In the lush marsh and channels that weave across Bolivia's far
east, the river boat stirs through dense copper-colored waters beneath
the blaze of an afternoon sun. Small green parrots shriek across
the sky and, as twilight approaches, a mother capybara leads her
young through grass along the shore. Troops of howler monkeys crowd
onto the limbs of tall trees. And the black eyes and double-barreled
snouts of caiman wait motionless on the water's surface. A day's
journey from the dusty Bolivian port town of Quijarro on the border
with Brazil, our crew of 18, on a trip financed by the World
Wildlife Fund, is exploring the waterways of the Pantanal, one
of nature's wildest and most remote places--one we hope stays that
The world's largest freshwater swamp and the best place to view
wildlife in South America, the Pantanal is facing a series of environmental
threats that are challenging the economic and human resources of
Bolivia, the continent's poorest nation. Illegal trafficking in
animal species--the world's third-largest contraband industry after
drugs and weapons--has caused considerable damage to the biodiversity
of the area, which is shared by Brazil (75 percent), Bolivia (20
percent) and Paraguay (5 percent).
In this unique ecological zone, home to anaconda, tapir, macaw,
piranha, giant anteater
and the highest density of jaguars on the continent, some species
have edged toward extinction in recent years. The giant blue parrot,
which measures three feet from beak to tail and had been decimated
by black market hunters, last year received protection under the International
Convention on Trafficking in Endangered Species.
which straddles three countries,
is a unique ecological zone and home
to a variety of endangered species.
The fate of other species in the Pantanal, like the river otter,
hunted for its costly pelt, and the borochi--a large fox-like animal
sought for its medicinally valuable bones--are still uncertain.
And the decline of the gama, a horned savanna deer, has biologists
baffled and alarmed. "Gama used to show up in groups of five and
six," says Marcel Caballero, a Bolivian wildlife biologist. "Now
they are rarely seen more than one at a time. They might be too
sensitive to the presence of humans. Once these animals are scared,
they stop reproducing, just like in the zoo."
In the 1860s, Bolivia's senile and dictatorial President Mariano
Melgarejo cut a deal with Brazil: In exchange for "a magnificent
horse," he laid his hand on the map and, covering a swath of territory
in Bolivia's far east, declared it the property of Brazil. The site
of gold discovery and colonization in the early 18th century, the
Pantanal was mostly left alone well into the 20th century, when
unrestricted cattle grazing and an extensive road network started
to eat away the wild region, particularly on the Brazilian side.
By 1998, more than 23 million head of cattle roamed the swamp. Less
developed than Brazil--which preserves just 10 percent of its Pantanal
as the Matogrossense
National Park--Bolivia still has reason to be concerned about
its side of the swamp, which at 11,600 square miles is approximately
the size of Holland.
Now that Brazil has cracked down on illegal hunting, fishing, logging
and mining in the Pantanal--punishable by up to four years in prison--some
Bolivians are worried about an increase in poachers crossing the
border to continue their assault on species and resources. Since
1990, Bolivia has had a general ban on hunting and trade in wildlife,
though the law has been poorly enforced.
In addition, runoff from chemical fertilizers and pesticides for
soybean and other cash crops grown on nearby ranches endangers the
region's ecological health. Controlled burns by farmers expanding
cattle-grazing areas often rage out of control, devastating large
areas of plant- and animal-rich grassland. And mercury still used
for gold mining in the swamp's interior has killed scores of fish--of
which the Pantanal contains some 260 species.
On a more organized scale of human meddling, Shell, Enron and Bolivian
hydrocarbon company Transredes have run a gas pipeline directly through
Matias Protected Area and the Chiquitano Forest, the largest dry
tropical forest in the world. The project's long-term environmental
costs are anticipated to be $20 million, for which a "conservation
fund"--managed by the gas companies themselves--has been created.
A johnboat speeds through
On this journey up the Paraguay River and its tributaries, our
crew is a mix of indigenous leaders, park officials, naval officers
and a cook who fries up the dozens of piranha we fish out and eat
nightly. I am the only non-Bolivian aboard the two-deck military
boat, and the events of our journey are varied: Several times a
day, we speed off in a johnboat to see rare clusters of the giant
pictoria plant, or pull up on land and walk knee-deep through marsh
and mud to isolated ranches where we talk with farmers in Portanol--a
mix of Portuguese and Spanish--about their living and working conditions.
The excursion's goal is to explore and confirm national boundaries
within the swamp, and to meet with indigenous communities living
there, explaining to them the status of the San Matias Protected
Area. Created in 1997, San Matias is the most recent of Bolivia's
20 protected areas, which comprise nearly one-sixth of national
territory. An estimated 6,000 people--half under the age of 15--live
among the 17 indigenous communities in the region, growing yucca
and rice, raising chickens and pigs, and gathering fruit that falls
from the trees. For some the native language and culture is Guarani,
while others are Chiquitano, and although they outfit themselves
in basic western apparel of T-shirts and shorts, their lifestyle
of agriculture, fishing and animal husbandry appears largely unchanged
by the decades.
