July 27, 2004

Brazil: the Pantanal

Part of travelling as a very curious person... is not having too many suprises. A little forward looking reaserch is always very good. So the more I read about the Pantanal the more I get excited about visiting this very unique place. With this entry I hope to share some of my research with you and set the stage for my impressions of the place.

The Pantanal has the greatest concentration of fauna in the Americas. Generally people outside Brazil know only of the Amazon. . . it's a shame because the Pantanal is a very important ecological place.

Dr. Maria Tereza Jorge Pádua,
Former Director, Brazil's National Parks

Re: The Pantanal
It is the largest wetlands in the world, it covers an area of approximately 150,000 km² (source: http://www.pantanal.org/Mainpant.htm) that is a completely separate watershed basin from the rest of brazil. It feeds into the Rio Paraguay which eventually feeds the Paraná river; the second longest river system in South America. The Paraná river finally flows into the Atlantic ocean between Argentina and Uruguay. As a result of the topography (The Pantanal is very very flat) and because of the seasonal climate, the landscapes consist of seasonally flooded swamps, grasslands, woodlands and various types of forests. The result is a mixture that has provided the habitat in the Pantanal housing the highest concentration of wildlife in all of the Americas. (source: http://www.ladatco.com/PAN%2DGATE.htm)
When first seen by the Portuguese, the basin appeared so big and with so much water that it was thought to be an inland sea. If you look at old maps of South America it is called the "Sea of Xaraés". The current name of Pantanal simply signifies the Swamp.
"As a result of the rain there is a huge flood wave that moves through the Pantanal. It takes this wave six months to go from the north to the south of the Pantanal. So in the south, a couple of months after the end of the rainy season, all of a sudden the water level rises again and the savanna gets flooded once more for a while. By the end of the dry season only a few spots of water are left and this is when you get the famous congregations of wildlife in the Pantanal." (source: http://www.pantanal.org/book.htm)

While researching the Pantanal I also started reading about a proposal for Hydrovia to increase the capacity of the river for larger ships for transporting cargo. Apparently, for over a hundred years, it has been a idea that has been floating around. In the late 80's an Intergovernmental Committee on the Hidrovia (CIH) was created to promote and oversee the development of this commercial waterway. "The waterway would link the five countries and would promote a regional integration among countries of the Mercosur (i.e., southern common market) by ensuring year-round navigational transport of minerals and agricultural products (primarily soybeans) from landlocked regions to major markets along the Atlantic coast. The goal was to transform the meandering river into a deepened channel, navigable for barges up to 2.8 m drafts during the low-water months. Presently, the river allows much smaller barge transport." (source: http://www.pantanal.org/gottgens.htm)
The study, however did not take into consideration the environmental impacts on the wetland areas of the Pantanal. Ironically as the plans for Hydrovia continue, other countries are working to reduce the damage that dykes and artificial waterways have done to many of the world’s large rivers such as the Florida Everglades/Kissimmee River complex, the Missouri-Mississippi river system, the Rhine, Danube, Nile, and many others.
The good news as far as I can gather is that the Hidrovia project has been on hold since 1998. But who is to know when such an attractive transportation corridor won't be looked at again as the source for economic development in the region.

What is really the biggest attraction, is the flora and fauna. With more than 650 species of birds, 80 species of mammals, 230 species of fish, all kinds of reptiles and 1100 species of butterflies I am guaranteed to see a few interesting animals.

Hopefully this has been an interesting read for you as well. I am really excited about going to this region. Please check out the following link for an image taken from the space shuttle of the Pantanal http://earth.jsc.nasa.gov/sseop/EFS/lores.pl?PHOTO=STS091-708-14

As well as the following

http://www.mercedessanchez.com.br/pantanal/ingles/satelite/

Posted by gwendal at 08:26 AM | Comments (0)

July 23, 2004

Brazil: Following the Iguaçu River

Last Monday under a rainy sky I left a freezing cold Curitiba. The forecast was poor predicting rain all week. To spite the rain and the cold I road out into the rain, instead of waiting. My gamble paid off, as on the second day the rainclouds stayed over Curitiba and did not follow me any further west. In Curitiba however, the rain continued. It rained so much that the Sao Joao bridge, one of twelve rail bridges that links Curitiba to the port of Paranaguà collapsed and 35 cargo-railcars fell into the valley spilling out tonnes of non-transgenically modified soy. (I know it is not transgenically modified because the Paranà government has put out many billboards propagating the fact that if it used transgenically modified soybean like the rest of Brazil it would have to pay 60 million dollars US to Monsanto in royalties)
In any case it was a little scary to think that just three weeks ago I was going over the very same 110 year-old bridge with the Sierra Verde Express touristic train.

