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Pantanal Programme

Floating Victoria amazonica at Pantanal ecoregion.
WWF has been working in the region as of 1998, focusing on the sedimentation plain (Gran Pantanal) through conservation programmes in both Bolivia and Brazil. Aware that conservation in the Pantanal depends on the integral maintenance of the Upper Paraguay River Watershed, the programme is now expanding efforts to other related ecosystems located outside the wetland.
WWF Bolivia’s Pantanal Programme
The objective of the Pantanal Programme is to maintain the hydro-biological processes that sustain the Upper Paraguay River Watershed, and the Pantanal in particular, facilitating sustainable development opportunities and environmental management in the region.

The interventions of WWF in the Pantanal are based on institutional strength obtained from working through a world network which promotes coordinated efforts in cross-border regions. Activities are implemented in a coordinated manner between WWF Brazil and WWF Bolivia, through an ecoregional plan resulting from technical analysis that helped defining the intervention strategies for the next three years in the Pantanal (2010-2012).

1. Climate Change
Objective: Identify the impacts and risks associated with climate change for the Pantanal, developing and implementing adaptation strategies.

In spite of general information regarding the effect of climate change in wetlands, including the effect in the Pantanal and its watershed, this information is disperse and insufficient in describing the magnitude of the impacts of climate change in this ecoregion.

WWF is thus working on systematizing existing information and making it available to key stakeholders working on climate change. Having this information organized will also allow identifying where research still needs to be carried out, as well as designing strategies that reduce the vulnerability of the watershed in the face of climate change.

2. Sustainable cattle ranching
Objective: Sustainable cattle ranching is recognized as a conservation and development option for the Pantanal.

Sustainable cattle ranching activities in the Pantanal consistently link environmental protection with economic development in the region. In addition, it reinforces productive practices and traditional cultural values that in turn reinforce the Pantanal’s identity and become a real opportunity to make the economic interests of cattle ranching compatible with conservation.

3. Land use planning
Objective: Development options in the Pantanal take into consideration an integral vision in relation to changes in land use and its impact on hydro-biological pulses.

In alliance with public and private stakeholders, WWF hopes to contribute towards the design and implementation of Municipal Plans on Land Use Regulation (referred to as PMOT) through municipal environmental management, in order to ensure the conservation of the watershed.

4. Corporate Social and Environmental Responsibility
Objective: At least two iron and steel mining companies in the Pantanal watershed insert criteria for environmental responsibility in their corporate policies, with special emphasis on charcoal and liquid waste management.

There is a growing demand for charcoal on behalf of the iron and steel industry in the region. WWF aims to influence the corporate policies of these companies in order for them to adopt responsibility criteria regarding environmental contamination caused by waste or from poor water management during the iron and ore production process. Likewise, the idea is that their responsibility policies contemplate the problem of using charcoal and promoting the purchase of differentiated products that consider the sustainable management of native forests or tree plantations.

The four lines of action are supported by a communications campaign under the slogan “Pantanal, unifying waters”, contributing to the knowledge and valorization of the Pantanal, with special emphasis on its sustainable development.
The Paraguay River Watershed
The Pantanal, covering 180,000 sq km in Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay, is considered the world's largest wetland. © WWF / Michel Gunther

The Paraguay River Watershed is one of the most important water systems for the continent and the world, due to the economic, social and environmental benefits it provides the population. It is located in east central South America, covering parts of Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay. Following its course towards the south and stretching 600,000 km2, it joins the Paraná Watershed, forming a single wetland system (Paraguay-Paraná), the largest wetland on Earth.

The Upper Paraguay River Watershed forms a mountainous region or rocky elevations (Chiquitania in Bolivia and Planalto in Brazil), constituting the headwaters of the watershed, where the tributaries and nascent of the Paraguay River are found, which also support the Pantanal. The Pantanal is located in the center of the Upper Paraguay River Watershed and forms the watershed’s sedimentation plain.

The functioning of the Upper Paraguay River Watershed and, consequently, the Paraguay-Paraná wetland system, is regulated by one of the largest floodplains on Earth: the Great Pantanal.

The Upper Paraguay River Watershed in Bolivia includes nine municipalities: Charagua, El Carmen Rivero Torres, Puerto Quijarro, Puerto Suárez, Roboré, San Ignacio, San José, San Matías and San Rafael, where approximate 88,000 people live, according to the 1992 census’ estimations.

The Great Pantanal
Pteronura brasiliensis Giant otter, Manu National Park, Peru. © WWF / André BÄRTSCHI

The Pantanal is a mosaic of lagoons, wetlands and rivers and constitutes the flood plain for the Upper Paraguay River Watershed. It is one of the largest and best preserved wetlands in the world, with an extension of 158,000 km2, covering parts of Brazil (70%), Bolivia (20%) and Paraguay (10%).

