Adalberto Eberhard, a veterinarian and lifelong conservationist, is showing how the environmental movement can build a set of institutions at the state level that will, year in and year out, truly protect the environment. In the process, he is building defenses for one of the world's largest and richest wetlands: the Brazilian Pantanal.
Adalberto's father left Germany in order to live amid nature, specifically in a Rio Grande do Sul forest. Adalberto consequently grew up surrounded by both the forest and its denizens and by his parent's exceptional feeling for and understanding of nature.Trained as a veterinarian specializing in wild animals, Adalberto worked with German zoologist George Shaller in the 1970s researching the painted jaguar in the Pantanal. While engaged in this work, Adalberto lived in a small cabin in the middle of its vast wetlands, an experience that allowed him to become familiar with its delicate ecosystem.Just as his understanding and appreciation of the Pantanal was maturing, the pressures on it began to mount. New highways cut across Mato Grosso, and down them flowed more and more people and cattle. Adalberto responded by creating a foundation to protect the Pantanal. Later he lobbied successfully for and helped design and launch both the state's environmental agency and its environmental movement.
Speeches, articles, even videos and international conferences do not ultimately protect the environment. A complex machinery of research, regulations, monitoring, inspections, and enforcement is essential. Much of this machinery must be provided by government, but for that to happen, there must be adequate political support.Adalberto's most important contribution is in showing how the environment's friends can create such an ongoing, effective machinery at the state level. Although he is from the south of Brazil, he has chosen to work in Mato Grosso State. It is an exceptionally important state environmentally: its central area includes the headwaters of important rivers flowing north to the Amazon and south toward Paraguay and Argentina; it also includes the extraordinary Pantanal wetlands. But Brazil's economic troubles have driven more people and cattle westward into this sensitive region, threatening to upset the ecological balance.From his independent position as head of Ecotropica, the private citizen group he created, Adalberto researches the state's environmental needs, defines the problems and possible solutions, builds public understanding and support, and defines and builds active pro-environment political coalitions issue by issue.One of Adalberto's top priorities is the Pantanal. The Brazilian Pantanal covers an area of approximately 96,000 square miles (twenty times the size of the Florida Everglades) in the Brazilian midwest. It is home to hundreds of species of mammals and reptiles, including jaguars and caimans. More than 600 species of birds live there, many of them found only in the Pantanal, such as the endangered hyacinth macaw, the world's largest parrot.
Brazil's rapid urbanization and the equally aggressive opening of its frontier are creating serious environmental problems; the country, having begun to suspect that all is not well, is starting to search for institutions that will give it technically competent, reliable protection. There are few citizen groups or government agencies at the moment that have the technical skills required by the complex environmental challenges facing Brazil. The number of researchers, inspectors, and enforcers is inadequate, given the scale of both the country and the problems.The Pantanal provides a good example of why the environmental field needs institutions, both public and private, that can bring great analytic and technical depth and that can stick with an issue for years.The Pantanal has been occupied for centuries. The Indians were first joined by explorers in search of gold along the riverbanks. Small farmers and ranchers next established themselves along the area's many rivers to provide food for the explorers. Their small-scale operations did little to disrupt the ecosystem. Even when ranchers began to bring in hundreds of thousands of head of cattle, the Pantanal was not overly taxed, as plenty of treeless pasture land existed.In the last few years, however, farming and cattle ranching have increased dramatically, including large-scale ranching and huge, high-chemical-input soybean farms. The resulting erosion of riverbanks and the contamination of rivers by insecticides and herbicides have reached alarming levels. In addition, garimpeiros, or freelance miners, seeking gold and diamonds, destroy riverbanks by blasting them with powerful jets of water and contaminate the waters with mercury. "Some rivers that formerly were navigable can be crossed by foot now, without wetting one's knees," says Adalberto. "The implications for navigation are clear and the effect of heavily sedimented water on fish breeding can be estimated, but no one knows what will happen to the Pantanal's unique flooding cycle if the rivers continue to suffer this aggression."The government, recognizing the importance of the Pantanal, has established a national park and ecological station that protect 10,000 square miles, ten percent of the Pantanal. However, the remaining ninety percent is privately held. "If we don't act quickly to convince the owners and the people who work the land to conserve it, the whole ecosystem can be destroyed," says Adalberto. "That's why the education work Ecotropica is doing is so critical."
At this stage in the development of the state's environmental institutions, Adalberto and Ecotropica feel they can achieve maximum impact by stimulating many others to become involved, especially government staff. "The first step," says Adalberto, "is to provide information. At Ecotropica we want to make information available in ways that it can be used by everybody--from the fisherman to the government rural outreach workers who are supposed to ensure that the conservation laws are respected."Recently, Ecotropica has begun holding training seminars for government workers as well as for lawyers and representatives of citizen organizations. Such training, the first of its kind, is vital, especially for the outreach workers, many of whom are not well versed in conservation laws or on the specific problems facing the Pantanal. The outreach workers are an important link between the government and the field: if a citizen complains to a government agency about an illegal burning or the deliberate destruction of a riverbank, and no action is taken, he or she can then contact an outreach worker who can prod the proper agency to see that such complaints are acted upon.Finding and demonstrating new economic solutions is the second major contribution Adalberto can now make. Ecotropica, for example, hopes to introduce local residents to alternative income-generating activities such as the cultivation of native varieties of fish, frogs, and freshwater shrimp; the managed cultivation of caiman, capybara (a large rodent whose meat is highly valued), and ornamental animals; and the planting of certain species of trees with especially valuable wood.Ecotropica also wants to develop guidelines for ecotourism--with the double objective of income generation and education. Radio programs will play another key part of this educational campaign, providing information of specific interest to local residents, including fishermen, miners, ranchers, teachers, agricultural extension agents, veterinarians, and others.