It may not be as well known as its famous natural counterpart to the north, the Amazon, but the world's biggest swamp - a vast area of wetlands larger than France - is a magnet for birdwatchers and anglers the world over.

It is a thriving metropolis to its chief inhabitants. Ten million Caiman crocodiles cross the 175 rivers which teem with piranha fish. Maybe the president had something in mind.

But now a new United Nations report about the wetlands, one of the richest and most fragile ecosystems on the planet, says 85% of the area could be wiped out if the Earth warms by just 3C or 4C.

"Global climate change may pose great environmental threats to wetlands, fundamentally altering their ecology, biodiversity and species composition," says the report, Wetland Management: The Case of the Pantanal.

Wildlife thrives

At 130,357 sq km, the largest continental wetland in the world stretches across Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay. The loss would be catastrophic.

The Caiman crocodile is common
in the abundant waterways

Visitors floating down the River Paraguay can see families of the world's largest rodent, the capybara, basking on the river banks, their population swelling to 600,000.

Sardines jump in the boat's wash while the giant Tuiuiu bird, the symbol of the Pantanal, makes its nest in dead trees that line the route, the only place accessible to them due to their giant wingspan.

Humans are but a bit player in this natural paradise, but their presence is about to be felt hard.

Human threat

After global warming, the report says, "the wetland is facing unprecedented threats from economic development, alteration of its water courses and conversion to other land uses".

Industrialised soya bean, corn, sugar cane and cotton production has already changed the face of millions of hectares of land, while the giant Paraguay-Parana hidrovia (waterway) project would increase barge traffic 15 fold by 2020 through dredging and modifying water routes.

"The waterway will seriously impact on the ecosystem and negatively affect the livelihoods of indigenous and fishing communities," the report, by the United Nations University, concludes.

After a failed attempt to generate income through eco-tourism, the city fathers are moving headlong into industrial development promising to create a thermoelectric plant, a steel mill, alcohol distilleries and an increase in mining.

Urban deprivation

It might boost the stagnant economy but it threatens to blight the Pantanal.

Corumba is blighted by drug-
trafficking and prostitution

Walk through the self-styled capital of the Pantanal, Corumba, and it is easy to see why development is needed. A dusty outpost where barely a car passes, this city of 100,000 feels more like a ghost town.

Minutes from the Bolivian border, it is a prime route for drug-traffickers. Cocaine, prostitution and money-laundering are the order of the day.

The huge catches which made the Pantanal an international draw have waned through over-fishing.

From this season, which started in February and lasts until October, any fish caught must be thrown back. Armed environmental police patrol the river in motorised canoes to enforce the law.

Failures

Eco-tourism has failed. Inspired by similar ventures in the game parks of South Africa, the first port of eco-tourism was inaugurated at the Cayman Ecological Refuge in a 17,000 acre area 15 years ago.

Eco-tourism based on the South
African model has failed

Aside from the 50 species of reptiles, there are 190 mammal species including jaguar and howler monkeys, more than 1000 species of butterflies and 658 birds - ospreys migrating from the Nearctic latitudes, woodstocks from the Argentine pampas and flycatchers from the Chilean Andes.

But the tourist dollar has failed to prove enough.

Corumba has the second largest reserves of the purest magnesium in the world and the third biggest reserve of iron ore. It is a potential which is about to be tapped.

Gas and minerals

Since the Bolivia-Brazil gas pipeline, which runs through the state, was completed, Corumba's authorities have wanted to use the gas, at a vastly reduced price, to fuel a new industrial future starting with a thermo-electrical plant.
 
The governor of Mato Grosso do Sul state, José Orc?rio Miranda dos Santos, known as Zeca, was this week in the capital Brasilia pressing for state funds totalling $70 million for the projects.

Zeca wants to pass rights of the whole reserve to London-based global mining giant Rio Tinto, which is already 100% owner of Mineracao Corumbaense Reunida which mined one million tons of iron ore last year.

"Without extremely careful integrated management, one of the planet's greatest environmental treasures will be altered forever by human encroachment"

Hans van Ginkel, rector,
UN University

With the proposed building of a steel mill, the corporation wants to increase more than five-fold its iron ore production in a vast expansion. Iron ore is ten times more valuable if it is processed into steel.

Work started last year improving the railroad that runs all the way from Brazil's Atlantic coast, through Corumba across Bolivia and out through Chile's Pacific coast, opening up shipping routes to Asian markets.

The domino-effect of all these plans is set to change the face of the Pantanal forever.

"Without extremely careful integrated management, one of the planet's greatest environmental treasures will be altered forever by human encroachment," says Hans van Ginkel, rector of the UN University.