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Brazilian, US Scientists Study Each Others' Rivers - 2002-05-29


The Upper Mississippi River system in the American Midwest shares many of the physical characteristics of the Upper Paraguay River in Brazil. The non-profit environmental group, Nature Conservancy, has been working for more than four years to get people from both countries to share information on problems including pollution, siltation, and invasive species. After a visit last year, some Brazilian scientists are back in the United States. Jonathan Ahl, of the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, reports on how the two countries are helping each other to help their rivers.

Scientists and government officials from Brazil and Illinois stop alongside the Illinois River, watching different ways researchers use to count the variety and number of fish in the river. This stop is part of a week-long tour through the Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois.

Environmentalists have long talked about taking a global perspective to problems, says Michael Reuter, Director of the Illinois Chapter of the Nature Conservancy, the group that is hosting the Brazilians during their tour of the Midwest. He says this exchange helps put that idea into action.

"We're trying to shift some of our thinking here to a larger level perspective, a more comprehensive approach," he said. "My sense is that we are making too many decisions based on a narrow view ... too many decisions where we are looking at one piece of the river, only one piece of the problem."

The major difference between the Pantanal region that includes the Upper Paraguay River and the Upper Mississippi River valley is that Brazil has not yet done the damage to its rivers that has happened in the United States. Pierre Girard is a scientist with the Pantanal Research Institute. He says his country has much to learn from America's mistakes. Mr. Girard says he's already learned that scientists must to work with land managers to set up programs to stop problems before they begin.

"We must get managers and the science people together right at the beginning," he said. "We must talk and really try to understand each other and see what the objectives are and define them. We have broad objectives, but we do not have specifics yet."

Mr. Girard says Midwest scientists are already providing practical advice on how they can convince developers and farmers to take better care of the land near their rivers. They are already looking at the Midwest's use of buffer strips to separate farmland from the flood plain. While the Pantanal in many ways looks like the Upper Midwest of 150 years ago, local scientists say there is still a lot they can learn from Brazil.

University of Illinois scientist Rip Sparks says the Pantanal is kind of like a 150-year-old photograph of the Mississippi River valley. He says having access to the Brazilians' research can help efforts to clean up and protect Midwest rivers.

"Their soils haven't been disturbed in the flood plain. They haven't had the application of fertilizer that we have had here. So we get the chance to see how the soils function in terms of taking up nutrients and cleaning the water," he said.

Mr. Sparks says being able to share information with the Brazilians is a big deal. That's because there are no large, undisturbed river systems in the U.S. to serve as a model. But even with the free flow of knowledge, scientists from both countries say there is only so much they can do to protect their respective rivers. But ultimately, any effort to protect or restore a river will take money," said Mario Dentes, of the Nature Conservancy's Chapter in Brazil. "Who is going to pay the bills? The people who made the intervention in our highland? The government? Who? We don't know yet," he admitted.

But Mr. Dentes and his American counterparts say that will be an ongoing process. For now, they are setting up ways to share information via the Internet, creating joint research projects, and planning many more trips to visit each other's countries, and the rivers they are trying to protect.

The Great Lakes Radio Consortium is a production of Michigan Radio. Support comes from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, and the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation.

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