New Project Aims to Protect South America's Chaco-Pantanal Wildlands

Efforts will maintain globally important wetlands and forests for the good of the climate, biodiversity, and local residents

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New Project Aims to Protect South America's Chaco-Pantanal Wildlands
The Parapetí River flows through mountains and valleys in the Bolivian Gran Chaco Forest. Above the river, the blue sky is scattered with white clouds.
The Pew Charitable Trusts

In the heart of South America, two massive, thriving natural areas—the Pantanal and Gran Chaco Forest—need protection to continue to provide refuge and migration routes to countless wildlife species, maintain vital climate regulation services, and preserve residents’ rich cultural heritage and livelihoods. A new collaboration aims to secure that protection for this integrated landscape, which spans 305 million acres across parts of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, and Paraguay.

The Pantanal’s tropical wetlands and Gran Chaco’s dry forests play a crucial role in maintaining regional—and, in fact, global—environmental stability and preserving habitat for thousands of species, including some of the continent’s largest mammals, such as the jaguar, giant anteater, giant river otter, maned wolf, and tapir.

In addition, these lands are home to at least nine Indigenous peoples with a long tradition of conservation stewardship—the Ayoreo, Chiquitano, Guaraní, Ishyr, Kadiwéu, Tapiete, Toba, Weenhayek, and Wichí—many of whom, despite their tremendous cultural wealth, live in highly vulnerable social and environmental situations. Also, hundreds of local families depend on the good health of these ecosystems for livelihoods and traditions ranging from ecotourism and cattle ranching in natural pastures to fishing and subsistence farming.

In partnership with national, local, and Indigenous governments, The Pew Charitable Trusts’ work on this new initiative—the conserving the Pantanal and Gran Chaco of South America project—is being carried out through collaboration with strategic partners with extensive experience in the region. The project seeks to build, elevate, and expand ongoing efforts to improve the management standards of key public and private protected areas; support Indigenous territorial management to advance conservation and sustainable use; encourage a standard for sustainable ranching in the Pantanal; and advance long-term conservation financing mechanisms for durable protection. Central to this work will be respecting Indigenous peoples’ and organizations’ autonomy as well as their rights over their resources and territories. 

The project’s initial phase focuses on protecting vast areas of forests, savannahs, and wetlands in Bolivia and Brazil by 2027. Work to improve the management of protected areas is already underway in Bolivia, in close partnership with local organizations such as Nativa, Natura, and WWF-Bolivia.

Similarly, Pew is working with ORÉ, an organization with extensive Indigenous-driven conservation expertise, to support the sustainable management of Indigenous territories. In Brazil, Pew is working closely with the Instituto de Pesquisas Ecológicas (Institute for Ecological Research) to advance standards for sustainable ranching and assess protected area management.

Pew has also begun collaborating with local organizations in key ecological areas, including work by Panthera to carry out an assessment and collaborating with state agencies to expand protections along the Cuiabá River, a critical area of jaguar habitat. Another organization, Ecoa—Ecologia e Ação (Ecology and Action), is working with fishing communities along the Paraguay River to obtain greater governmental recognition and support for traditional management.

A map shows a portion of South America where Bolivia, Brazil, and Paraguay share borders. A dark green-shaded area on the right is labeled “Pantanal” and a lighter green-shaded—and larger—area is labeled “Gran Chaco and associated forests.” The map also depicts main highways and some states and departments in Brazil and Bolivia.

The Pantanal

Although the Pantanal and Gran Chaco’s ecosystems are different, they’re strongly interrelated. The Pantanal is the world’s largest tropical wetland complex, spanning about 44 million acres. Wetlands—and especially those of this size—are vital to the planet’s freshwater supply and also help with flood control and climate stability. Fire, deforestation, and climate change not only threaten wildlife, but they also affect numerous communities, such as cattle ranchers, whose livelihoods depend on intact native grasslands. Indigenous families also depend on the area for fishing and hunting, and as a source of timber, wild fruits and vegetables, and medicinal plants.

A map shows a portion of South America where Bolivia, Brazil, and Paraguay share borders, including a dark-green shaded area labeled “Pantanal.” The map also identifies the locations of some rivers, highways, cities, and states and departments.

The Gran Chaco Forest

Stretching more than 263 million acres, Gran Chaco is South America’s second-largest forest ecoregion, after the Amazon, and the world’s largest tropical dry forest. Rapidly expanding industrial farming has led to severe deforestation in Gran Chaco, yet the ecoregion still maintains a huge swath of intact forests, which play a vital role in climate stabilization. Gran Chaco’s forest and arid ecosystems are subject to extended droughts, but the area’s wetlands, estuaries, and rivers have more stable year-round climate and help sustain life even when nearby areas are wilting. This is especially true of the Pilcomayo and Parapetí rivers, which hundreds of Indigenous families, ranchers, and farmers rely on for water and other natural resources—and, in many cases, even their livelihoods. Large mammals such as jaguars, tapirs, and peccaries also depend on the Gran Chaco ecosystem.

Climate change, along with accelerating deforestation and intensifying forest fires, is an increasing threat to biodiversity and residents’ livelihoods in the Pantanal and Gran Chaco. In 2020, unprecedented wildfires burned almost one-third of the Pantanal. And in the already highly fragmented Gran Chaco, some 247,105 acres of forest are lost to agricultural and livestock expansion every year.

A map shows a portion of South America where Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina meet, and it includes a large, green-shaded area. The map also indicates the locations of some rivers, highways, cities, and states and departments.

Conserving the Pantanal and Gran Chaco’s ecosystems presents a tremendous challenge for governments, area residents, local organizations, and society in general. High global demand for the region’s raw materials, such as soy and beef, takes a serious toll on the planet’s health and directly affects forest products and the quality of life for local residents. Industrial agriculture is displacing many Indigenous peoples from their lands of origin, wild species’ populations are dwindling, and the region’s climate regulation and water systems are being jeopardized. Yet there’s hope to reverse these trends: Various governmental and local entities are striving to promote sustainable development and protect the region’s natural and cultural heritage.

First phase: Bolivia and Brazil

The new project aims to protect Pantanal and Gran Chaco wildlands in Bolivia by promoting conservation and sustainable use on multiple fronts. Among them are developing long-term conservation financing mechanisms for lasting protection; improving management of national protected areas such as Kaa Iya and Otuquis national parks in Bolivia; supporting Indigenous territorial management by the Chiquitano, Guaraní, and Ayoreo peoples; and helping the Indigenous autonomous government of Charagua Iyambae maintain its protected areas.

Likewise, in Brazil, the project seeks to protect the Pantanal wetlands—and help promote conservation and sustainable use—by improving management of protected areas at the local level; expanding protections for key ecological areas; designing and implementing financial sustainability strategies for parks; supporting Indigenous territorial management; and implementing sustainable cattle ranching standards in order to protect the Pantanal ecoregion in the states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul.

Maintaining the functionality and health of the Pantanal and Gran Chaco’s hydrological system—and preserving the connectivity of the area’s intact forests and natural grasslands—is central to this new project’s vision. While building an active presence in each country, Pew is identifying science-based solutions, maintaining well-coordinated and expanding collaborations with local organizations and Indigenous partners, and pursuing respectful consultations to help meet these goals, which are vital to the well-being of people in the region and around the world.

Natalia Araujo works on The Pew Charitable Trusts’ conserving the Pantanal and Gran Chaco of South America project.

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