The Bolivian government employs just eight workers--a director,
a protection chief and six park guards--to supervise its portion
of the Pantanal. Though the staff of San Matias receives financial
and technical help from the World Wildlife Fund, its members admit
that present resources are inadequate to oversee the area's preservation.
Lacking in personnel, aircraft, vehicles and communication with
the interior, park guards say they rely more on the cooperation
of indigenous communities than on government funds to protect their
wilderness. "The people here are easy to speak to about conservation,"
says park director Jorge Landivar. "They are conscious that they
can use nature responsibly."
But seated on wood benches in a dirt yard of Puerto Gonzalo, an
indigenous community some 24 hours by boat from the Brazilian city
of Corumba, site of the nearest hospital, we see the people whom
progress has left behind. The town has neither a doctor nor medical
goods, and its one-room schoolhouse has sat empty since the last
teacher left years ago.
A poor farmer and his family offer us cups of water. The man has
a pink pigmentation on his hands, neck and lips and the rest of
him is a leathery brown. He says his only vices are mate
and cigarettes, and he's missing four top front teeth. With canvas
shoes torn at the seams and his callused toes protruding from them,
he talks about how little water there is in the laguna at this time
There is an awkward, uncertain silence at the meeting, where men
sit on one side of a
semi-circle, women with fidgeting children sit on the other, and our
assemblage of park guards, a cameraman and a foreign journalist make
modest attempts at dialogue from the middle. Their grievances are
real, their living conditions hard and poor, and it is impossible
to promise them that any of this will change. Another man says, "We
hope you come again, that you don't just go and forget about us."
Women and children of Puerto
The Bolivian government and the World Wildlife Fund hope to attract
"ecotourists" to the area, which could allow Puerto Gonzalo and
other remote indigenous communities to continue their farming lifestyle
while helping enforce preservation in the region. Bolivia generated
$179 million in tourism in 1999, and the government estimates that
its current mark of 500,000 visitors a year will reach a million
by 2004, providing 150,000 new jobs. Riding the surge in tourism
into the Pantanal might be the compromise the swamp's communities
make to retain their old ways of life.
The lure of cash through ecotourism
as well as a drop in the price for cattle has already prompted many
Brazilian farmers to convert their ranches into fazenda-lodges,
accommodations that serve visitors on excursions into the swamp's
interior. In the Pantanal's rugged and mountainous tropical landscape,
both high- and low-end tourism are on the rise. River trips in the
region have even been popularized by writers such as John Grisham,
who structured his novel The Testament around an adventure
that takes place in the Pantanal.
But Bolivia faces the task of developing an ecotourism strategy
from scratch, one that competes with Brazil while having a minimal
impact on the environment. According to Ascensio Ares, vice president
of a local indigenous association, the Bolivian communities must
adopt a higher standard of living before they can host tourists
in their backyard. "If we don't strengthen this type of development,"
he says, "the problems in the area will only continue."
Its history mired in poverty and corruption, Bolivia is still struggling
to develop a basic infrastructure of roads and industry, the lack
of which has helped keep vast portions of its jungle intact, more
so than its tropical neighbors. But to succeed with ecotourism,
some fundamental progress will be necessary. "You can't have tourism
if there is no road," explains Hernan Banegas, an architect from
Puerto Suarez, a town that borders the Pantanal and is reachable
only via the ancient railway line known as the "death train," which
rattles 400 miles east from Santa Cruz.
A successful transition to ecotourism in Bolivia already has one
Rurrenabaque. Located outside what is now Madidi
National Park in the northern La Paz region, this small jungle
town whose economy used to revolve around the timber trade--particularly
the illegal sale of mahogany--now relies solely on ecotourism.
The rare pictoria plant.
Still reeling from the shock of privatization enacted by neoliberal
leadership in the mid-'80s and continued by ineffectual administrations
through the '90s, Bolivia continues to underfund its environment,
while many of the country's top officials guard close ties to major
logging, mining and energy interests. Maybe less often mentioned
in poor nations like Bolivia is the latent public consciousness
of the need to preserve its wild, unspoiled places. "In the past
no one spoke of conservation, of ecology," Banegas says. "They cut
trees, they killed animals--thousands upon thousands of alligators
just to sell the skin and eat the tail. By necessity and ignorance
we exploited nature. Only 10 years ago, we didn't know the word
medioambiente [environment]. Now they tell us our Pantanal
is the biggest lung of the planet."
It might be the indigenous communities themselves who have the
most to do with guarding the region's long-term health. According
to Landivar, generations have kept the vast swampland in its relatively
unaltered form, and the native people still living there understand
their responsibility to live within it in that same way. "If the
Bolivian Pantanal is less damaged by man, it's because the region's
inhabitants took only what they needed for centuries," he says.
"There is no other place like it in the world."
Michael Levitin is former editor of the Bolivian
Times, an English-language newspaper published in La Paz.