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Besides Amazon, another Brazilian jewel faces peril

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PARAGUAY RIVER, Brazil (CNN) -- The Pantanal wetlands region in South America is considered one of the world's richest wildlife habitats. But an ambitious engineering project and intensive agriculture threatens its survival.

The Pantanal in southwest Brazil is nothing like the Amazon rain forest -- the lush, green carpet in the north of the country. The Pantanal is wide open, extending into neighboring Bolivia and Paraguay.

Consisting mostly of grasslands, swamps, rivers and lakes, it is an enormous freshwater ecosystem that does not hide its wildlife. It displays it in a dazzling panorama.

But like the Amazon, the Pantanal faces serious threats that could destroy it, starting with its delicate balance between dry seasons and floods.

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The Pantanal works like a vast natural sponge. During the rainy season it collects water from a much larger area around it, then stores the water for months, releasing it slowly into the Paraguay River.

The biggest threat to this water cycle is the massive Hidrovia project. To improve navigation by huge barges, engineers plan to straighten curves and dredge channels of major sections of the Pantanal's rivers.

Conservationists say the Hidrovia would accelerate the draining of the Pantanal, turning large areas into deserts.

"A place like this may disappear as it is, because the fish won't reproduce, the birds that survive on the fish will also disappear from this area, and so forth," said Laurenz Pinder of The Nature Conservancy.

"If you affect the river dynamics, you affect the Paraguay River, everything goes away," echoed Reinaldo Lourival of Conservation International.

The Brazilian government has declared it will not allow any improvements in the waterway that might endanger the Pantanal.

But there are powerful commercial interests behind the project, not only in Brazil, but also in Paraguay, Bolivia and Argentina. They have shown little concern for the environmental risk.

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"I fear most a political situation that might catalyze private interests and produce the Hidrovia and that will have tremendous consequences," said Israel Klabin of the Brazilian Foundation for Sustainable Development.

Beyond the Hidrovia, there's another threat on the borders of the Pantanal. Intensive development of soybean farms and cattle ranches is causing pollution and siltation of rivers flowing into the wetlands.

The division of land used by Pantanal's cattle ranchers is also a cause for concern.

"From generation to generation, land is becoming smaller for the farmers and thus not as profitable as it was before," said Marcio Ayres of the Wildlife Conservation Society.

To increase profits, they try new varieties of exotic grasses and more intensive livestock production. The practices could damage an area now recognized as one of the world's richest wildlife habitats, but which still remains in danger.



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RELATED SITES:
Wildlife Conservation Society
Pantanal
Conservation International Foundation
The Nature Conservancy
IRN's Parana-Paraguay River Campaign
Hidrovia (in Spanish)

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