The second largest river on the South American continent, the Paraná River snakes its way through the South American countries of Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina, covering a total distance of about 4,880 kilometers. The river arises in Brazil at the confluence of the Grande and Paranaíba rivers, and continues flowing in a southwest direction until it meets the Paraguay River at the southern border of Paraguay. From here, it continues flowing further south through Argentina, finally joining the Uruguay River, and then draining into the Río de la Plata estuary which itself ultimately empties into the Atlantic Ocean. The Paraná River Basin encompasses an area of about 2,800,000 square kilometers. From its origin to its junction with the Paraguay River, the Paraná river is known as the Alto or Upper Paraná. Brasilia and São Paulo of Brazil, Asunción of Paraguay, and Buenos Aires of Argentina are some of the major South American cities based along the Paraná River Basin. The Itaipú Dam, one of the world’s largest hydroelectric power projects, is also built on the Paraná River along the Brazil-Paraguay border.
Before the first Europeans arrived in South America, the Paraná watershed plausibly hosted large settlements of such Native Indian tribes as the Aché people, as evidenced by the discovery of stone tools likely used by these hunter-gatherers in this area. During the 16th and 17th Centuries, when European explorations of the South American continent were at their pinnacle, the Paraná River served as an important route by which to access the interior regions of the continent from the coast. In 1526, Sebastian Cabot became the first European to begin exploration of the Paraná River Basin. During this time, the river and its surroundings had abundant natural vegetation and a thriving level of biodiversity. However, with the growth and development of agriculture, fishing, and navigation practices by human settlements along the river basin, the river became the lifeline of millions of South Americans. Meanwhile, the flora and fauna of the Paraná River's forests gradually diminished in size, number, and diversity.
The Paraná River and its tributaries are a vital part of the everyday life of those populations of South American peoples settled along their banks. Fishermen living near the river benefit the most from its rich resources of aquatic fauna. Commercially important fishes, like the surubí and the sábalo, are caught from the river, with both being sold for large-scale consumption by the domestic population, and also processed for export abroad. In 2003, 45,000 tons of the shad, and, in 2004, 34,000 tons of the sábalo, caught in the Paraná River were exported. The Paraná River basin also supports large scale agriculture and cattle ranching activities. Many large cities have cropped up on the banks of the river, with the river serving as a navigable route effectively connecting these cities to each other and to the to the port cities in the delta regions near the coasts. Construction of massive hydroelectric dams on the river has allowed these areas to generate large amounts of electricity to sustain the power needs of the growing population of the region. The Yacyretá and Itaipú dams, built on the Paraná, have capacities to generate 3,100 MW and 12,600 MW of electricity, respectively. Besides the wealth of natural resources used for the production of consumable goods and power, thousands of international tourists visit the Paraná River region to experience the bountiful natural wealth and beauty of the place. This further stimulates the local economy and the livelihoods of the local population to a significant degree.
The sultry climate of the Paraná River ecosystem supports the existence of a diverse and unique variety of flora and fauna. Where human intervention is sparse, forests and savanna vegetation have continued to flourish along the banks of the river. The forested region of the upper Paraná region is known as the Alto Paraná Atlantic Forest. 50% of the plants and 90% of the amphibians of this forest are endemic to the area. A large number of species inhabiting the Alto Paraná Atlantic Forests, like the jaguar and the seven-colored tanager, are also on the verge of extinction. Besides terrestrial life, the river also supports a large number of aquatic species, including migratory fishes such as the Atlantic saber-tooth anchovy, the Sábalo, and the Golden dorado, as well as such other fishes as Piranhas, Catfishes, the Lungfish, and a diverse variety of tiny phytoplankton and macrophytes. The Paraná River Delta also forms a significant wetland ecosystem, though much of it has been damaged by human intervention. Species like the Pampas cat, the marsh deer, and capybaras are found in the last surviving natural habitats of this delta region. The Predelta National Park and Paraná Delta Biosphere Reserve have been set up in the Paraná Delta area to secure the native flora and fauna of the region.
Threats and Disputes
Currently, the Paraná River ecosystem is suffering from the detrimental impacts that have been triggered by indiscriminately exploitative human activities. The construction projects building dams and other artificial impediments along the Paraná River have wrought irreparable damage upon the river's ecosystems. During the construction of the Itaipu Hydroelectric Dam in 1979 on the Paraná, the Guairá Falls were completely drowned in the process of creating the dam. Such dams and waterways have also affected aquatic and terrestrial habitats of native flora and fauna, as they have jeopardized fishes' migratory routes, and even displaced thousands of local people from their homes. Rapid deforestation along the banks of the river for agricultural expansion has contributed to the erosion of the land, in turn burdening the river with massive amounts of eroded sediments and debris, and hampering the quality of the Paraná's water resources. Nearly 88% of the original area of the Atlantic Forest based around the Paraná River has been lost, putting to danger the very existence of much of the native flora and fauna of the region. A scientific report claims that nearly 50% of the fish species of the Paraná had been dilapidated over the course of only 20 years. The Sábalo, a key species of the Paraná River ecosystem, forming an important link the food chain, is also being attenuated by exploitative fisheries. Sadly, these fisherman do not seem to realize they are not only severely damaging the ecosystem with their irresponsible practices, but also depleting the regions fisheries of vitally important economic resources for future generations of fishermen and women to come.