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Winter 2001/2002
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Upper Paraguay River Basin Floodplain

The Pantanal Gets an Integrated Conservation GIS

The Pantanal, the vast floodplain of the Upper Paraguay River Basin, is the world's largest continuous freshwater wetland and one of its richest ecosystems. Approximately the size of Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador combined, the Pantanal crosses the borders of Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay, covering approximately 15,000,000 hectares of which 11,000,000 are wetland. Alive with a great variety of fauna and flora that is characteristic of the Amazon, Chaco, Cerrados, and Atlantic forest regions, the Pantanal's biologically diverse and pristine environment in the heart of South America is sustained by a complex river system and preserved chiefly because of its inaccessibility.

 screen shot of side-by-side images; click to see enlargement
Pilot project area shown during a wet period and dry period. Image displayed on the left is from 6/9/97 (wet), and the image on the right is from 11/23/88 (dry). (Image courtesy of Ducks Unlimited.)

Bolivia, Brazil, and Paraguay have designated several portions of the Pantanal as Waterfowl Habitat under the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance; yet much is unprotected and held mostly in private hands.

According to Dr. Montserrat Carbonell, director, Latin America and the Caribbean, Ducks Unlimited (DU) (Memphis, Tennessee), soil erosion and silting of rivers from indiscriminate farming practices are causing changes. "Clearing of land for agriculture and cattle production, mining operations, unplanned tourism, hunting, the construction of gas and oil pipelines, and roads across the borders of the three countries are threatening the integrity of this unique ecosystem," said Carbonell. "And the Hidrovia Project, intended to make the Paraguay River navigable for large commercial/transportation vessels bringing agriculture and farming products directly to the ocean, could have irreversible impacts on this fragile environment if not managed adequately."

Coordinating three countries to protect and manage such a vast territory is a formidable task. While each country has completed many projects that generated important geographic information, they each use different classification schemes and incompatible formats, even within their own country, making data sharing and transfer extremely difficult.

To counter this challenge, ERDAS' geographic imaging software and Esri's GIS products, including ArcView 3.2, ArcView Spatial Analyst, ArcView Image Analysis, ArcPad, and ArcIMS, are being used to develop a long-term solution that will unite the three countries in their desire to protect and manage the Pantanal.

A Solution Takes Hold

Following a May 1999 GIS seminar presented by DU and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service (USFS) in Costa Rica, several delegates from Brazil, Paraguay, and Bolivia approached DU with interest for a Pantanal project. Subsequent conversations with government and nongovernment organization staff revealed that a comprehensive, trinational GIS database was the solution.

DU, with more than 20 years of experience using GIS for wetland conservation and management, took the lead as facilitator and technical advisor, and the USFS provided initial funding for the project.

screen shot of a Landsat 7 ETM+ image; click to see enlargement
A Landsat 7 ETM+ image highlighting the smoke plumes from fires in the Pantanal pilot area. (Image Courtesy of Ducks Unlimited.)

The first milestone meeting was held in April 2000, in Campo Grande, Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil, with more than 50 participants from Brazil, Paraguay, Bolivia, the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID), U.S. Department of State, and USFS. The objectives of the new integrated conservation GIS were established, and specific end products were determined.

The technical work plan, assembled and managed by DU with the aid of a discussion list server (, began to take shape, outlining issues and tasks related to the guidelines and standards for the GIS, local land use and conservation priorities, key data sets, metadata standards, land use/land cover scheme and accuracy levels, and data storage and retrieval infrastructure.

Because of the expense and long-term nature of the project, participants agreed to work in a smaller area first. An area south of Corumbá (Nabileque/Otuquis/Rio Negro region) covering portions of all three countries was selected.

"The biodiversity of the region is extremely high, but so is the area's economic resources," said Dick Kempka, DU's director of GIS. "Helping administrators and decision makers see the importance of the Pantanal GIS to their planning and conservation efforts and gaining their long-term support were vital to initiate the pilot study."

Pilot Project Begins

A core technical group standardized the project on ERDAS geographic imaging software and Esri GIS products. GeoTIFF and ERDAS IMAGINE were selected as the raster data file formats, and shapefiles and ARC coverages were chosen as the standard vector formats. DBF was confirmed as the relational database format, UTM Zone 21 is the map projection standard, and WGS 84 is the standard datum and spheroid.

 aerial photo of ponds near Rio Negro
Saltwater and freshwater ponds near Rio Negro. (Photo courtesy of Ducks Unlimited.)

DU started the image processing in Memphis, Tennessee, as plans developed for coordinating and standardizing methods and data formats between partners. Six satellite imagery scenes covering the same area but collected on different dates were purchased: three from CONAE in Argentina; two from INPE in Brazil; and one from the EROS Data Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, USA. All imagery was checked for quality using ERDAS IMAGINE, then georeferenced and coregistered based on the established standards. A Landsat 7 scene was selected as the master data layer.

Once the project was under way, production moved to South America where partners used the ArcView Image Analysis and ArcView Spatial Analyst extensions with ArcView 3.2 to analyze water level change, map burn scars and new roads, etc., and to compare the various data sets.

Comparing Data

"Verifying the spatial accuracy of the pilot project data sets is critical to the larger database," notes Kempka. "Many of the data layers (roads, contours, rivers, etc.) were digitized, with the disparate scales between the three countries posing another challenge."

The vector data layers were viewed over the most recent satellite imagery for updates and modifications. ERDAS IMAGINE was used to reproject the raster data sets and write batch-processing procedures for mosaicking a seamless coverage of the area. ArcView 3.2 was used to check the spatial accuracy between the master image layer, stream gauge and precipitation records, flood regime, geomorphology, vegetation cover, land use, and infrastructure data.

Because the positional accuracy of data is difficult to determine and much of the pilot area lacks permanent features to test against, verifying accuracy is a work in progress. "Classification and feature class accuracy is challenging," says Kempka, "because no accurate reference data that coincides with the same vintage (time) as the satellite imagery exists." GPS points for Brazil and Paraguay have been collected, and field data collection using ArcPad is being tested. Once the imagery is verified as spatially accurate, it will be used as the master base layer for verification of other data sets (e.g., roads, hydrology, and railroads).

The 12 organizations presently involved in the project are discussing how to serve the data. The goal is to make the product as widely available as possible with a user-friendly interface. The specifics have not yet been determined, but it is fairly certain that a Web-based network with ArcIMS serving up the data using Active Server Pages and Java programming will be used for the interface. However, the latest developments in technology will be considered when the final decision is made.

Story of Success

The Pantanal pilot project is on track for completion by mid 2002, and initial results underscore the utility of a trinational GIS solution.

  • A GIS database for the pilot area, along with general base information from satellite imagery, will soon be completed.
  • A new data set depicting areas with significant change in the last 10-20 years will be available.
  • Analysis and map production in this area, at a general level, will soon be possible. (However, field verification and finer detailed information are dependent on full funding.)
  • A team of local organizations with GIS capacity in Bolivia, Brazil, and Paraguay will continue to develop and maintain the integrated database for the entire Upper Paraguay River Basin.
  • A report documenting procedures and the contents of the database is in the final stages of development.

When completed, the pilot project will establish a robust proof of concept for the larger trinational GIS and an important baseline data set to immediately support conservation decisions in the Pantanal. Ultimately, the new GIS will enable governmental agencies and NGOs within Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay to work in partnership as they protect and manage this unique, fragile, and marvelous ecosystem.

For more information, contact Dick Kempka or Montserrat Carbonell at Ducks Unlimited (tel.: 901-758-3825, fax: 901-758-3850, e-mail: and

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