Brazilian Scientists Warn That The Pantanal, The World’s Largest Wetland, Is At Risk Of Collapse

Ocelot in the Brazilian Pantanal
© Karen Saucedo

Once a model for sustainable land use, scientists alert world to “the tragedy of the commons” afflicting one of Earth’s most biodiverse ecosystems

May 5, 2022

Media Contact: Susie Weller Sheppard sweller@panthera.org

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New York, NY - The world’s largest wetland known as the Pantanal in South America is at risk of collapse due to a series of local and seemingly minor decisions that fail to account for their cumulative impact on one of Earth’s most biodiverse ecosystems, according to a letter published in BioScience. Authors of the letter, “The tragedy of the commons: How subtle and "legal" decisions threaten one of the largest wetlands in the world,” include scientists from Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organization, Embrapa Pantanal, IPÊ, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and CENAP/ICMBio. 

Spanning over 179,000 km2 in Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia, the Pantanal boasts one of the highest concentration of flora and fauna in South America while serving as one of the planet’s most successful models for sustainable use of a common resource pool. Most of its land is used for traditional cattle ranching and fishing by local communities and sport fishers, with relatively little impact on its ecosystems. It is designated a National Heritage by the Brazilian Constitution and a restricted-use region whose use should be ecologically sustainable. 

In the letter, the scientists cite a dangerous escalation over the past two decades in locally-made and legal land-use decisions and proposals to open up the wetland to more intensive uses that collectively threaten the long-term survival of the Pantanal. 

“There is still hope for the Pantanal, but its sustainable use must not be challenged by the consequences of small mistaken decisions that fail to consider their cumulative impacts, compromising the future of sustainable cattle ranching, fishing, ecotourism, traditional communities, biodiversity, and ecosystem services,” the scientists warn in the letter. 

Twenty years ago, a group of scientists led by Dr. J.F. Gottgens rang initial warning bells in an article published in BioScience. The report warned that individual and local interests are detrimental to the collective interests of the conservation of the Pantanal, comparing the situation to the "tragedy of commons'' or the "tyranny of small decisions." 

Two decades later, scientists claim Gottgens' forecast has become a reality. They cite the approval of an increasing number of hydroelectric plants in the river basins forming the Pantanal wetlands, which may cause significant changes in the hydrology and nutrient intake in the ecosystems. 

More recently, the construction of Barranco Vermelho port on the Paraguay River received preliminary approval by the Environment Council of the State of Mato Grosso in January 2022. The licensing took into account only the local consequences of the enterprise without considering that this port would be viable only if an engineered waterway were implemented southward in the Paraguay River. The waterway may pose a substantial threat to the Pantanal due to its potential to negatively influence the hydrological signature of the ecosystems.

According to the authors, the synergies among the different threats can cause profound geographic, ecological and social consequences. Threats to the Pantanal also range from climate change on a global scale to the deforestation in the Amazon Forest, which serves as the origin of the rains that make the Pantanal a wetland, to severe drought and massive fires. At least 17 million vertebrates are estimated to have been killed immediately by wildfires that burned a quarter of the Brazilian Pantanal in 2020, according to a 2021 study from the Mogu Mata Network, coordinated by Embrapa Pantanal and ICMBio/CENAP in collaboration with Panthera. 

Rafael Morais Chiaravalloti of IPÊ and Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute stated, “We are witnessing the “termitization” of the Pantanal, similar to the effects of a termite attack on a piece of wood. Small widespread holes are being made that are not noticeable by just looking from the outside. If we don't take care of them, they become so numerous that they may lead the Pantanal to collapse.” 

Panthera Conservation Scientist Fernando Tortato stated, “The Pantanal is an ecosystem where the extension and duration of the seasonal floods are vital to maintaining biodiversity, traditional cattle ranching and resources used by local communities. We are witnessing a convergence of threats that may lead to the disappearance of the Pantanal as we know it today.”

“These cumulative actions could lead to the collapse of both the Pantanal and one of the world's greatest and most beautiful examples of sustainability,” concluded Chiaravalloti. 

Panthera has been active in the Pantanal since 2008 through the Pantanal Jagaur Project, which aims to create one of the world’s largest, contiguous jaguar corridors, mitigate human-jaguar conflict through conservation demonstration ranches, foster a flourishing ecotourism industry and operate conservation education initiatives through the Panthera-built Jofre Velho School. 

About Panthera
Panthera, founded in 2006, is devoted exclusively to preserving wild cats and their critical role in the world’s ecosystems. Panthera’s leading biologists, law enforcement experts and wild cat advocates develop innovative strategies based on the best available science to protect cheetahs, jaguars, leopards, lions, pumas, snow leopards, tigers, and the 33 small cat species and their vast landscapes. In 39 countries around the world, Panthera works with a wide variety of stakeholders to reduce or eliminate the most pressing threats to wild cats—securing their future and ours. Visit panthera.org.