12 February 2009


Tha Pantanal is the largest swamp, and one of the richest places for life on Earth. Fortunately, it's hard to access, or there would be a thousand tourists per acre there. We had booked an SUV to get there (yes friends, the environmentalists booked an SUV), but suddenly the rental company did not have it, and substituted what they said was a "super-versatile, all-wheel-drive" Fiat. What they did not know was that the road in to the Pantanal is a rutted, slippery, one-lane dirt road, and that's on a good day. Fortunately, we entered on a decent day, and spent several hours bouncing and sliding and praying, and miraculously arrived at the road into the Xaraés Lodge. Little did we know the worst was yet to come, and remember, the rainy season had not even started. Some of the lakes we had to ford seemed they would swallow the car.

The Lodge was a very comfortable operation- nice rooms, relaxing atmosphere, accommodating staff, and good, simple food, most of it from the large ranch, of which the lodge is a sideline. After a delicious lunch, we had a safari ride on the back of a Toyota 3/4-ton pick-up, which took us deep into the property, and then a canoe trip on a river. The wildlife is indescribable: birds of every type, capybara, caiman, amazing sunset, beautiful landscape, and most absent for those from a city, no mechanical noise; just paddles on water, and the occasional caiman snapping at a fish.
One could almost retire in this halcyon setting and forget the natural world is under siege. Almost. Even this seemingly endless landscape is in dire danger: cattle ranching, sugar cane for biofuels, soybean plantations, and mining are all carving out hunks of land and contaminating the remainder with their respective byproducts. The first problem is the conversion from "worthless swamp" to a "higher and better use" (such as any of the above). Each of them has additional compounded insults over and above the disastrous conversion from wild lands. What can we do, you might ask (I was hoping you might)? The easy answer is stop eating meat; a large part of the conversion is for cattle ranching, and another large part is for soybean plantations, most of which go to feed cattle. What does the Pantanal do for me, you might ask (I was hoping you would)? Aside from one of the coolest places in the world, which provides us with clean air and water, and species whose benefits to humanity we have not even begun to uncover, it provides habitat for some of God's most beautiful creatures.

The alarm clock at the Xaraés Lodge consists of a cacophony of the most interesting variety of birds once can imagine, some musical, some not. I resisted, then relented and, wanting some audio, grabbed my video camera and ventured out to greet the avian cornucopia. Birds are hard to shoot, and I purposefully did not intend to try, simply walked around the lodge trying to capture some of the music. A pair of toucans, though, insisted on their "15 minutes," and who was I to refuse? They are so comical with those tremendous trademark bills, which they use for breaking open fruit and, rather maliciously, stealing eggs from the nests of other bird species deep in the trunks of trees. No audio from them, but a bit of good video. Breakfast was a delight with local fruits, good coffee (the best Brazilian coffee is exported, and the locals are accustomed to a swill not better than we in the USA), and home-made bread.

A good thing this sustenance, as we had to be well-fortified for the sleigh ride out, Allen providing dramatic commentary the whole way, a true New Yorker, unaccustomed to dirt roads. Our destination was Corumba, a city on the Paraguay River, the far western frontier of Brazil, adjacent to Bolivia, truly the "Wild West" of Brazil. This is the outpost for fishing holidays of wealthy Brazilians, and a great spot to get another impression of the Pantanal. Our intention was to hire a small plane for the aerial view, the only way to see something as vast as this paludal paradise. The pilot promised to remove the door, and upon our arrival at the airstrip, concocted a lame story why he couldn't; I was reduced to shooting through the windows, very non-ideal. Several companies are mining in the Pantanal region, and are pressing the government to expand operations, there being rich deposits of iron, manganese, clay and limestone.

The Pantanal is vast, and the good news is there is that musch is still untouched. Cattle farming is an impact, as is the mining, but the main distress seems to be activities in the Cerrado, which is above and thus upstream. The vast soybean, sugar cane, cattle, and cotton, with their fertilizers, water use, and genetic modifications, are a gross negative impact. The region we overflew is gorgeous, waterways branching and serpentining through it, wooded mountains jutting out of the wetlands- there is a lot to save here.