The Pantanal in Bolivia has an extension of 32,000 km2 and is located in the eastern portion of the Department of Santa Cruz. It covers part of the jurisdiction of four municipalities: San Matías (Ángel Sandoval province), El Carmen Rivero Torres, Puerto Suárez and Puerto Quijarro (Germán Busch province), where approximately 46,000 inhabitants live working primarily in trade, cattle ranching, industry transport services and small scale agriculture. The extraction of ore deposits from the Mutún mine is currently in the process of being consolidated and is expected to produce considerable social, economic and environmental changes in this important ecoregion.

The Pantanal is characterized by its immense richness in terms of the diversity of flora and fauna, with species from the Amazon, Chiquitano Forest, Chaco and Cerrado being found in the region. At least 120 species of mammals have been registered, as well as 650 species of birds, 90 reptiles, 40 amphibians, 260 fish, 1030 butterflies and more than 1650 species of vascular plants. Many of these species are highly threatened, such as the marsh deer (Blastocerus dichotomus), hyacinth macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus), and giant otter (Pteronura brasiliensis), among others.

In addition to this immense richness in plants and animals, the Pantanal also provides main environmental services, such as:

  • Maintenance and purification of water sources, necessary for humans, animals, farming, and river transport
  • Protection and maintenance of soil fertility, necessary for agriculture
  • Protection and conservation of plants and wildlife, necessary for human consumption
  • Biological control to avoid plagues from destroying crops
  • Regulation of the hydro-biological processes to avoid droughts and floods
  • Regulation of climate, avoiding abrupt changes in temperatures, rain and wind
  • Purification of air.
The richness of this wetland, its diversity in terms of fauna and the economic production it supports, in 2001 led the Bolivian government, with support from WWF, to designate the entire surface area of the Pantanal in Bolivia as a Ramsar site, recognizing it as a wetland of international importance.

Ramsar Sites
Pantanal landscape © WWF / Frans SCHEPERS

The Ramsar Convention is an informal reference to the “The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, Especially as Waterfowl Habitat”. Bolivia signed the Convention in 1991.

The Convention on Wetlands, signed in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971, is an intergovernmental treaty which provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. There are presently 159 Contracting Parties to the Convention, with 1846 wetland sites, totaling 181 million hectares (Pantanal with 3.2 million hectares), designated for inclusion in the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance.

Bolivian Pantanal Protected Areas
Otuquis Protected Area, Bolivian Pantanal. Flooded landscape. © HALLOY, SEIMON, FRANCO

In 1997, the Departmental Government of Santa Cruz recognized the environmental, social and economic values of the Pantanal and, in compliance with its Land Use Plan (Plus) for the department, it promoted and financed the necessary studies to declare the two national protected areas (Otuquis and San Matías) in the region, thanks to the technical support from the Noel Kempff Mercado Museum of Natural History and WWF:

The San Matias Natural Area of Integrated Management (ANMI San Matías) was created by Supreme Decree 24743 and has an extension of 2.9 million hectares, making it the second largest protected area in Bolivia. It is located in the northeastern portion of the Department of Santa Cruz, in the municipalities of San Matías (Ángel Sandoval province), Puerto Suárez, Puerto Quijarro and El Camen Rivero Torres (Germán Busch province), Roboré and San José (Chiquitos province) and San Rafael (Velasco province).

This protected area preserves key areas in the Sunsá Chiquitano mountain range, which makes up the headwaters for the Upper Paraguay River Watershed, which in turn feed into the Pantanal. The protected area also preserves an important portion of the Dry Chiquitano Forest, a unique habitat on Earth, which in turn sustains incredible biodiversity. The extreme eastern portion of this protected area also preserves flooded areas.

The purpose of the ANMI category is to make conservation compatible with the sustainable development of the local population.

Otuquis National Park and Natural Area of Integrated Management (Otuquis PN ANMI) was created by Supreme Decree 24762 and has an extension of 1 million hectares, of which 90% correspond to the category of National Park and 10% to the category of ANMI. It is located in the southern portion of the Department of Santa Cruz, in the municipalities of Puerto Suárez and Puerto Quijarro (Germán Busch province) and Charagua (Cordillera province).

This protected area has two management categories (national park and ANMI), opening the possibility of combining productive activities with the maintenance of the hydro-biological process occurring in this portion of the Pantanal, recognized internationally as the “deep Pantanal”, with more than six months out of the year with permanent flooding.

The objective is to ensure the strict protection of biodiversity under the national park category and promote sustainable development among the local population under the ANMI category.

Pantanal, sustainable development hub
Goods transportation on Paraguay River, Pantanal. © WWF / Frans SCHEPERS

Throughout the past two centuries, the Paraguay River Watershed, and, in particular, the Pantanal, have sustained productive activities. This has been especially the case with beef production, since large extensions of natural pasturelands have been used while adapting cattle ranching to the typical flood pulse of the Pantanal.

