The uncertain future of Brazil’s Pantanal

. Oct 21, 2020
pantanal wetlands future Photo: ESB Professional/Shutterstock

The largest wetland in the world, Brazil’s Pantanal is under existential threat. A wave of fires that started three months ago has already destroyed 27 percent of the entire biome, equivalent to an area larger than Belgium. Beyond the drastic impact on the region’s flora and fauna, experts have warned that the Pantanal’s landscape and soil could now suffer irreversible changes — and local industry is set to pay its own price.

While having an abundance of water, fires are an annual occurrence in the Pantanal. This is a result of the accumulation of dry leaves and bushes during the low rainfall season in the middle of the year.

</p> <p>In 2020, however, an atypically long drought has made the biome even more susceptible to burning. Fires — predominantly started intentionally to clear areas for pasture — spread easily thanks to the high temperatures, winds, and <a href="">low relative humidity</a>. Since the beginning of the year, 33,000 square kilometers have been destroyed, more than the whole of 2019 and the highest level since 2002.</p> <p>Now, as a result of this <a href="">massive wave of fires</a>, the alteration in vegetation could cause significant changes to the biome&#8217;s energy balance. The entry of light to now cleared areas risks altering microclimates, facilitating the propagation of invasive species and irreversibly changing the composition of plant life in the region. </p> <p>The majority of the Pantanal region is found in Brazil, yet also overlaps into Paraguay and Bolivia, where it is known as the Chaco. It comprises dense forest, complex hydrography, and considerable humidity, being best known for its large <a href="">floodplains</a>, which are home to a wealth of biodiversity. The Pantanal is far from being a homogeneous biome, with each micro-region having its own specific vegetation and flood patterns.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="1024" height="684" src="" alt="research pantanal brazil deforestation 2020" class="wp-image-50096" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 1536w, 2048w, 610w, 600w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>Fires in Pantanal reached record-shattering levels. Photo: Lucas Ninno</figcaption></figure> <h2>Agribusiness and tourism to suffer economic woes</h2> <p>Environmental analyst Christian Niel Berlinck, of the Chico Mendes Biodiversity Conservation Institute (ICMBio), noted that the Pantanal has been suffering with intense drought since 2019.&nbsp;</p> <p>“The reduction of rainfall diminished the quantity of water in rivers and floodplains, leaving the <a href="">soil and vegetation extremely dry</a>. The impacts of fires cause economic damage in several sectors, from agribusiness to tourism. The transformation of the landscape and loss of biodiversity are incalculable,&#8221; he says.  </p> <iframe src="" width="100%" height="232" frameborder="0" allowtransparency="true" allow="encrypted-media"></iframe> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <p>Cátia Nunes da Cunha, a Ph.D. in ecology of vegetation in humid areas from the Max-Planck Institute in Germany, warns that the wave of fires in the Pantanal may have a further collateral effect: increasing the intensity of complex weather pattern La Niña in Brazil.&nbsp;</p> <p>“We will have dry periods [in the Pantanal] in the future. It is possible that the landscape of the Pantanal may &#8216;begin to sprout again,&#8217; as people say, but that is only looking at the green of nature. Undesirable species could be growing there, fire-resistant weeds taking the place of straw and native plants. That&#8217;s not a favorable situation.&#8221;&nbsp;</p> <p>Meanwhile, professor José Eugênio Côrtes Figueira warns that there is a need to understand the annual phenomenon of fires in the Pantanal, in order to raise awareness of the population in the fight against destroying the natural environment.</p> <p>“The fires in the Pantanal go along with those in the Amazon, the [tropical savannah] Cerrado, and other ecosystems across Brazil and the world,&#8221; he warns. &#8220;They are the prelude to an environmental disaster on an unprecedented scale that seems more imminent every day.&#8221; Mr. Figueira has spent 15 years implementing research on the dynamics of soil use, climate policy, and forest governance in coordination with various social actors in order to design shared sustainability solutions in the Pantanal.

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Renato Alves

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

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