Why Brazil's Pantanal is having the worst fires in recent decades
By Carlos Meneses Sanchez
A deer carcass burned in a wildfire near the town of Port Jofre, in Brazil's Mato Grosso state. EFE-EPA/Carlos Ezequiel Vannoni/ File
By Carlos Meneses Sanchez
Sao Paulo, Sep 24 (efe-epa).- The Pantanal, the largest wetland region in the world located in the heart of South America, is suffering its worst wildfires in recent decades, an environmental tragedy in which several factors are converging but which Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is trying to downplay to the international community.
According to the most recent figures from the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama), the fires this year have burned some 22 percent of the ecosystem, declared a United Nations World Heritage Site and with a total land area equivalent to all of Belgium, The Netherlands, Portugal and Switzerland combined.
The number of new fires in the Pantanal, which Brazil shares with Paraguay and Bolivia, so far in September has risen to 5,966, the largest figure for the month since records began to be kept in 1998.
In the first nine months of 2020, 16,119 fires have been reported in the region, surpassing all other figures for the same period in the past 22 years, the record so far having been set in 2005 with 12,536 fires, and there are still three months yet to go in the year.
The destruction is unprecedented, with several factors dovetailing:
1. HUMAN ACTIVITY
Various official sources consulted by EFE agree that between 95-98 percent of the fires spreading in the Pantanal are of human origin.
"Somebody is using fire for different ends and, with the weather conditions we have, that fire spreads extremely widely, quickly and is difficult to control," Alexandre Pereira, an environmental analyst for Ibama Prevfogo, told EFE.
Among the hypotheses on the human origin of the fires is that some people are setting the blazes to clear land quickly and transform it into new zones for livestock and crop raising.
The Brazilian Federal Police are investigating at least four farms or ranches after finding indications that some fires began on their land and caused the destruction of some 33,000 hectares (about 82,000 acres) in the Pantanal.
According to government figures, approximately 95 percent of the Brazilian Pantanal's land area is private property on which livestock raising is the main economic activity, and just 4.6 percent is land that is being preserved in its natural state.
On those private lands there is a culture of using fire to burn crop residues, although that is regulated by the environmental authorities and should only occur as per a series of previously authorized criteria.
"That simply has been ignored and abandoned in recent years. In the past, the cattle raisers were using many more control practices and that reduced the number of forest fires quite a lot," said Carlos Roberto Padovani, a Pantanal researcher with the Brazilian Agricultural Research Company (Embrapa).
2. CLIMATE CHANGE: THE WORST DROUGHT IN ALMOST HALF A CENTURY
This year, temperatures are exceeding the average, there is less rainfall and less flooding of the Paraguay River into the ecosystem. The result? The worst drought in 47 years.
The Paraguay River is a key element in the operation of the Pantanal's flooding mechanism, and when it rises huge areas of the zone are inundated, but now the region is in a critical situation because the river is at historically low levels.
Experts warn that one of the consequences of climate change could be extremely long dry periods and rainfall that is not as widespread in the region.
"And that is what we're seeing in the last two years in the Pantanal. It's already happening, as science had predicted several years ago," Julio Cesar Sampaio, the head of the World Wildlife Fund's Pantanal initiative, told EFE.
3. A LARGE QUANTITY OF DRY AND EXPOSED ORGANIC MATERIAL
The drought has caused many areas in the Pantanal that historically became flooded to have not received enough water, thus causing the vegetation that grows there to die and dry out.
"Those regions have been accumulating organic material and aquatic vegetation for decades and the exposure of all that material has created a very large amount of biomass" in the region, Padovani told EFE.
The biomass has dried out and has become a dangerous fuel that fires, when they break out, feed on.
4. INCREASING DEFORESTATION IN THE AMAZON REGION
The Pantanal, just like the Amazon, has also been suffering from deforestation in recent decades.
According to figures from the MapBiomas project, the ecosystem lost about 12 percent of its native vegetation between 1985 and 2019.
According to the project, between January and July 2020 a total of 14,093 hectares (about 36,000 acres) were deforested, almost double the area destroyed during the same period last year.
Different studies also link the drought in the Pantanal to the increase in deforestation in the Amazon, which last year shot up by 85 percent and in 2020 is continuing to occur at an alarming rate.
That is due to a part of the moisture that the Pantanal receives coming from the world's largest tropical forest via a phenomenon known as "flying rivers."
The term refers to the masses of air loaded with water vapor that move in from the Atlantic Ocean, brought by the trade winds to the Amazon, and then continue moving southwards, passing through the Pantanal.
"There's an association between the increase in deforestation and the reduction of rainfall. We need the Amazon to create rain in South America," Sampaio said.
5. BOLSONARO'S ANTI-ECOLOGICAL RHETORIC
Meanwhile, Bolsonaro, Brazil's extreme rightist leader, has downplayed the seriousness of the catastrophe and attributed it to adverse weather conditions during the speech he gave at the recent United Nations General Assembly.
"(The fires) are the inevitable consequences of high local temperature, added to the accumulation of organic mass that is decomposing," he said.
The president's speech touted agricultural activity in the region and complained that Brazil is the victim of a "brutal disinformation campaign" regarding his environmental policy.
Non-governmental organizations and some European governments blame the increase in the destruction of the Amazon and the Pantanal on the Bolsonaro administration's policies, which have included reducing the budgets of state-funded environmental entities, among other measures.
The Brazilian armed forces since July 25 have been acting to combat the flames in the Pantanal, with a total of 936 people from assorted institutions participating, according to information provided to EFE by military sources. In contrast, some 16,000 firefighters have been dispatched to battle the California fires.