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Pantanal wildfires continue to rage out of control

. Sep 15, 2020
pantanal fires deforestation Photo: Mayke Toscano/Secom/MT

The worst largest wetland region is experiencing its worst tragedy in decades. In 2020, almost 17 percent of the native vegetation in Brazil’s Pantanal biome has been destroyed by thousands of uncontrolled wildfires — an area bigger than the entire territory of Israel. Until Sunday, 14,500 fires had been recorded in the region this year alone — a 210-percent increase from 2019. The situation is so bad that the federal government has declared a state of emergency in the state of Mato Grosso.

The Pantanal region harbors over 2,000 plant species and 1,000 animal species — some of which are unique to the area. It is home to one of South America’s most important river basins and is a massive source of drinking water and humidity for animals and forests. “The region has an enormous capacity to absorb carbon‚ which makes it even more important in the context of climate change,” says Geraldo Damasceno Jr., a professor at the Biology Institute at the Federal University of Mato Grosso do Sul.

</p> <p>We <a href="https://brazilian.report/environment/2020/07/28/brazil-pantanal-wetland-in-flames-during-harsh-drought/">first reported about the current crisis</a> in July — and things have only worsened then, as a result of severe droughts combined with rampant deforestation and the rapid expansion of agriculture into forest areas. Areas that were supposed to be flooded are now covered by dried-out vegetation — which ends up becoming fuel for wildfires.&nbsp;</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="1024" height="684" src="https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/dry-pantanal-1024x684.jpg" alt="dry pantanal" class="wp-image-49610" srcset="https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/dry-pantanal-1024x684.jpg 1024w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/dry-pantanal-300x200.jpg 300w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/dry-pantanal-768x513.jpg 768w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/dry-pantanal-1536x1025.jpg 1536w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/dry-pantanal-scaled.jpg 2048w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/dry-pantanal-610x407.jpg 610w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/dry-pantanal-600x401.jpg 600w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>Photo: Lucas Ninno/TBR</figcaption></figure> <p>In July (which is usually the peak of the wet season), water levels were at the lowest point in 47 years, according to authorities. Rainfall volume was down 40 percent from the average of the last decade. It remains uncertain whether this phenomenon is just an anomaly or if we are dealing with another example of the deep consequences of climate change —&nbsp;something experts thought would only be felt decades from now.&nbsp;</p> <p>Moreover, data from the National Institute for Space Research (Inpe) shows that 2020 was the year with most wildfires dating back to the 1990s, when the institute developed the current platform to monitor forest fires.</p> <p>The environmental crisis will be hard to contain for at least another month, as rainfall is only expected to begin in October. &#8220;This year, however, they could start later due to the weather conditions,&#8221; said biologist Carlos Padovani, of the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa).</p> <iframe src="https://open.spotify.com/embed-podcast/episode/7jUVJ6KHoMzuHQcd4Fd9PN" width="100%" height="232" frameborder="0" allowtransparency="true" allow="encrypted-media"></iframe> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>Have wildfires become the &#8216;new normal&#8217;?</h2> <p>Just one year after Brazil faced an international crisis caused by massive wildfires in the Amazon region, the country finds itself riddled with yet another environmental crisis. And experts fear these uncontrollable wildfires will become a&nbsp; regular feature of Brazilian life, the result of decades of unregulated agricultural expansion, which have caused anomalies in rain cycles.</p> <p>As a matter of fact, the Pantanal crisis has everything to do with Amazon deforestation. The destruction of the rainforest affects the &#8220;<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iv7AUoheeQs">flying rivers</a>&#8221; phenomenon, a movement of large quantities of water vapor transported in the atmosphere from the Amazon Basin to other parts of South America. </p> <p>We can say that the Amazon gives life to almost all biomes in the continent, but in H1 2020, over 3,000 square kilometers of rainforest were placed under deforestation alert — the largest in five years.&nbsp;</p> <p>While deforestation rates have increased over the past decades, the Jair Bolsonaro administration&#8217;s <a href="https://brazilian.report/environment/2019/12/18/bolsonaro-year-1-brazil-becomes-environment-bogeyman/">laissez-faire approach</a> to environmental regulations has seriously increased the numbers. And things are unlikely to improve, as the government plans to <a href="https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/ambiente/2020/09/apesar-de-incendios-governo-corta-orcamento-do-ibama-e-icmbio-em-2021.shtml">reduce the budget for environmental protection agencies</a> in 2021, a decision that will further hamper an already-feeble law enforcement framework.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="1024" height="683" src="https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/pantanal-1024x683.jpg" alt="pantanal" class="wp-image-49601" srcset="https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/pantanal-1024x683.jpg 1024w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/pantanal-300x200.jpg 300w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/pantanal-768x513.jpg 768w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/pantanal-1536x1025.jpg 1536w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/pantanal-scaled.jpg 2048w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/pantanal-610x407.jpg 610w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/pantanal-600x400.jpg 600w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>Photo: Lucas Ninno/TBR</figcaption></figure> <h2>Agriculture expands to the detriment of forests</h2> <p>Experts say agribusiness is the main culprit for deforestation in the Pantanal region. In 2019, Congress allowed landowners to exploit up to 80 percent of their properties — establishing preservation requirements of only 20 percent (in the Amazon region, on the other hand, 80 percent of farms must remain intact).&nbsp;</p> <p>Despite laxer regulations, a survey by state prosecutors in Mato Grosso do Sul showed that at least 40 percent of deforestation in the region is completely illegal.&nbsp;</p> <p>According to NGO SOS Pantanal, 15 percent of the biome&#8217;s land has been converted into pastures by local landowners. In the past, cattle would occupy certain areas during the dry season, but ranchers would move them by the time the wet season began. However,&nbsp; as rainfall decreases, producers are extending their use of land for the plantation of exotic pastures — something that severely impacts local biodiversity.</p> <p>Back in 2006, NGO Conservação Internacional (CI-Brasil) published a <a href="https://reporterbrasil.org.br/2006/01/expansao-do-agronegocio-oculta-pesado-custo-ambiental-para-o-pais/">study</a> warning that the unchecked expansion of farming and ranching in the Pantanal would &#8220;destroy the biome in a 45-year period,&#8221; considering an average destruction rate of 2.3 percent a year.</p> <p>Fourteen years have gone by — and the climate crisis seems only to have become more severe.

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Renato Alves

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

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