Most academic structures and tenure systems encourage faculty
individualism and perpetuate disciplinary borders. Students often
shun the perceived hassle of group projects, preferring the ease
of working alone. Nonetheless, over the past two years, 62 professors
and 100 students from five Brazilian universities conducted collaborative
research to help preserve the ecological integrity of the Pantanal
wetlands and ensure the socio-economic wellbeing of the region.
The project, officially titled the Conservation Plan for the
Paraguay River Basin, focused on the Brazilian area of the Pantanal
and was implemented through 17 interdisciplinary teams. What was
the key to success in crossing disciplinary boundaries? "Shared
ownership and pursuit of a common goal is essential," says
Dr. Clovis Miranda, coordinator of the project. Miranda, a professor
and senior advisor to the rector at Universidade Federal de Mato
Grosso in Cuiabá, points out that the serious threats to
the Pantanal region brought individuals together to collaborate
for an important cause. "The viability of this ecosystem
is of critical significance not only regionally, but also globally,"
An holistic perspective
The Pantanal-bordering southwest Brazil, Paraguay, and Bolivia-is
the world's largest remaining wetland. The area covers more than
106,000 square kilometers and is rich in biodiversity. It is estimated
to contain more than 150,000 species of birds, plants, and animals,
many unique to the region. The ecosystem is threatened by poor
planning, large transportation and development projects, agricultural
expansion, municipal pollution, unmanaged tourism, and marginalization
of local communities.
The total project research area is 396,000 square km, which includes
the states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul, and covers both
the Pantanal wetlands and surrounding watershed uplands. The project
objectives were to organize existing information on the Pantanal
region, research and produce new technical and scientific data
on sub-ecosystems and communities in the area, and develop recommendations
to support both large-scale and community-based sustainable development
and environmental conservation.
Though first proposed by the Brazilian environmentalist movement
in 1989, it took several years for such a comprehensive research
project to be approved. The Ministry of the Environment gave the
green light to proceed with the first phase in 1992. Funding was
secured from the World Bank through the Brazilian National Program
for the Environment in 1993, and the program was officially launched
the following year.
"Our target goal is to preserve the Pantanal wetlands. To
accomplish this we need to look at the region as a whole,"
says Miranda. "We cannot do successful conservation work
if we are not addressing the socio-economic as well as the bio-physical
issues involved. That means involving local people in the process,"
he explains. "Being inclusive is a requirement for holistic
Focusing on the micro scale, local institutions
The project began with a study of landuse. "We felt it was
important to research the land on a micro scale to truly understand
its use from both a socio-economic and bio-physical perspective.
In addition, we looked at institutional and infrastructure issues.
This allowed us to make targeted recommendations for distinct
areas," explained Miranda. "We wanted to avoid sweeping
strategies that might neglect the specific needs of some communities
and smaller ecosystems."
To achieve a micro perspective, Miranda and colleagues mapped
the study area on a 1 cm-2.5 km scale and identified 45 "zones"
to evaluate. Assessment of socio-economic issues within the zones
was comprehensive, covering demographics, education, health and
sanitation, housing, labor and employment, land tenure systems,
tourism, indigenous groups, etc. The bio-physical assessment included
geology, geomorphology, climate, soils and vegetation, wildlife,
hydrology, water quality and water systems.
Researchers also surveyed local institutions within each of the
zones to assess perceived roles, current activities, and sense
of responsibility in community development and conservation efforts.
Institutions included government and non-governmental organizations,
businesses, the media, tourist associations, unions, social clubs,
judicial units, religious groups, etc. "We need to bring
local institutions to the table to facilitate change," says
Miranda. "It is important to go through this process before
bringing in groups from outside the region or from abroad."
A team approach
Five universities joined forces to implement the project. These
were: Universidade Federal de Mato Grosso (UFMT) in Cuiabá,
MT; Universidade Federal de Mato Grosso do Sul (UFMS), in Campo
Grande, MS; Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul, in Porto
Alegre, RS; Universidade de São Paulo, (USP) in São
Paulo, SP; and Universidade de Cuiabá (UNIC) in Cuiabá,
These were joined by federal and regional government entities
including: the Ministry of the Environment, the Brazilian Corporation
for Agricultural Research (EMBRAPA) a national government institution
with a unit in the Pantanal, the National Soil Service, the Brazilian
Institute of Geography, and the Department of the Environment
of the states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul. In addition,
the researches interacted with the municipal governments of the
81 towns in the study area.
As a first step, a project steering committee was set up, comprised
of one representative from each of the participating universities
and the federal/regional government agencies. This group met every
three months and on an ad hoc basis as needed. Facilitation responsibilities
were rotated among committee members to ensure equal participation.
Next, the interdisciplinary research teams were established.
