Pantanal for the future

Business initiatives combining natural preservation, wildlife recovery, and social promotion bring new wealth to the region


by Nathalia Molina

Every time fire and chainsaws advance over the Amazon and the Pantanal, Brazil loses much more than its natural heritage. Each environmental damage ends up tarnishing the image of the country abroad. In 2020, the burning scenes and deforestation in Brazil reverberated worldwide. Tourism entrepreneurs have been working for years, helping to protect Brazilian biomes and preserve their fauna and flora against such destruction.

“The private sector is united to preserve these spaces for next generations, through owner’s commitment, willingness to do something or despair with this situation. Despite climate change, which can cause great damage, these conservation areas may become future repositories of biodiversity, with animals leaving and occupying other places”. That is the proposal of Roberto Klabin, owner of the Caiman Ecological Refuge, located in Miranda, a city about 180 kilometers from Campo Grande, Mato Grosso do Sul. According to Klabin, private initiatives’ role is fundamental, “especially if the government acts against the environment and cannot understand that the greatest appeal for foreigners is the nature of Brazil,” says the entrepreneur and preservationist.

The first initiative to combine tourism and preservation of flora and fauna in the Pantanal. The beach where alligators sunbathe is proof of this philosophy

Despite the lack of systematic and consistent government incentives, farm owners have played an essential role in filling environmental policy gaps. “Fortunately, we end up seeing islands of excellence, such as Caiman and its neighbors. I want to leave a legacy of preservation. I have created a private reserve intended to be an independent area from the farm. I am thrilled to see other farmers doing the same thing. We are making significant ecological corridors in the region.

“A pioneering tourist operation in the Pantanal of Mato Grosso do Sul; the refuge maintains the coexistence between livestock, ecotourism, and knowledge generation. Since 2004, a Private Reserve of Natural Heritage (RPPN) has kept 5,600 of the nearly 53,000 total hectares of area pristine. The rest of the property also houses important local wildlife conservation projects, such as the jaguar and the Arara-Azul (Hyacinth Macaw), and three inns. “The Pantanal loses less in the pandemic because it has this capacity to accommodate livestock and tourism in the same area. The value of the Pantanal inhabitants is to know how to adapt to nature. They introduced cattle raising and live with this biodiversity,” he says.

“The private sector meets to preserve these spaces and leave them for posterity. In the future, these conservation areas must become biodiversity repositories”

In February 2020, an expedition of the Documenta Pantanal project, with the participation of Klabin, was in the Delta of the Okavango River in Africa to learn about the local ecotourism model. This area of Botswana has a geography like that of the Pantanal region of Mato Grosso do Sul. “The Pantanal is our floodplain. Before the pandemic disrupted tourism, the region was moving towards becoming a wildlife-watching destination,” Klabin notes. Since 2019, Documenta brings together tourism entrepreneurs, environmentalists, and visual arts professionals to record and disseminate the region’s culture and nature through photographic exhibitions, book publishing, and film production.

“The greatest attraction that Brazil has to offer the world is its nature,” Klabin says. One of Caiman’s activities is to spend the day with biologists from Instituto Arara Azul (The Blue Macaw Institute). This animal, which gained international fame with the animation Rio (directed by Carlos Saldanha for Fox Filmes in 2011), has its nests monitored by researchers under Neiva Guedes’ command, designer of the project in 1990. “As soon as the pandemic is over, one imagines going to a place with far fewer people, away from crowds. The trend is that touristic attractions like Caiman will grow”, believes Klabin.

The Onçafari Project seeks to protect the largest feline in South America through a monitoring program. Since the photo safari emerged, the jaguar population has increased in the region, and many animals no longer see vehicles as a threat

The Ecological Sanctuary brings together Pantanal culture, high-standard gastronomy, and genuine experiences in nature. Onçafari, a photographic safari is one of them. The animals maintain their wild characteristics but do not react to vehicles as a threat. “In Latin America, the best place to watch the jaguar is the Pantanal,” Klabin recalls. According to Mario Haberfeld, founder of Onçafari, the facility to spot the animal was one reason for choosing this biome when starting the project. We also decided based on the degree of conservation of the Caiman farm and travelers’ structure available. Onçafari acts to preserve biodiversity, emphasizing jaguars and Guará wolf — one of the Cerrado symbols, an ecosystem that is also part of the project, and the Amazon and the Atlantic Forest.

“I believe in ecotourism a lot. Animals have economic value as living beings because of it,” Haberfeld notes. Since the beginning of the region’s occupation, there was a competition for space among cattle farmers and jaguars, the feline’s hunting territory since immemorial times. The farmers lost a few heads to the jaguars, and many were killed because of it. Onçafari’s work aims at breaking this cycle. “The jaguar sightseeing tours make jaguars no longer seen as something damaging creatures but an asset. In other words, we can profit with visitors coming to observing them,” explains the entrepreneur. Thus, the economy of the entire region improves. “Not only does it generate direct jobs for guides and people who work at the hotel, but many indirect ones, whether with shuttle services, vans, airplanes and all the commerce of the nearest cities. It is a virtuous cycle that is formed, and the travel industry is critical in this aspect”, he points out.

Caiman maintains the coexistence between livestock, ecotourism, and knowledge generation, besides hosting protection projects such as the Arara Azul Institute and Onçafari

Thanks to the worldwide recognized work of biologist Neiva Guedes, the Instituto Arara Azul has managed to dramatically increase the number of individuals of this species

In the clear waters of Bonito

Preservation is the Legenda to a unique experience

Another successful Brazilian example of tourism and environmental preservation is Bonito, also in Mato Grosso do Sul. Floating in the clear waters filled with fish is the main activity in the destination, but there are still trails, visits to waterfalls, and horseback riding.

“Since the beginning of the visitation in 1995, we have always wanted to provide travelers with a unique nature interaction experience. The goal was to create an ecotourism model focused on quality and safety. While economically viable and that would simultaneously reconcile development and conservation,” says Luiza Coelho, sustainability director of the Rio da Prata Group, owner of the Spaces Lagoa Misteriosa, Recanto Ecológico Rio da Prata and Estancia Mimosa Ecoturismo.

The Group maintains a series of sustainable initiatives, such as solar-powered boats, biofertilizer plants, and seedling donations to NGOs such as the Serra da Bodoquena Water Institute. Before the pandemic, it received students from public schools in the region who would know about these initiatives’ environmental projects, such as organic gardens, earthworm nursery, and seedling nursery.
Luiza argues that without environmental conservation, there will be no scenic beauty to be admired. “That’s why it is essential to engage the travel industry in preserving the environment, for natural sanctuaries continue to exist, generating jobs and income, moving the tourism market, and delighting travelers from all over the world. Future generations will be grateful for that.
“Even with so much to do in terms of conservation, Brazilian biomes still outperform in exuberance. According to the latest National Geographic Traveler magazine list, the Cerrado is among the 25 most extraordinary destinations globally, in the category “Beautiful Wild Places.” Does anyone doubt it?


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