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Fire burns Pantanal’s upland heart and threatens nature’s fragile balance

  • After spreading for 9 months across the biodiverse Brazilian Pantanal wetlands, fires have reached the Amolar Mountains. This upland area is at the heart of the ecosystem and shelters traditional communities like Barra de São Lourenço.
  • Humans and animals, who thrive on the Pantanal’s seasonal cycle of rising and ebbing floods, now see their way of life menaced by an unprecedented wave of drought and fire.
  • The region’s inhabitants are already suffering from air and water contamination due to smoke and soot, and dread the fires’ aftermath. With the uplands devastated by the blazes, jaguars, other mammals and birds won’t have anywhere to flee during the next cycle of annual floods.
  • “For me, being a ‘pantaneira’ is loving each stick, each tree, each bird. Is feeling part of it,” says resident Leonida Aires de Souza. But now that much of this remote area has burned, the future is uncertain.
About 50 firefighters took on the blazes in the Amolar Mountains. Image by André Zumak/IHP.

“It has been a hard day. We are in the middle of a fight against the fire in one of the most emblematic communities of [the] Pantanal. For the first time in nine months, the fire is getting close to the houses, threatening people’s lives,” André Luiz Siqueira told this journalist in a rushed Whatsapp audio recording.

The director-president of the NGO Ecoa was in Campo Grande, the capital of Mato Grosso do Sul, giving logistic support to nearly twenty firemen struggling to fight the flames in the Barra de São Lourenço community, along the Paraguai River.

At the same time, Denir Marques was rescuing his 80-year-old mother, nearly forced to drag her from her home. “The fire was close and the wind was really strong, and she didn’t want to get out. Lucky the firemen were able to save her house,” he says.

The scenes described by Siqueira and Marques happened on September 22. No one was hurt, thanks to the joint effort of volunteer firefighters who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with professional fire brigades from state and federal environmental agencies.

More than two weeks later, however, and the fires were still burning on the far side of the Paraguai River in the Amolar Mountains. According to the NGO the Man of Pantanal’s Institute (IHP), the fires were only controlled by mid-October after 90% of the area was  consumed by the blazes (120.000 square kilometers or 2.9 million acres).

In the wake of this year’s devastating Pantanal fires, the environment is likely to remain inhospitable. Image by André Zumak/IHP.

Eyewitness to a conflagration

The Pantanal is the world’s largest tropical wetland and it straddles the borders of Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia. Brazil contains the lion’s share of habitat, with the ecosystem spreading over Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul states, in the Brazilian central-west.

Barra de São Lourenço is at the heart of this biodiverse territory — sitting on the border of the two Brazilian states, next to Matogrossense Pantanal National Park, and just a few kilometers from the frontier with Bolívia. The village, composed of just 25 families, sits at the confluence of the Cuiabá and Paraguay rivers, a hard to access area, reachable only by a five hour boat trip from the city of Corumbá.

“Some people say we are crazy for living here, in the middle of the bush. In the flood season, there are tons of mosquitoes. But, for me, being a ‘pantaneira’ is loving each stick, each tree, each bird. Is feeling part of it,” says Leonida Aires de Souza, president of the Renascer Women’s Association and a Barra de São Lourenço resident.

This deep sense of belonging, explains Siqueira, is firmly anchored in the founding of this community. “Barra de São Lourenço is a mixture of the cultures, [coming] from the descendants of the black slaves, the Indigenous guató and the survivors of the Paraguay War. They are the traditional Pantanal’s population,” he states.

The war Siqueira refers to was the worst armed conflict in South America, fought from 1864 to 1870 between troops from Paraguay and the Triple Alliance, formed by Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. The Indigenous guatós, for their turn, were among the original inhabitants of the Pantanal, along with the Bororo, Paiaguá, Guaikuru and Kayapó Indigenous groups.

Nowadays the guatós populate two Indigenous territories. One is located on Ínsua Island, a few kilometers from Barra de São Lourenço, and was not harmed by the fire. The other Indigenous reserve is the Baía dos Guató, around 200 kilometers away from there, and it had almost its entire area destroyed by this year’s fire.

