Amazon Rainforest Remains Protected Despite Development

January 9, 2012 by

News & Alerts

The Amazonian Jaguar inhabits threatened rainforest. Photo courtesy of Land Rover Our Planet via Flickr.

As South America‘s economies kick into high gear despite (or perhaps because of) the global economic slowdown, development is a top priority. Although Brazil just eclipsed the UK to become the world’s sixth largest economy, it remains one of the most unequal countries in the world, with over half of Brazilian families living on less than minimum wage.

Most Brazilians agree that there is a need to bring education, clean water, and energy to the people of the less-developed Brazilian interior. But when does the cost of wealth become too high?

The proposed Belo Monte Dam, for example, would electrify a fifth of the country while providing jobs and infrastructure for thousands of families. Yet its construction has become the potent lightening rod for protests by indigenous and environmental groups, which would rather let the water flow unimpeded.

Another energy project that had environmentalists worried was the Puerto Suarez–Santa Cruz Pipeline between impoverished northeastern Brazil and Puerto Suarez, Bolivia. “The [pipeline] gives the northeast the chance to have clean and cheaper energy,” said former President Lula de Silva. “The region’s industry will be able to produce more and we will be able to be self-sufficient.”

Though South America is crisscrossed with gas pipelines, this project required entering Kaa-Iya del Gran Chaco National Park. The arid and uninviting biome, characterized by thorn trees and scorching temperatures, is home to peccaries, guanacos, armadillos, tapirs, deer and, most importantly, jaguars. Though they rarely attack humans (unlike other big cats), they are hunted for sport and bounty by local ranchers protecting their herds.

Jaguars (Panthera onca) are the third largest cats after lions and tigers, but their heavy jaw and musculature make them the most powerful. Their ancestors arrived to the Americas from Asia around two million years ago, and ever since, these top predators have ranged freely across both continents. The relatively recent arrival of humans, guns, large-scale agriculture and fur fashions, however, have conspired to shrink the jaguar’s habitat.

The national park is considered an important sanctuary, with 8.4 million acres (3.4 million hectares) where big cats and their prey can run truly wild. Founded in 1995, the park also has a potent protector in the form of Capitanía del Alto y Bajo Izozog (CABI), “a grassroots indigenous organization representing 10,000 members of Bolivia’s Izoceño-Guaraní people, living in 23 communities along the Parapetí River in the Gran Chaco region.”

CABI finally allowed the pipeline to run through the national park, but only after guarantees of support for their conservation efforts. This past week, proof of some small success, at least, was forthcoming. Though jaguar numbers are declining internationally, the Gran Chaco and Amazon are enjoying a boom in ferocious felines.

The Isoso Station of the Santa Cruz-Puerto Suarez Gas Pipeline has been tracking some of the park’s estimated 1,000 jaguars, and just released its best photo yet, of a female they’ve named Kaaiyana and her two cubs.

Latin America’s recent, rapid development has posed huge challenges to nations like Brazil and Bolivia, caught between the need for infrastructure in impoverished rural regions and the desire to remain respectful stewards of some of the world’s most important, and fragile, wilderness areas.

Ten years after a gas pipeline was constructed in one of Brazil’s and Bolivia’s wildest national parks, it seems that their innovative approaches to these challenges are working.

- Paige Penland

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