rocketed in  recent years, driven largely by global demand.

Less well-known than the Amazon rain forest, the Pantanal  is larger than England and harbors a huge fresh water reserve  and extraordinary wildlife, ranging from 220-pound (100-kg)  jaguars to giant otters that mingle in water holes packed with  nine-foot (3-metre) caimans.     the world’s largest freshwater wetland, it is almost 10  times the size of Florida’s Everglades.
Of the Pantanal’s 650 bird species, the largest has a wing  span of nearly 3 metres (yards) and the smallest weighs only 2  grams (0.07 ounce).
During the rainy season the water level rises by as much as  five metres (yards), creating a mosaic of dark-brown swamps  with islands of shrubs and tall standing tropical trees. When  the water first hits dry soil it loses oxygen and kills schools  of fish as part of a nose-wrenching natural life cycle.
A melting pot for various ecosystems, the Pantanal has the  greatest concentration of fauna in the Americas, according to  The Nature Conservancy, a global environmental advocacy group.

But some species are in danger of disappearing, including  the long-snouted giant anteater, which claws into anthills and  flicks its two-foot tongue up to 160 times per minute to  quickly gobble up stinging ants.

The giant armadillo and maned wolf are also on the list of  endangered species because of their falling numbers.
Visitors to the Pantanal marvel at the idyllic scenery and  the proximity and abundance of wildlife.
“I hadn’t heard about it before, it’s a bird-lovers’  paradise,” said Alkis Ieromonachou, a Cypriot tourist, eyeing a  group of giant Jabiru storks from the deck of a bungalow. The impact of modern farming is obvious even in the tourist  resort, however, as a large herd of cattle wanders through the  swamp, squashing floating lily pads.

Cattle ranchers cut trees on higher elevations and sow  pasture in the lowlands, which are flooded for months. Many say  they have been here for decades and can’t be expected to  abandon the land and their livelihood.

“True, deforestation is a problem but 50 years ago when it  began nobody thought of these things,” said Ademar Silva, head  of the local association of farmers and cattle ranchers. “The  government needs not only to punish bad behavior but promote  new technology with financial incentives.”

Brazil’s beef exports have more than tripled in five years  to $5 billion in 2008, with pasture often replacing forests.  Experts say improving productivity, from currently around one  head of cattle per hectare (2.5 acres), could prevent much  deforestation.

“We’re using our natural resources fast and inefficiently,”  said environmental economist Andre Carvalho at the Getulio  Vargas Foundation, or FGV.
The environmental group Conservation International says 63  percent of the forest in elevated regions of the Pantanal and  17 percent in lowland regions have been destroyed.

Under a federal law dating back to 1965, ranchers can clear  up to 80 percent of the forest on their property. Parks and  protected areas make up only a small fraction of the Pantanal,  and the rest is largely unprotected.

Demand for charcoal from Brazilian pig iron smelters has  accelerated deforestation, environmentalists say.
“We set up shop precisely to use wood from the advancing  agricultural frontier,” said Vitor Feitosa, operations director  for MMX, a smelter located in the Pantanal town Corumba and  owned by Brazilian billionaire Ike Batista.

Brazil’s pig iron exports have grown sixfold to $3.14  billion since 2003. Around 1.5 million hectares (3.7 million  acres) of native forest are lost annually in Mato Grosso do Sul  state, home to much of the Pantanal, an FGV study showed.

Marcos Brito, head of a charcoal manufacturers group with  15,000 employees in the state, claims most producers use wood  cut and discarded by ranchers. But Alessandro Menezes, an  activist with the environmental group ECOA, says they clear  forests in exchange for the wood. After being fined several times, MMX agreed not to buy  Pantanal charcoal, but most smelters in the state still do.
Erosion resulting from deforestation has created large  sandbanks on tributaries to the Paraguay river, such as the  Taquari and Rio Negro, making them partially unnavigable.

“Rivers will change course, lakes appear or disappear —  the size and shape of the Pantanal will change,” said Sandro  Menezes, manager of Conservation International’s Pantanal  project. “It’s very probable that local flora and fauna will  become extinct.”
Already, there are signs that runoff water from nearby  farms is altering the ecosystem’s delicate balance.

“We see trees flower and birds breed earlier — we believe  it’s because of fertilizers in the water,” said de Oliveira.
The global financial crisis has hit demand for steel and  beef and temporarily eased pressure on the Pantanal as smelters  and farmers put expansion plans on halt. But most  environmentalists agree the next commodity boom could cause  irreversible damage.
“Now is the time for stricter laws, environmental education  and corporate citizenship,” said Ricardo Melo, environmental  public prosecutor in Corumba. “Economic development here is  inevitable; we need to make it sustainable.”

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