Faculty were recruited across disciplines from the five participating
universities. They were asked to present individual research proposals
to indicate their interests, area of expertise, and the regional
concerns they wished to address. These were matched to proposals
from faculty in other disciplines at the same institution, then
combined and revised into interdisciplinary team research projects
which included the necessary socio-economic and bio-physical analysis
of the established zones. The 17 teams met together on a monthly
basis to report findings, discuss schedules, address challenges,
and share resources.
The people-preservation connection
Phase I of the project was completed in June 1996. The primary
outcomes of the first phase of the research initiative are planning
and policy guidelines for environmentally sustainable development.
Recommendations include a check list of strategies to utilize
in initiatives that promote active change and involve local citizens.
Miranda and his colleagues are currently holding public meetings
to present their findings and provide fora for the community and
local government to offer input as they move to the implementation
"We didn't want to develop actual policies," explains
Miranda. "Our goal was to provide recommendations to support
politicians and local citizens to join in creating sound policies
that protect the Pantanal wetlands and the viability of the surrounding
communities. It's important that the politicians have policy input
and that community members are involved in project development
in order for these recommendations to be implemented and maintained."
Miranda admits this can be a challenge. "We've found [in
meetings] that sometimes the comprehension isn't there and people
may be shy to ask for clarification or offer input. Sometimes
it's the case that people are angry, or there is apathy among
local citizens and low attendance.
Yet, it is critical to build coalitions and we have to spend
the time to do this via meetings and by messages conveyed through
respected community leaders. It's important to establish connections-there
needs to be trust. If the community is ignored or taken advantage
of to justify what researchers, policymakers, or developers want
to do there could be problems in the future," Miranda cautions.
He also emphasizes educational outreach. "Experiential environmental
education is key. We can't hope to preserve the Pantanal if people
don't make the link between individual and collective actions
and resulting outcomes," stresses Miranda.
The next phase in the Pantanal preservation project is to execute
recommendations and establish the new policies. The Inter-America
Development Bank has indicated willingness to finance some portions
of the implementation phase with supplemental government and private
To date, three large undertakings addressing both infrastructure
and ecological impact have been proposed for the implementation
phase. The first is a road improvement and zoning project which
will include environmental easements along a 400 km stretch of
highway designed to enhance transportation and trade while protecting
the area from destructive development.
The second is a water and sewage treatment program designed around
small watersheds as opposed to a municipal basis. "This is
one of the most serious problems for the wetlands," says
Miranda. "Water and sewage treatment is not adequate in any
of the 81 towns in the region. In fact, 98 percent of the communities
have no sewage treatment facilities whatsoever."
The third, which has already been launched with private funding,
addresses sustainable agriculture and cattle ranching in the region.
A 150,000 acre farm located in the Pantanal has been selected
as a test site to implement and monitor sustainable practices.
The effort is being conducted in collaboration with the private
farm owners. Consistent with researchers recommendations, a local
non-governmental organization has been hired to manage the project.
Twelve professors and 14 students at the UFMT are providing technical
assistance including an initial environmental impact assessment,
development and implementation of alternative systems, ongoing
monitoring, and evaluation.
Sustaining interdisciplinary efforts
The impetus to launch the Pantanal research project came out
of the Talloires Declaration explains Miranda, one of the authors
of the document at the 1990 Talloires conference. UFMT is one
of the 22 original Talloires signatory institutions.
"The concern and focus were already there, the Talloires
Declaration provided the rallying point for UFMT to initiate the
interdisciplinary effort," notes Miranda. "It serves
as the flag around which ULSF members can mobilize forces for
a common mission. The connection to other institutions through
membership in ULSF provides mutual support."
Links must also be forged within the university between divisions
and departments in order to sustain such interdisciplinary initiatives,
counsels Miranda. It strengthens the institution in the long run
and can make it more efficient and effective through pooled knowledge
and shared resources. The Pantanal project proved this. As professors
from different departments worked together they began sharing
information about their research and found that they had both
data and equipment that were mutually beneficial to a number of
projects. As a result, several joint papers have been published
and relationships were formed that foster team-teaching. In addition,
Pantanal case studies will be used in courses across the disciplines.
When asked to share lessons from his experience, Miranda offered
these recommendations for success in interdisciplinary initiatives:
"Priority #1 is seeking to define problems and evaluate results
holistically, outside of narrow disciplinary perspectives, while
using the available disciplinary tools to find solutions. To support
such a paradigm shift," he continues, "universities
must strive to revise tenure and other systems that perpetuate
individualism and boundaries, and allow time for faculty to focus
on interdisciplinary work."
Such changes aren't quick or easy. "It takes lots of planning,
patience, and perseverance," says Miranda with a knowing
smile, "but the stakes are high. Achieving sustainability
is worth it."
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