That the Hydrovia waterways project, linking Brazil, Paraguay, Bolivia, Uruguay and Argentina, could spell doom for the Pantanal - the largest * wetlands in the world - in Brazil is well understood. What is surprising is that it is being backed wholeheartedly by politicians, businesspersons and farmers alike.

Warns Katherine Fuller, president of the World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF), that the Hydrovia, scheduled to begin operation in 1997, would lead to gradual desertification of the region with the water level falling by 25 cm. "Entire species of fish and birds would 'die and massive flooding down river would put people and buildings at risk," she adds. The Pantanal extends to 13,925 ha and is home to jaguars, giant ant-eaters, marsh deer, giant otters, toucans, rare hyacinth macaws and a host of other wildlife species. WWF would like the waterway to begin below the Pantanal. But adamant Bolivian, Paraguayan and Brazilian officials are against it. "The benefits far outweigh the ecological costs," says Jose Martinez, a senior official at Paraguay's embassy in Brazil.