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A future for the Pantanal

In the triangle formed by Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay lies the Pantanal, the world’s largest inland wetland. It is half the size of Germany and harbours a vast amount of biodiversity. Increasing agricultural exploitation is threatening this ecosystem, however. The Brazilian biologist and environmental scientist Cláudia Regina Sala de Pinho explains how biodiversity, agriculture and local traditional communities are intertwined.
The Pantanal is home to a great diversity of species, including the Paraguay caiman. The Pantanal is home to a great diversity of species, including the Paraguay caiman.

You come from a traditional Pantanal community and have studied the region as a scientist. How do people live in this natural environment?

Most live in traditional communities and refer to themselves collectively as “Pantaneiros”. Many of them – including myself – are a mixture of black and indigenous. Their lifestyle is inextricably linked to the cycles of flood and drought in the region. How exactly communities live depends on where in the Pantanal they are located. Some are fishers, some rely on family farming, others on gathering nuts or fruit.

Are these communities self-sufficient?

They were more independent a few years ago. The fact that climate change and other factors are changing water-supply cycles in the Pantanal is a problem. Those who traditionally rely on smallholder family farms are largely self-sufficient, however. The cultivation is typically very diverse: people tend gardens with vegetable patches, and they plant corn, manioc and other varieties for their daily use. Usually they don’t cultivate the same parcel of land every year, but instead change locations. Doing so is sustainable because it allows the soil to recover and at the same time there is no need to clear new areas. (On the role of traditional smallholder farms in global nutrition, see Parviz Koohafkan on www.dandc.eu.)

What role do large soy plantations, of which there are more and more in the region, play?

They are mostly monocultures, which is bad for biodiversity. These larger farms also threaten smallholders’ way of life: first, because they can produce much more cheaply. Second, because they buy up large amounts of land for their plantations. Especially in the last decade, regions very close to the Pantanal were also being cleared for agricultural land. Such deforestation leads directly to the loss of biodiversity. The soy plantations use large amounts of pesticides, moreover. In a community near the small city of Poconé, we have already detected them in the soil. Pesticides impact human health. They affect food security as well: with poison in the soil, hardly anything besides soybeans will grow.

What challenges are traditional communities facing?

There are many. One of the biggest challenges is a lack of recognition and visibility. That is true in all of Brazil and in particular in the Pantanal. The National Council of Traditional Peoples and Communities does allow people some say. Nevertheless, it is still very difficult for these communities to receive political recognition. In addition, more and more companies are spreading throughout the Pantanal. Alongside intensive farming, more and more hydropower plants are being built.

What impact does that have on traditional communities?

None of these projects takes them into consideration. That is why we are fighting for their participation in decision making in this region. According to Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization (ILO), traditional communities have the right to be heard in all matters that could impact them and their way of life or their land. Many traditional communities depend on fishing, for example. Building hydropower plants affects the water level in the rivers and therefore the opportunity to fish. Artificial intervention in the water level makes it impossible for communities to predict when it is a good time to fish or plant and when the floods will come. At the beginning of 2022, for instance, the town of Porto de Limão was suddenly flooded because a hydropower plant released its impounded water. Although flooding is normal in the Pantanal, it usually happens predictably during the rainy season. The residents were not prepared for this flood. It ruined all the crops they had sown. The public authorities were not very interested, however.

Apart from direct aid, why is it also important, on a broader level, to protect the traditional way of life of the Pantaneiros?

Doing so means protecting biodiversity and therefore our shared home, the Pantanal. The various communities here understand the Pantanal better than anyone else. They know that their way of life depends on an intact ecosystem, so they preserve it. They are the guardians of this region. That is nothing new: the Pantanal exists today in its current form only because, in past centuries, people have worked here and navigated the rivers on which they lived their lives – always considering the tides. Therefore when we talk about preserving this ecosystem today, that primarily means preserving the lifestyles of the people here and strengthening them so that they can also take care of the Pantanal in the future.

To outsiders it can seem as if women took on leadership positions especially frequently in the communities of the Pantanal. Is that true?

Yes, the majority of the communities are led by women, and many are matriarchally organised. My grandmother used to be the leader of the community I come from. Nowadays it is my aunt. Many women here take care of their families as well as their communities and the region as a whole. My mother taught me to play an active role. “Go and do,” she often said to me – and she also taught me that my voice was just as important as anyone else’s.

How do you advocate for people in the Pantanal?

I speak to the communities, gather their concerns and bring them to the attention of policymakers, so instruments can be developed that will in turn benefit the communities.

What is your motivation to do so?

Doubtless I’m motivated by the fact that my roots are in the Pantanal. Aside from that, I know that we have to value this ecosystem and its people so that it can continue to exist. My work in the whole process is nothing more than a drop in the Rio Paraguai, one of the large rivers in the Pantanal. Our achievements are only possible because many people are working together.

What are some of your past successes?

One success was that the local traditional communities were incorporated into the 2008 law on the Pantanal. That guaranteed many of our rights.

Have you also experienced setbacks?

Yes, especially under the government of Jair Bolsonaro, who recently lost re-election. Many programmes that supported people here were suspended, for example a programme for rural housing. It was supposed to help people find suitable places to live. We were in the process of gathering data for it when it was suspended. Many programmes that dealt with food security, which were helping people continue to live here, were cancelled as well. Moreover, there used to be programmes that distributed seeds or promoted organic farming. All of them have been put on hold. Furthermore, subsidies to promote local value chains have been reduced. The government used to support the gathering of baru nuts, a local variety, and the extraction of oil from the babassu palm. Particularly the programmes that supported smallholders have been done away with.

Are you hoping that the newly elected government under Lula da Silva will have more consideration for traditional communities in the region?

Yes, I’m hoping that we can reverse some of the setbacks. I hope that minorities will be more on the new government’s radar and that it will advocate for them and their ways of life. (On the Brazil elections see André de Mello e Souza on www.dandc.eu.)

Cláudia Regina Sala de Pinho is a biologist and environmental scientist who comes from a traditional Pantaneiro community. Until recently she coordinated the National Council of Traditional People and Communities in Brazil.

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