“My grandmother was a guató,” says resident Denir Marques, proudly. Amid the mix of cultures, some Indigenous traditions remain strong in São Lourenço, including a handcraft in which an aquatic plant called aguapé is braided into beautiful baskets and hats. That art, along with fish and shellfish, is sold to tourists who come from Corumbá and travel up River Paraguai. In the dry season, the people plant watermelon, corn and cassava. During the flood time, they use a technique, called jirau, to increase the height of their houses with timber structures in order to escape the rising water. Now everyone wonders how the aftermath of the fires will impact these livelihoods and activities.

The Pantanal’s lowlands and uplands are inextricably and ecologically linked. During the flood season, for example, jaguars move from the wet lowlands into the Amolar Mountains. Image by Haroldo Palo Jr./IHP.

People and jaguars, in tune with the seasons

In the Pantanal, everyone follows the rhythmic seasonal cycle of floods (occurring from April to June) and their ebb (happening from July to December).

At the same time of year that the São Lourenço village dwellers elevate their houses, the animals from the National Park move from the wet bottomlands to the higher ground of the Amolar Mountains.

“Ninety percent of the national park is formed by lowlands that flood in the rainy season. So they [the wildlife] go to the mountains. When it gets drier, they come back to the park. It all works in a very balanced way. That is why the Amolar Mountains and the national park are both considered a natural heritage of humanity,” says Letícia Larcher, who has a doctorate in Ecology. According to the Mato Grosso Fire Department Command, 19.600 hectares (48.432 acres) have already been burnt in the national park, which represents 14% of its territory.

Big, far roaming mammals, especially jaguars (Panthera onca), are the most likely to move from one locale to the other. As a result, the Amolar Mountains possess the world’s second highest P. onca density; in one particular mountainous area, there are an average of ten jaguars per 100 square kilometers (38.6 square miles). Porto Jofre, 100 kilometers (62 miles) to the northeast, boasts the highest density anywhere, with 12.3 jaguars for each 100 km².

The Amolar Mountains are located to the east of the Brazil-Bolivia border: 2020’s burned areas of the Pantanal are shown. Image courtesy of the Laboratory for Environmental Satellite Applications (Lasa) from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

“Fortunately, we didn’t find any dead jaguars so far. They may have run to the protected areas of the Bolivian Chaco,” suggests Larcher, the technical coordinator from IHP, the institute that manages the four Private Natural Heritage Reserves (RPPNs) that protect the Amolar Mountains — all the RPPNs were hit by the fire.

Besides the jaguar, the Amolar Mountains are home to other mammals under threat of extinction, like the Brazilian tapir (Tapirus terrestris), the queixada (Tayassu pecari, a species of pig), the tamanduá-bandeira (Myrmecophaga tridactyla, an anteater species), the tatu-canastra (Priodontes Maximus, a type of armadillo), and the ariranha (Pteronura brasiliensis, from the otter subfamily), along with the mutum de penacho (Crax fasciolata, a bird species). Of these animals the ariranha, or giant otter, is the most at risk, receiving an Endangered listing from the IUCN.

Volunteer and professional firefighters joined forces to combat the mountain blazes. Image courtesy of Ecoa.

Climate change worsens fires?

Over recent weeks, about fifty men have struggled to curb the area’s blazes. But propelled by high winds, the flames were so strong they could “jump” over 40-meter (130-feet) wide containment lines — areas intentionally burned over by firefighters to deny the fires fuel to feed on.

“I am 53 years old and I was born here. I have seen huge droughts, but I had never seen a fire with such intensity,” says Leonida Aires de Souza. “It is the first time since 1974 that we don’t have a flood,” adds Marques.

According to biologist Débora Calheiros, annual rains have been below average regionally since 2010 — with 2019 and 2020 especially dry. In her view, the Pantanal may already be feeling the impacts of global warming.

“In this part of Brazil, climate change tends to let the weather [get] drier, with poorly distributed rains. In the face of it, the federal government should be working on prevention. But it is doing exactly the opposite. It has dismantled the [nation’s] environmental policy and even extinguished the Secretary of Climate Change and Forests,” notes researcher Calheiros, who has been studying Pantanal river and flood ecology for 30 years.

