It’s Not Just the Amazon: Brazil’s Pantanal wetlands are also going up in flames

Devastating fires in South America’s Pantanal region have burnt twice the area of California’s blazes in 2020. Researchers fear the rare ecosystem will never recover.

The Pantanal, which stretches across Brazil, Paraguay, and Bolivia, is the world’s largest tropical wetland. At over 210,000 sq km in size, it contains thousands of rare and endangered species, making it one of the world’s most biodiverse areas. 

In 2020, the Brazilian Pantanal burned out of control with triple the number of fires compared to 2019. It is estimated that the blazes have so far consumed 4.5 million hectares, the equivalent to 30% of the entire biome, according to scientists at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. Beyond harming the climate, these fires have destroyed the livelihoods of many of the Pantanal’s diverse indigenous communities and devastated local populations of endangered wildlife, including jaguars, capybaras, black caimans, giant otters and hyacinth macaws.

The Problem

Wildfires, though not uncommon in the Pantanal region, have been exacerbated in recent years by a dangerous combination of climate change-driven drought and rash environmental policies. Nevertheless, the Brazilian government has mostly ignored the threat. 

Unlike in the nearby Amazon Rainforest, which is also experiencing widespread wildfire damage, vegetation in the Pantanal has evolved to coexist with annual natural fires, as many plant species require the heat from fires to germinate. These fires usually occur during the month of September at the end of the dry season, and they run out of fuel quickly because the surrounding floodplains prevent them from spreading.

However, in the last couple of years, this hasn’t been the case. After an already devastating 2019 fire season in Brazil, the worst drought in almost 50 years hit during the 2020 wet season (January through April). As a result, the wetlands, which rely on heavy rains to replenish, were unable to properly recover from the 2019 blazes. Fires burned throughout 2020, even in January and February, usually the two wettest months of the year, a time when fire activity is typically minimal.

While natural factors have contributed to the recent destruction, so has human activity. Many fires are lit intentionally, often to clear land for agriculture and pasture. Most of these fires occur as a result of “slash-and-burn” farming, a method of cultivation in which forests are burned and cleared for planting. This approach is becoming more predominant due to weakened environmental policies under Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration. The blazes have been burning uncontrolled through Pantanal ecosystems since at least August. Firefighting efforts are stymied by lack of access to the region. While burning for agricultural purposes is permitted during the rainy season, during the dry months, when fires are more likely to burn out of control, the local bans set on agricultural burning are hardly respected and enforcement is haphazard.

Scientists are worried that the 2020 fire season may not be an isolated incident, and that the damage might continue unabated. Climate modelling suggests that the Pantanal could become hotter and drier, with a rise in temperature of up to 7 ºC by the end of the century. Unpublished data from the Diele-Vegas project, a study of how land-use change and climate variations affect the distribution of frogs and toads across the Pantanal, offers an even grimmer outlook. If climate-change trends continue, annual mean temperatures in the Pantanal could increase by 10.5%, and the annual volume of rain could decrease by 3% by 2050. If action is not taken to curb the devastating effects of climate change, the Pantanal and all its biodiversity could cease to exist. 

Losing the Pantanal harms not only Brazil, but the entire world. While already exacerbated by climate change, these fires are likely to aggravate the climate crisis globally, creating what environmental scientists call a positive feedback loop. The Pantanal, which comprises about 3% of the world’s wetlands, is one of our planet’s most effective carbon sinks, ecosystems that absorb and store more carbon than they release, keeping the carbon away from the atmosphere. When these carbon-rich ecosystems burn, vast amounts of heat-trapping gases are released back into the atmosphere, further contributing to the greenhouse effect. 

“The Pantanal is very important for the planet, it has unique wild areas that are fundamental to life on Earth,” said Andre Luiz Siqueira, the CEO of ECOA, an environmental NGO based in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul. “It is vital that it [receives] as much attention as the Amazon.”

Yet, despite the threats of climate change and ecological devastation, Brazil’s Environmental Minister Ricardo Salles has largely turned a blind eye to the problems. Salles is set on overhauling Brazil’s environmental institutions and relaxing regulations, earning him the nickname “The Terminator”. Beyond ignoring the unfolding events in the Pantanal, Salles, citing the need to boost “stifled economic development”, announced an end to two legal protections for mangroves and coastal restinga forests, which along with the Pantanal’s wetlands, are both crucial carbon sinks for our planet. Further, last year, Salles used less than 0.4% of the environment ministry’s budget for federal policy initiatives, according to a study by the Climate Observatory, a network of Brazilian civil society groups. Moreover, he has resorted to intimidation tactics to stop staffers in the environmental ministry from speaking to the media. 