Back to following the Iguaçu river; all this rain will hopefully translate to more water flow over the Iguazu falls. This however, is subject to the decisions of the Itapu Hydroelectric Dam Management Agency (which is an extra-national management agency that acts on the behalf of both Brazil and Paraguay).

Check out this very interesting satellite image of the Iguazu River and the confluence of three countries.

On the way to Iguaçu I had a very pleasant 650km bike ride throught the high plateau of the Paranà countryside. Going from 900m at Curitiba to just over 1100m at Guarapava and then back down to around 300m (to be confirmed) at Iguazu. The towns are all very beautiful and small enough that finding accomodation is easy... there is often only one hotel and it is cheap and comfortable and all you can eat breakfeast is usually included. Could a cycletourist ask for anything more?

I had a fantastic visit to the Larangeria Mate factory along the way. It was so much fun to film the whole process of loading the branches, drying the leaves in huge spinning ovens and the rest of the process of sorting the palo (little sticks) and mulching the whole thing down to the desired consistancy (The brazilians like their chimarao much finer than the Argentinians). I felt like Mr. Rogers when he visited factories in his television show to show children how things are made. Looking back I think that was the part of that tv show that always enchanted me when I was a child.


My next entry will be about my impressions of the famous Iguazu or Iguaçu (depending on what side of the border you are on) Falls.

Posted by gwendal at 08:43 PM | Comments (1)

July 18, 2004

Brazil: Fear and Loathing in São Paulo

In the midway of this our mortal life,
I found me in a gloomy wood, astray
Gone from the path direct: and e'en to tell,
It were no easy task, how savage wild
That forest, how robust and rough its growth,
Which to remember only, my dismay
Renews, in bitterness not far from death.

Written by Dante Alighieri, The complete translation can be found at http://triggur.org/inferno/
Dante´s opening words seem to illustrate how I felt arriving in São Paulo.

Against many peoples advice I left Rio de Janeiro on thursday to go to São Paulo. My curiosity receptors were on full alert, and I was bent on trying to learn as much as possible about this megalopolis in 48 hours as possible. What I found is a massive megapolis that is the biggest economy in Latin America.

Its surface area is approximately 1500 km². The population number is subjective as it relates to where you draw the lines of the metropolis. Do you follow political boundaries or simply all contiguous urban areas? According to http://www.nationmaster.com São Paulo has 16,533,000 inhabitants (1995 est) third in the world behind Mexico City and Tokyo. The urban population of inhabitants within the city proper or the metropolitan area is estimated at 10,009,231. http://www.nationsonline.org/oneworld/bigcities.htm

São Paulo at night.

What caught my attention about São Paulo other than its tremendous size is its astounding growth. In 1950 is population was 2.4 million then by 1970 it had already jumped to 8.1 million but what is increadible is that by 1990 it was 14.8 million. The latest number for 2000 is 17.8 million. (source Thinkquest online Library, see Also The mega-city in Latin America ). Although the exact number for a city of this size is uncertain there are certain things that are obvious. São Paulo has a major transportation problem. I risked my life and limbs cycling through the center with Arturo (whom I met in Joinville at the bicycle museum) who lent me one of his spare bikes. In 48 hours I had run more red lights than I have my whole life! I am fairly experienced at riding in traffic and as a result found it very nice not to be limited by all the traffic jams that I cycled past. However I was also very concious that there is almost no infrastructure that benefits the cyclist. This is important because this city has many people who work for very little. Arturo quoted me a crazy number, 30 percent of people in the city walk to work because they can´t afford to pay the 1.70 reals that it costs to take the bus to work. Many of them live far from the center and walk more than 10km each way. São Paulo has a very clean and beautiful subway system that is unfortunately completely outpaced by the growth of the city. Many of the lines don´t even reach the inner suburbs, let alone outlying parts of the city. This leaves the majority of public transit users on buses that have to fight it out with the rest of the traffic. This city certainly has as many byways, underpasses, overpasses, highways, freeways, arterials, and speedways as any other city. But it just does not seem to help... traffic is always jammed. They even have traffic jams in the middle of the night.