Larcher suggests that the unprecedented Brazilian fires result from the government’s failure to police environmental crimes across the nation, especially in the Amazon rainforest and Cerrado savanna; the Pantanal wetlands are a transitional zone between those two biomes. “The Amazon deforestation decreases the amount of rain that reaches Pantanal. And there are areas of the Cerrado, which shelter the headwaters of the main Pantanal rivers, which are totally devastated. Everything is interconnected,” Larcher points out.

Add to all these complex problems the reckless and even criminal actions of landgrabbers, irresponsible ranchers and farmers — who reportedly have set many Pantanal fires — and Brazil is looking at a formula for disaster, and one that may intensify in future.

“Everyone knows that since 2019 it has not been raining, [but still] people are setting fires to renew their pastures. Even with the [Bolsonaro government] decree forbidding it. It is a crime,” says Ecoa’s Siqueira.

In Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul, ranchers often burn degraded pastures to renew grasses and reduce insect pests. But the burning for agricultural purposes is permitted only during the rainy season, and only with authorization from the State Secretariat for the Environment. In July, 2020, as a result of international pressure, the ban on fires was reinforced by a federal decree and moratorium on burning across the Pantanal and Amazon for 120 days.

That ban, however, didn’t have any practical effect. From July to September, Pantanal fires increased by 210%, soaring from 5,071 hotspots in 2019 to 15,725 hotspots in 2020, according to the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research (INPE). Estimates are that over 3.3 million hectares (8.1 million acres) of Pantanal have gone up in flames so far this year. That’s about 22% of the entire region, and approximately six and a half times the size of Grand Canyon National Park. Reports show that most of the fires originated on private property.

Long-time inhabitants of the Amolar Mountains say they have never seen fires as fierce as those that raged this year, threatening Barra do São Lourenço. Image courtesy of Ecoa.

Fire threatens future health 

Even when such widespread and devastating fires end, their effects may be felt for a long time afterward by people and wildlife. Resident Denir Marques, for example, still recalls how he felt while battling the flames in his community. “We spent days and nights fighting. Those who couldn’t stand anymore would lay down on the river shore to take some rest. I felt ill, with a headache, because the smoke was too strong.”

A study by a Federal University of Alagoas laboratory found that the air in Cuaibá, Mato Grosso’s capital, reached carbon monoxide concentrations 15 times more than what’s acceptable to human health.

“This area of Barra de São Lourenço became the epicenter of the fires, so the smoke stationed there for more than sixty days. They [Firefighters and residents] couldn’t see 100 meters ahead. No one knows the effects of it on their health, especially during a pandemic, in a community that has always been forgotten by the governments and that has precarious access to the health system,” worries Siqueira.

Air quality isn’t the only concern. According to researcher Calheiros, regional water may soon be undrinkable. Excess organic matter, infused in the ashes, speeds the proliferation of bacteria harmful to human health. “When the rains start, probably at the end of October, [conditions] will get worse as more ash will be drained into the lakes and little rivers, and then to the major ones. The governments have to act with urgency to deliver drinkable water and chlorine to those [impacted] communities.”

According to Calheiros, water contamination may also prompt fish mortality. That would aggravate the crises that began in March, as the coronavirus suffocated outback tourism. Barra de São Lourenço’s people make most of their living from selling fish, shellfish and handicrafts to community visitors. Now, of the 17 participants in the Renascer Women’s Association, only four continue working with handcrafts. “We are trying to recuperate the association so our colleagues may live from our work again, from our handcraft. That is our way of living, it is inherited from our ancestral guatós,” says Leonida Aires de Souza.

The same future uncertainty applies to wildlife. Animals not killed outright by the blazes will have to survive in denuded inhospitable habitat, with potentially poisoned waters.

“The fire burned everything, from plants to the colonies of ants and termites. Even if the plants turn green again with the rains, [too] many [habitat] pieces will be missing to have a balanced environment. We still don’t know what is going to happen with these animals, because we don’t have any study that evaluates the impacts of a fire of such dimension,” Larcher concludes.

Banner image: In the Amolar Mountains, the flames were so intense this year that they could jump fire breaks 40 meters wide. Image by André Zumak/IHP.

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