Green Or Gone

Brazil: What's Fueling The Fires In The Pantanal

Fire fighter in Novo Progresso, Brazil, on Aug. 15
Fire fighter in Novo Progresso, Brazil, on Aug. 15
Vanessa Nicolav

SÃO PAULO — One of the world's most important biodiversity regions is experiencing the worst drought and the worst series of wildfires in decades. Yes, the Pantanal, the world's largest tropical wetland area, in western Brazil, is burning.

So far this year, fires have scorched more than 1.2 million hectares of land, about eight times the area covered by the municipality of Sao Paulo, an unprecedented situation, according to André Siqueira, a biologist with the ONG Ecoa who has been working in the region for 31 years. The Pantanal is also the world's largest flooded grassland. Natural cycles cause the land to flood periodically, and thousands of hectares of land remain underwater in June and July every year. "This year, we didn't have that," Siqueira says.

Fires have scorched more than 1.2 million hectares of land.

Marcos Rosa, the coordinator of Mapbiomas, a project that uses data and scientific expertise to produce land-use estimates in the Pantanal and other biodiversity hubs, says that the historic drought has systemic roots associated with climactic and water imbalance caused by the devastation of other important biomes, such as the Cerrado, a vast tropical savannah area of Brazil — and especially, the Amazon.

Fire in Altamira, Brazil, on Aug. 12 — Photo: Fernando Souza/ZUMA

"The headwaters of the rivers that flow into the Pantanal are born in the Cerrado and in the Amazon," Rosa says, "And they are very devastated. Only 40% of them are preserved; the rest is being used by agriculture. There are a lot of soybean plantations that sprawl right to the river bank. When it rains, the sediments flow down the Pantanal and silt up the Pantanal rivers, leaving them shallower."

Besides the problem of the water coming from other parts of the country, another factor causing the current droughts and wildfires are the cattle farmers who deforest the land and swap local vegetation with other species more resistant to cattle. According to a survey by the SOS Pantanal Institute, about 15% of the Pantanal area has already been turned into pasture.

The bailout came too late.

"The traditional use of the land as pasture is very sustainable — it's typical of the Pantanal and has little impact," says Rosa. "The big problem today is the people who've come from outside the region who are not traditional residents. The first thing they do when they arrive is to remove all the grasslands, savannah and forest to make room for an exotic plantation. This happens in very large areas. It's the biggest problem in the Pantanal."

In late July, the federal government sent military personnel and aircraft to fight fires in the Pantanal. But environmentalists say the bailout came too late, and will not mitigate the effects of other damaging policies passed by the government. Last year, President Jair Bolsonaro's government cut funding and promoted policies that gutted IBAMA and ICMBio, the main bodies responsible for environmental protection in the country.

The result, according to Siqueira, is a lack of investment in the inspection agencies who should be tasked with monitoring, preventing and combating fires. "The current structure of inspection mechanisms is completely contrary to the exponential growth of the fire," he explained. "There's no denying that the federal government's narrative has played a role."

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A Dove From Hiroshima: Is Fumio Kishida Tough Enough To Lead Japan?

Japan's new prime minister is facing the twin challenges of COVID-19 and regional tensions, and some wonder whether he can even last as long as his predecessor, who was forced out after barely one year.

Japan's new PM Fumio Kishida in Tokyo on Sept. 29

Daisuke Kondo


TOKYO — When Fumio Kishida, Japan's new prime minister. introduced himself earlier this month, he announced that the three major projects of his premiership will be the control of the ongoing pandemic; a new type of capitalism; and national security.

Kishida also pledged to deal with China "as its neighbor, biggest trade partner and an important nation which Japan should continue to dialogue with."

Nothing too surprising. Still, it was a rapid turn of events that brought him to the top job, taking over for highly unpopular predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, who had suddenly announced his resignation from office.

After a fierce race, Kishida defeated Taro Kono to become the president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and pave the way for the prime minister's job.

Born into politics

A key reason for Kishida's victory is the improving health situation, following Japan's fifth wave of the COVID pandemic that coincided with this summer's Olympic Games in Tokyo.

The best way to describe Kishida is to compare him to a sponge: not the most interesting item in a kitchen, yet it can absorb problems and clean up muck. His slogan ("Leaders exist to make other people shine") reflects well his political philosophy.

He is an excellent actor.

Kishida was born into a political family: His grandfather and father were both parliament members. Between the ages of six to nine, he studied in New York because of his father's work at the time. He attended the most prestigious private secondary school — the Kaisei Academy, of which about half of its graduates go to the University of Tokyo.

However, after failing three times the entrance exam to , Kishida finally settled for Waseda University. Coming from a family where virtually all the men went to UTokyo, this was Kishida's first great failure in life.

An invitation for Obama

After he graduated from college, Kishida worked for five years in a bank before serving as secretary for his father, Fumitake Kishida. In 1992, his father suddenly died at the age of 65. The following year, Kishida inherited his father's legacy to be elected as a member of the House of Representatives for the Hiroshima constituency. Since then, he has been elected successfully nine straight times, and served as Shinzo Abe's foreign minister for four years, beginning in December 2012. A former subordinate of his from that time commented on Kishida:

"If we are to sum him up in one sentence, he is an excellent actor. Whenever he was meeting his peers from other countries, we would remind him what should be emphasized, or when a firm, unyielding 'No' was necessary, and so on ... At the meetings, he would then put on his best show, just like an actor."

According to some insiders, during this period as foreign minister, his toughest stance was on nuclear weapons. This is due to the fact that his family hails from Hiroshima.

In 2016, following his suggestion, the G7 Ise-Shima Summit was held in Hiroshima, which meant that President Barack Obama visited the city — the first visit by a U.S. president to Hiroshima, where 118,661 lives were annihilated by the U.S. atomic bomb.

Photo of Shinzo Abe, Barack Obama and Fumio Kishida with their backs to the camera, in Hiroshima in 2016

Shinzo Abe, Barack Obama and Fumio Kishida in Hiroshima in 2016

Japanese cynics

In September, 2020 when Shinzo Abe stepped down as prime minister, Kishida put out his candidacy for the first time for LDP's presidency. He didn't even get close. This was his second great failure.

But reading his biography, Kishida Vision, I must say that besides the two aforementioned hiccups, Kishida's life has been smooth sailing over the past 64 years

When one has had a happy and easy life, one tends to think that human nature is fundamentally good. Yet, the world doesn't work like that. And Japanese tend to believe that "human nature is vice," and have always felt a bit uneasy with the dovish Kishida diplomacy when he was foreign minister.

Leftist traditions from Hiroshima

Hiroshima has always been a city with a leftist political tradition. Kishida's character, coupled with the fact that he belongs to the moderate Kochikai faction within the LDP, inevitably means that he won't be a right-wing prime minister.

How long will a Fumio Kishida government last?

Kishida would never have the courage to be engaged in any military action alongside Japan's ally, the United States, nor will he set off to rewrite the country's constitution.

So after barely a year of Yoshihide Suga in office, how long will a Fumio Kishida government last? If Japan can maintain its relatively stable health situation for some time, it could be a while. But if COVID comes roaring back, and the winter brings a sixth wave of the pandemic as virtually all Japanese experts in infectious diseases have predicted, then Kishida may just end up like Suga. No sponge can clean up that mess.

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