Another pillar of the minister’s philosophy on the environment is a belief that if the international community wants to combat the destruction of Brazil’s environmental riches, it should pay for it. Salles has continually lashed out at foreigners who intervene in Brazilian environmental business. In September, Salles told Leonardo DiCaprio, who had shared a video criticizing deforestation of the Amazon, to “put his money where his mouth is” and sponsor a Brazilian park. This attitude of neglect and indifference to the environment, as the official appointed to protect it, is not only frustrating to climate activists and scientists but is also detrimental to the future of both Brazil and the entire globe.  

But Salles does not stand alone in his efforts. He has largely followed Bolsonaro’s lead in denying the degrading effects the fires have had on the region. Bolsonaro has argued that the criticism levelled against his government over the fires in the Pantanal and also in the Amazon region had been “disproportionate” and that Brazil instead is an ‘example for the world’ in its handling of the environment. 

Although their policies can be seen as irresponsible and catastrophic for the Pantanal, the Bolsonaro administration has no political reason to make any changes. The president’s strongest supporters include developers and agribusiness interests, both of whom greatly benefit from relaxed land regulations, as well as groups who seek to illegally take over land in the Amazon to farm or pan for gold.

The Solution

Despite harrowing destruction and negligent government officials, hope remains in the quest to save the Pantanal and Brazil’s other environmental treasures. The best chance Brazilian environmentalists have of holding on to protections may lie in the judiciary. Throughout the past year, the courts have repeatedly blocked attempts by Salles and the environmental ministry to dismantle protections and regulations. In addition, pressure from the international community has proven to be effective in impacting Brazilian environmental policy. 

In April, federal courts blocked a rule change by the government’s indigenous rights body FUNAI, that would have allowed land grabbers on indigenous lands to register their ownership officially. The yet-to-be-demarcated indigenous lands would have then faced accelerated levels of deforestation. This decision was heralded as a success by both environmentalists and indigenous rights activists in Brazil.

In September, another crucial regulation protecting the country’s tropical mangroves was upheld by the courts after an attempt by the environmental ministry to dismantle it. Brazil’s National Environment Council, known as Conama, had voted to strip the designation of “permanent preservation areas” from the ecosystems along Brazil’s coastline. The change would have opened up land for commercial development projects. The courts ultimately overturned the decision citing Brazilians’ constitutional right to an ecologically balanced environment, a notion that has been crucial in the fight against the environmental degradation and neglect that the Bolsonaro administration is pushing for. 

However, the courts have only safeguarded Brazil from the worst of Salles’ policies, as they are not the proper mechanism to swap out government officials. In July, the federal public prosecutor’s office filed a request to remove Salles from office on the grounds that he was “violating his duty to protect the environment.” Yet, the courts have refused to take up the case officially.

Although domestic court battles could prove to be an important tactic for environmental activists in Brazil, pressure from the international community has had a stronger, more direct impact on the government’s policies. In July, 38 transnational companies in the agricultural, industrial, mining and service sectors sent a letter to Brazil Vice President Hamilton Mourão, president of the Amazon Council, asking him to address “environmental irregularities and crime in the Amazon and other Brazilian biomes.” The letter is a clear message, as it came just weeks after 32 international financial institutions that manage $4.5 trillion in assets indicated that investments into the country would cease if Brazil didn’t curb deforestation. 

The Brazilian government cracked under pressure. Soon after receiving the letter, the Bolsonaro administration announced a 120-day ban on setting fires in the Amazon, twice as long as the moratorium initially implemented in 2019. Yet, the effectiveness of these measures is under question due to the largely unsuccessful attempts to curb the 2019 fires.

Although some actions have been taken, the threats of economic boycotts from abroad continue. At the height of the blazes in September, six European Union countries (Germany, France, The Netherlands, Norway, Denmark and Italy) and the United Kingdom sent a subsequent open letter to the Brazilian government protesting Brazil’s environmental policy and threatening a boycott. It expressed distress from the Amsterdam Declarations Partnership at the growth in deforestation which has led to the fires, pointing out that Brazil successfully expanded agricultural production while reducing forest clearing in the past. Supported by two of Germany’s biggest supermarket chains, Edeka and Lidl, the letter urged Brazil to follow the sustainable agriculture policies that were in place prior to the latest changes under the Bolsonaro administration. 

Notably, unlike the July letter by the transnational companies, this letter cited grievances regarding both the Amazon and the Pantanal. According to Marcio Astrini of the Brazilian NGO Climate Observatory, the letter will likely influence the EU-Mercosur trade deal, which still has to be ratified by most European governments, offering hope to those trying to save the wetlands in the long term. The agreement benefits both the EU and Mercosur by creating opportunities for growth, jobs and sustainable development.

While these legal challenges and international pressures may neutralize immediate threats to the environment posed by the Bolsonaro administration, the views of this administration are unlikely to change. To save the Pantanal and commit to sustainable agriculture and economic growth, the Brazilian people must choose a government with pro-environmental policies in the upcoming 2022 presidential election. 

“If climate trends, land-management trends and the current anti-environment politics persist,” says Brazilian biologist Luciana Leite, “the Pantanal as we know it will cease to exist.”

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