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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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