The region is also recognized as a transport hub for both goods and people, and is a location in which Bolivia has prioritized the establishment of a development hub. It is also strategic due to its high potential for ecotourism, mining and presence of other natural resources, as well as its proximity with Brazil, Bolivia’s primary trade partner. This exposes the need to develop mechanisms that are balanced and participatory between industrial and human development, as well as maintaining the quality of the wetland’s environment, the foundation for economic development in the region.

Human activities that can harm the Pantanal
Feed is brought in for the cattle as there is nothing on the ground. This photo was taken in 1994. © Hugh Innes

The region’s economic potential is well known, but this potential, which is very much necessary for its economic and social development, can result in increasing damage if its implementation does not respond to adequate regional planning for sustainable development, and that allows identifying the negative impacts at the social and environmental level. Based on this, it is recommended to develop mitigation strategies, while also introducing environmental aspects as a factor in production.

Human activities occur in both the Upper Paraguay River Watershed and the Pantanal, that affect the maintenance of the hydro-biological process and, with it, its productivity, the biodiversity it sustains and the environmental services it provides its inhabitants.

The growing demand for raw material for food and biofuel has driven to the occupation of the Upper Paraguay River Watershed, primarily its Brazilian portion (where the headwaters of the Paraguay River and of numerous other tributaries are located) by vast areas of soy and sugar cane for biofuel, destroying extensive areas of native forest, mainly Cerrado, a plant formation rich in endemic species and of very unique characteristics.

In addition, this growing agricultural expansion is threatening the productivity of the Pantanal because it is eliminating the sources of recharge (natural forests which act as protection, as well as tributaries) in the Upper Watershed. On the other hand, the chemicals used in agriculture considerably contaminate bodies of water and are transported to the sedimentation plain and distributed throughout the system by the flood pulses.

Although the conversion of forests in Bolivia in the Upper Paraguay River Watershed for agriculture has been low, approximately 2.3% (Fuamu, 2006), this situation could change due to the lack of planned development.

It is therefore crucial to accompany this development with a land title clearing process, in order to avoid unplanned human settlements and plan the construction of roads in a sound manner, assuming all possible mitigation measures so that this road network –which will improve the standard of living for the inhabitants of the Pantanal– does not facilitate the depredation and loss of quality of this wetland.

Furthermore, Bolivia, for the past few years, has been producing charcoal from the Dry Chiquitano Forest and supplying it to iron and steel companies in Brazil. The Chiquitano Forest is where the rivers that descend to the Pantanal originate, making up part of the entire hydrological system.

With the loss of vegetation, as a result of areas being cleared for farming or for producing charcoal, there is a considerable increase of natural sediments (millions of tons) that are annually dragged by the Pantanal, and accelerate the sedimentation of lakes, lagoons and swamps, as is occurring with the Cáceres Lagoon, bringing with it the disappearance of important diversity in terms of aquatic fauna, organisms that are the food source for other animals and that, as a group, are a tourism attraction for the ecoregion. Deforestation is also increasing the effects of climate change, since areas of forests are being reduced and are no longer able to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and liberate oxygen through photosynthesis, which also occurs with carbon dioxide gases that are produced as a result of burning or charcoal production.

Equally, due to the growing economic dynamics in exports that are produced or transported through the region, the adjustment of the Paraguay River in efforts to facilitate transport continues to be one of the greatest desires of the local population and exporters. This also represents, however, one of the greatest threats, not only for the Pantanal, but for the entire system of the Paraguay River and Parana Watershed.

On the other hand, predatory hunting and fishing activities are a permanent threat and are promoted at times by irresponsible tourism and wildlife trafficking.

WWF Bolivia national partner organizations for the Pantanal Programme (as of 1998)

WWF Bolivia, the conservation organization, develops its activities in collaboration with local organizations, as well as national research, training and development authorities and institutions:

  • Armonía Association
  • Bolivian Environmental Law Society (SBDA)
  • Center for the Development of Urban and Regional Studies (Cedure)
  • Center for the Participation and Sustainable Human Development (Cepad)
  • Faunagua Association
  • Friends of the Noel Kempff Mercado Museum (Fuamu)
  • Infocal Foundation Santa Cruz
  • Noel Kempff Mercado Museum of Natural History
  • Organization for the Management of Tourism Destination Santa Cruz (OGD)
  • Proceso Educational Services
  • Sernap - Otuquis Protected Area
  • Sernap - San Matías Protected Area
  • Municipal Government of Puerto Suárez
  • Municipal Government of Puerto Quijarro
  • Municipal Government of San Matías
  • Association of Municipalities of the Pantanal

WWF Bolivia’s Pantanal Programme is supported by WWF Netherlands and WWF Switzerland for the implementation of its activities.