On Friday I went with Arturo to drive his maid home in a eastern suburb of the city. W drove for 2 1/2 hours and only made it 40km out from the centre. Not once did I see a break in the urban fabric. Just a change in the age of the buildings that became progressively younger, smaller and of poorer construction. I was completely dumfounded after that trip. I still can only barely conceive the size and the immencity of this city. This statistic will help illustrate how completely unbeleivable the challenges are: in 1973, there were only 73,000 people living in favelas or 1.1 percent of the population, Today there are 1.1 million people living in favelas which is about 11.3 percent (Alan Gilbert)

I am starting to wonder if it is a miracle that this city continues to function. Or maybe the people working here and administering the city are working the miracle. It seems like São Paulo is buzzing full steam ahead with a thriving capitalist economy. But I keep wondering if it is on the brink of collapse. For example, this is a very thirsty city that is operating nearly at the capacity of its water supply. What would happen if their was a major drought? While crossing a bridge I was able to have a good look at one of its rivers. It was very dirty, the water was not flowing at all, their was a very visible oil slick on the surface and it was bubling with what probably was lots of little mosquito larvae. The shores of the river are void of any public infrastructure and I got the feeling that the river is litteraly a forgotten backwater. When it could be a beautiful green space that people could enjoy. I was however increadibly suprised when I spotted a capivara on the shore of the river. Maybe because it is the largest rodent in the world and is related to the rat it is able to survive in such polluted conditions.

Nevertheless São Paulo continues to operate and thrive with all its problems along for the ride. The most encouraging thing in my eyes is that the growth rate of the city´s population is declining and is currently less than 1.8% per annum (Alan Gilbert) Hopefully this means that the city has time to catch its breath and can put in the infrastructure that will permit the city to exist more sustainably.

Posted by gwendal at 02:30 PM | Comments (0)

July 03, 2004

Brazil: Ilha do Mel

One of my fears during this expedition is that by being away for so long I will become blazé. That all the beauty in nature and the fantastic cultures I encounter will cease to amaze and arouse my curiosity.
Fortunately, so far that is not the case.

The Ilha do Mel is a place that has really aroused all the senses and truely enchanted me. The only way to arrive on "honey island" is by small wooden ferry boats. They are pretty much converted fishing boats with a lot of life jackets instead of fishing nets as cargo.

I boarded at the small dock in Pontal do Paraná and loaded my bike on the roof of the boat. It was a nice balmy 25 degrees and I was wondering why this was considered the off season. But for some reason it is and I was the only passenger.
Once at the dock in the small fishing village of Nova Brazilia on the Island I was helped by Oca who at first seemed a little too eager to help me. But I later realized that it was just in his nature to be very personable and friendly. Nova Brazilia is a very interesting little town where none of the streets are paved, but rather just sandy walking paths. There are no cars, cows or horses on the island. Everything on the island has to be moved around in carts pulled by someone. Or brought around by small dugout canoe fishing boats, which are the only motorized vehicles on the island.

I have to explain that 81% of the island is a designated ecological station and a remaining 12% of this 27 square kilometer island is a national park. That leaves only 7% for the two towns of Nova Brasilia and Esperansa. Nova Brasilia (where I was camping in Oca´s back yard) seems to be very well integrated into its landscape. Most people are either fishermen who also run a small "Posada" Bed and Breakfeast type place or just run small shops. When you go up a hill and look towards the town It is almost impossible to see any buildings as they are all well hidden by the tree canopy.
Just as the name of the island implies life seems to move along at a syrupy pace. The moment my toes dug into the sand all my muscles seemed to relax knowing that I would do a lot of nothing for the next few days. I did not wear my shoes for he entire time I was on the island. I should mention the only drawback is that the sand is very fine and it has an amazing ability to get everywhere.
One night I ate fresh barbequed oysters with my caping hosts Oca and Claudette. This island is a perfect place for those who like sea food.

I think I will stop now otherwise I will start to sound like a tourist broshure. However my lasting memory of the place was its cleanliness. Everywhere there are small garbage bins reminding you to keep this unique environment clean. The island has a limit of 5000 visitors to the island on any given day. They are even talking about reducing it to 3000. In the "winter" when I was here, I guessed the number of visitors to be no more than 20. At the time I visited it really looked as if it was a very good model of sustainable, ecologically sensitive trourism that respects the local economies and culture.

After seeing some of the mega beach resort towns like Baleneario Camboriú with unlimited growth, I am very very impressed.

Posted by gwendal at 08:09 AM | Comments (0)