Brazil’s Pantanal wetland in flames during harsh drought

. Jul 28, 2020
Mato Grosso do Sul firefighters Mato Grosso do Sul firefighters beside road. Photo: Secom/MS

Brazil’s Pantanal region is the world’s largest floodplain, home to vast biodiversity that includes endangered animal species such as the jaguar and the blue macaw. Blessed with some of the country’s most picturesque landscapes, it is traditionally a major draw for tourists from within Brazil and abroad. But this expansive wetland is burning, suffering from more forest fires than it has seen in the last 22 years, during an exceptional drought. 

Between January 1 and July 21, the National Institute of Space Research (Inpe) recorded 3,415 fires in the region, an increase of 189 percent compared to the same period in 2019. In fact, it is the most devastating fire season since 1998, when Inpe began monitoring blazes in the Pantanal.

</p> <p>A major contributing factor to this huge uptick in fires has been a significant drop in rainfall. Throughout the biome, Inpe measured rain volume as being 50 percent below normal levels for the first five months of the year, leaving much of the vegetation dry, scorched, and highly susceptible to catch fire.&nbsp;</p> <p>Corumbá, a town situated on the Brazilian border with Bolivia, has recorded more fires than any other municipality in the country, and respiratory disease is on the rise with smoke from the blazes permeating into urban areas. In the last seven days alone, the equivalent of 34,000 football pitches were destroyed by flames in Corumbá.&nbsp;</p> <p>&#8220;We had to give priority to the places that have done the most harm to the population when fighting the fires. The smoke that covers the city and makes breathing difficult has been very bad for public health, even more so with the Covid-19 [pandemic],&#8221; said Lieutenant Colonel Luciano Lopes de Alencar, commander of the Corumbá fire department.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="1024" height="684" src="" alt="droughts pantanal" class="wp-image-49964" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 1536w, 2048w, 610w, 600w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>Dry riverbed. Photo: Lucas Ninno/TBR</figcaption></figure> <h2>Armed Forces send aircraft</h2> <p>Though they are visible, some of the Pantanal fires are in inaccessible areas, where firefighters need to reach locations by boat and by foot. On Monday, the fire brigade was given reinforcements from the military, which sent helicopters and a C-130 Hercules aircraft, equipped with an Airborne Fire Fighting System.</p> <p>The Secretary of Environment of Mato Grosso do Sul, Jaime Verruck, said that the majority of these fires were <a href="">caused by humans</a>. &#8220;We are in the middle of the worst situation in terms of drought, so the fires are likely to continue and the big problem we have is that most of the fires are caused by human action,&#8221; said Mr. Verruck.</p> <p>As a consequence, the state has requested federal support to help fight the blazes. &#8220;We are working with [Brazilian Environmental Protection Agency] Ibama, a group of about 35 firefighters, the Fire Department with two helicopters with water and also taking troops to fight the flames. As of Monday, we will have the support of C-130 airplanes from the Air Force, which have a capacity of 2,000 liters of water each,&#8221; he said.</p> <iframe src="" width="100%" height="232" frameborder="0" allowtransparency="true" allow="encrypted-media"></iframe> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>Burning bans have been flouted</h2> <p>The situation is also worrying in the neighboring state of Mato Grosso, the other Brazilian state covered by the Pantanal. From January to June 2020, 6,747 fires were recorded in Mato Grosso, almost 300 more than in 2019 (6,450) and a significant increase compared to 2018, which registered 4,383.</p> <p>This data was obtained from an interactive tool launched on July 23 by sustainability NGO Instituto Centro de Vida (ICV) to monitor blazes in the state during a state-imposed fire ban. With the increase in blazes recorded before May, the Mato Grosso state government decided to bring forward its annual ban on fires — which in previous years had begun on July 15 — and kept it in place between July 1 and September 30.</p> <p>According to the law, landowners may only burn vegetation in rural areas in order to clean and manage soil after obtaining a controlled burning permit from the state’s environmental authorities.</p> <p>The yearly ban is aimed at preventing forest fires caused by vulnerable vegetation during the dry season, and preventing respiratory problems in the population — a much more pressing concern this year as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.</p> <p>According to the ICV&#8217;s data, bringing the prohibition period forward did little to prevent a 12 percent increase in fires compared to the first 15 days of July 2019, when burning was permitted.</p> <p>With the situation also causing concern in the <a href="">Amazon rainforest</a>, on July 16 Brazil’s federal government decreed a 120-day nationwide ban on fires, in order to contain environmental and health damage.</p> <p>In Mato Grosso, the situation is most serious in the region of Poconé, 103 kilometers from state capital Cuiabá, where a large proportion of the fires were identified during a flyover by the Pantanal Fire Department. Due to the difficulty in accessing these areas, it has not yet been possible to fully identify just how much of the region has already been destroyed by the flames. According to the firefighters, the area has several isolated blazes which are difficult to reach — even for aircraft, as there are no runways or landing spots.

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Renato Alves

Renato Alves is a Brazilian journalist who has worked for Correio Braziliense and Crusoé.

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