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Fishing for Sustainability

My name is Heather and I am currently finishing my M.A. in International Environmental Policy at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. I am a former Peace Corps volunteer, and last year I was a volunteer with the WWF-Brazil Pantanal Programme. Upon graduating, I will return to Brazil as a Fulbright Fellow to conduct research with WWF and partner organization REPAMS to assist in establishing the first system wide methodology to monitor and evaluate private reserves in Brazil.
Along the central eastern edge of Brazil, cradling southern Bolivia and northern Paraguay, hides one of the world’s natural wonders, the Pantanal. Teeming with flora and fauna and spanning ecosystems and countries, the largest freshwater wetland is practically an untouched paradise – albeit a swampy one.

The Pantanal’s beauty and abundant biodiversity are maintained largely due to its two seasons: wet and dry. The former begins in November and continues through March, as swelling tributaries pass all boundaries and engulf the surrounding lands. Rivers and creeks unite, swallowing roads and limiting transportation to just boats or horses. Then, almost as quickly as it began, the waters recede, and the Pantanal’s precious inhabitants are coaxed out of hiding; marsh deer, giant anteaters, woodstorks, alligators, and occasionally even the elusive leopard congregate to the lingering freshwater pools. During this time, the “dry” season, the sweat-drenched tourists receive an unforgettable, up-close viewing of a condensed array of wildlife rivaled only by the African Serengeti.

The Pantanal’s flooding cycles make it undeniably rich in biodiversity, allowing various communities of fisherman and ranchers to call the Pantanal home. For hundreds of years families have respected the Pantanal’s hydrological systems, maintaining the equilibrium between natural resource use and conservation. For example, local fishermen have been “sustainably” harvesting the Pantanal’s myriad of species long before the Brundtland Commission and Agenda 21 made it a buzzword. Respecting the “piracema,” or spawning season, fishermen deliberately refrain from fishing in order to insure larger catches throughout the year. Similarly, traditional Pantaneiro ranchers customarily rotate their cattle’s grazing lands and lead them to higher ground during the wet season, thereby preserving the native grasslands from overgrazing and erosion.

However the traditional practices which maintain the delicate balance between resource use and conservation, and consequently the Pantanal itself, are currently under threat by increasing development pressures. Large-scale industrial projects such as the Hidrovia, propose to dredge and canalize the Paraguay River in order to widen it for shipping vessels traveling north to Bolivia. Such alterations to the hydrological system are disastrous for all of the Pantanal’s inhabitants. Furthermore, commercial cattle farms, sugar cane, and soy cultivations are contaminating the freshwater with pesticides and sedimentation from soil erosion and run off. Testimonials from lifelong fishermen assert that the Pantanal’s overall fish stocks have diminished, leading to a vicious cycle of increased fishing and further stock depletion.

To address the economic factors contributing to overfishing, WWF-Brazil’s Pantanal Forever Programme collaborates with local fishermen families to increase their household income while maintaining traditional practices, which help to preserve the immense and critical alluvial plain. During my two-month internship in Brazil, I was invited to participate in one such endeavor with WWF’s stakeholder group, Amor Peixe, which is a women’s cooperative that processes fish skin into fish leather. After a lengthy progression of dying and curing, the cooperatives 12 members design and sew clothing, handbags, and even shoes from the piranha and other local fish skins. No strangers to hard work, these businesswomen are dependent upon the continued abundance of local fish, as were the generations before them.
Me, facilitating the problem tree exercise 
© WWF / Heather Zissler
Me, facilitating the problem tree exercise
© WWF / Heather Zissler
The women of Amor Peixe - the highlight of my stay...
The highlight of my time in Brazil was working with the women of Amor Peixe. Since I had experience with multiple women’s enterprise developments in Latin America, I was given the opportunity to design and facilitate a strategic planning workshop for the cooperative.
Recognizing that continued collaboration between WWF and Amor Peixe depended upon setting common goals and building solid relationships, I guided the group through exercises that identified existing challenges and their root causes. From there, the group was able to prioritize their needs, identify opportunities, and determine short and long-term goals.

The long days of discussion and analysis were broken up over a typical Pantaneiro lunch of piranha soup and manioc root. These moments were full of laughter and stories that attested to the history these women shared, and their commitment to preserving the Pantanal and providing for their families. At the end of the workshop, Amor Peixe identified a role for WWF and requested continued capacity building in design, promotion, and distribution in order to fulfill their goals. By the group’s admission a sense of ownership was achieved, which is a critical component to sustainable development, and armed with a work plan in hand, Amor Peixe and WWF had established common goals that would contribute to conserving the cultural heritage and resources. After two intense days, I left Amor Peixe knowing that in some small way I had aided in the long-term sustainability of the group and by extension, the Pantanal.
My photos in the Pantanal