The city of Corumba was once one of the most important ports in Brazil, being the conduit for all of the farming products in the western part of the country; now, it is a bit dilapidated, though seemingly on an upswing with the new mining traffic and continued farm production. Many old colonial era buildings were in renovation, and the Paraguay River running through it is quite majestic.

Tremendous trucks lumber beside us on the road from Corumba to Aquiduana, laden with charcoal for the steel mills. There is a deadly synergism in the charcoal production: farmers hire the charcoaliers to come and cut trees to make the charcoal, the cleared land is then converted to pasture for cattle or crop, another blow to biodiversity. We pass forlorn marsh deer by the side of the road, squeezed between habitat loss and hunters, Jabiru Storks, the largest flying bird, looking for food, unconcerned with our presence.

At Aquiduana we meet Pita, a great pilot, who will fly us over a different part of the Pantanal to Bahia das Pedras, an eco-tourism lodge at a large ranch. Pita has no problem with removing the door of the plane so I can shoot unobstructed, adding that it will require him to fly a bit slower, which is fine with me. Flying at treetop level with no door is exhilarating (and loud), and a completely new way to see something. Cattle (which are in abundance here) and wildlife mingle, some dashing from the sound of the plane, others gazing placidly as we zoom by. We fly up rivers of water, with their increased vegetation and activity, and rivers of grass, called "vazante," which are actually sub-surface waters that move and behave like waterways.

Well, after two weeks of moderately (not so) careful eating, Allen and I both had unhappy stomachs. Bahia das Pedras, our last stop, is a family ranch in a vital, remote area of the Pantanal. Our hosts put us up in their house, sharing meals, conversation, and outings. After we landed, they served a wonderful lunch of local vegetables and meat raised on the ranch. Our pilot left just before the arrival of a storm that raged with a viciousness I have never witnessed. Braced by a short nap, we climbed aboard the land rover in search of the wild and mysterious. Of course, wild to one is mundane to another; by this point, Allen could almost name the birds as fast as the biologists that were guiding us. None of it helped our discomfort - one just keeps going. Allen had a western drug - Immodium, I think. The family suggested guava leaf tea, some of the vilest potion I have had the fortune to imbibe (tasted as bad as peyote without the good side). My recovery seemed to be a bit faster. The next day we awoke early and took a trail ride around the ranch - quite a spread. Saw a wonderful variety of birds and animals, tracks from a cougar, aside from the simple pleasure of riding a horse in the outback. Of course, I am as fair as they come; the direct sun exposure was brutal for me, and they say that sunblock stops absorption of vitamin D. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

Today we flew back to Campo Grande and began our sojourn home. The small plane skims over the seemingly vast Pantanal until we approach a most abrupt transition to a plateau, several hundred feet higher than the wetlands. It was as if the Pantanal had been stomped down by a giant and puddled over. Campo Grande was hot and exhausting as any big city when coming in from the pristine country, but the people were pleasant as we wrapped up the last of our business, found a nice restaurant, and prepared for return to the USA. One last meal with Sandro, Nati, and Julia before we slept a short night and hit the road for New York.

We, from the “developed world,” have an impression of ourselves as somehow more worldly and erudite than the rest of the world, a self-image belied by the fact that we are the culprits of our dilemma. I was impressed with Brazil’s environmental laws, if not with their enforcement, the environmental awareness of the general population, and their currency with trends and technologies.

An interesting occurrence during our trip brought home to me the interconnectedness of us all. While we were there, the value of the Real against the US Dollar fell by half, giving us twice the buying power, and wreaking havoc on the economy of Brazil. Interestingly, Aracruz, the partner in the pulp mill we had visited at the beginning of the trip, had made what seemed like a sure bet on exchange rate derivatives, and suddenly they were potentially out of business. The markets that drive our world are essentially gambling casinos in which our futures are bought and sold on the rumor of earnings and the ratio of price to sales. The raw materials of the earth, part of the planetary organism, are dispensed as assets of the various conglomerates, the consequence and future cost of their extraction.

Thankfully, the economic collapse has slowed the mastication of the planet, allowing us to reflect on the consequences of our consumption. Buying on credit things we don’t need from lesser developed countries that are poisoning and exploiting their populations to produce merchandise we will discard on garbage heaps that will leach into our groundwater, which we won’t be able to afford to filter, and thus will be forced to buy from a conglomerate that had the foresight to buy the source is what we are gifting our children.