Saving Brazil’s wetlands, for preservation and prosperity

Pantanal preservation

Spanning more than 70,000 square miles of Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay, the Pantanal region is the largest and among the most pristine and biologically diverse wetlands in the world. Yet an environment that supports jaguars, caimans and thousands of other species also presents an irresistible draw to humans, who rely on the region for fresh water, farming, ranching and, increasingly, tourism. All of which makes the Pantanal not just a natural wonder but a test case for one of the most pressing questions of our age: Can preservation exist alongside economic development?

The World Wildlife Fund estimates that close to half of the world’s wetlands have disappeared since 1900.footnote1 In the Pantanal, which remains comparatively unspoiled, environmental scientists, government officials, local communities and developers are seeking answers through collaboration.

Thanks to innovative thinking, along with financial support from Bank of America and other partners, initiatives such as the Oncafari Project and SOS Pantanal are helping preserve the wetlands for everyone’s benefit. “These two projects are combining conservation and tourism in a way that supports sustainable growth for the wider region,” says Thiago Fernandes, Bank of America’s head of ESG for Latin America.

Big cats, and a bigger challenge

The Oncafari Project, which received $200,000 from Bank of America, is focused on preserving the habitat for jaguars, the largest felines in the Americas and the third largest in the world (after lions and tigers). Jaguars and their survival play an important role in this region’s ecosystem, helping to maintain the biodiversity of the Pantanal. They are a chief attraction for visitors to the region, but their long-term survival is by no means assured. The jaguar population has been depleted by gradual human encroachment and nearly a century of hunting by farmers who feel that jaguars adversely impact their livelihoods.

Jaguar on branch

While crowds of traditional tourists sometimes erode the very environments they seek to enjoy, the Oncafari Project’s “ecotourists” leave a much lighter footprint—encountering jaguars and other animals in their natural settings from the safety of vehicles moving slowly along unobtrusive trails. Workers are gradually habituating the animals not to run away at the sight of the vehicles. The idea is not to domesticate jaguars, but to encourage them to live their normal lives in the open, barely noticing intruders they have come to recognize as harmless.

Other components of the project include monitoring the health and habits of jaguars, tracking their movements, and reintroducing rescued cubs into the wild. As the probability of jaguar sightings increases, so, too, may the number of ecotourists—bringing well-paying jobs and money that can go toward further preservation efforts.

It’s an approach that is already paying off in several African countries, where ecotourism has become a key source of national revenuefootnote2. And the concept is catching on among tourists around the world. According to the 2017 Sustainable Travel Report, 87% of travelers want to do so sustainablyfootnote3. “The Pantanal is one of the world’s most important wetlands,” says Mario Haberfeld, founder of the Oncafari Project. “Ecotourism is a proven way in which to conserve our environment and safeguard its biodiversity, while improving the lives of the surrounding communities and celebrating the unique culture of this region.”

Educating stakeholders

In addition to protecting habitats, both the Oncafari Project and SOS Pantanal tackle the equally important work of educating residents, community leaders, and others. While the Oncafari Project and SOS Pantanal use different approaches to education, together they ensure the sustainable development of a region whose protection has continental implications. “Also known as the kingdom of water, this immense reserve is very important to maintain climate stability in South America,” notes Roberto Klabin, Founder of SOS Pantanal.

Sky reflecting on ground

Funded in part with $135,000 in grants from Bank of America, SOS Pantanal is bringing these and other stakeholders to the table. Together, they are creating plans for sustainable development, aiming for balance between preservation and responsible economic growth. The organization also supports ongoing scientific research to help all constituents understand the region’s extraordinary scope of plant and animal life.

The relative success of such efforts may not be felt for decades, when new generations will explore and discover the Pantanal. Globally, Bank of America has committed $125 billion to develop solutions to climate change and other environmental challenges. Says Thiago Fernandes, “We are proud to support these efforts, which recognize that environmentalism and economic opportunity are not mutually exclusive but can produce shared value for everyone.”