But their efforts have been marred by soaring temperatures and gusty winds, which have made it that much more difficult to combat the flames. Meanwhile, lack of access to large swaths of the remote park has further complicated efforts to bring the blazes under control.

“It was really difficult to fight the flames, the spread of the fire was very aggressive,” the enforcemental agency source said. “There was a lot of wind and extremely high temperatures. And the vegetation is really dry. Access is difficult, too; it’s only possible to reach some parts of the park with a helicopter.”

The unique way in which fires burn in the Pantanal has also posed a challenge. While in other regions of Brazil – including the Amazon – blazes engulf vegetation and trees, fires in the Pantanal tend to burn just below the surface of the earth, fueled by peat. These low-intensity fires can burn for longer and are often particularly difficult to extinguish.

Mato Grosso state has doubled down on its efforts to combat the fires this year, employing a new monitoring system for the first time this season – but still struggled to control the flames. Faced with the surge in fires, the state declared a state of emergency in mid-September, which allowed authorities to allocate even more resources to combatting the flames. The federal government also employed its military to combat the fires in the Amazon and the Pantanal, in a costly operation dubbed Green Brazil II.

The Pantanal is home to the home to the world’s second largest population of jaguars (Panthera onca). Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

In a bid to curb slash-and-burn fires, the federal government moved to  impose a moratorium on the use of fire for agricultural purposes across the Pantanal and the Amazon in July, while Mato Grosso state also instated its annual ban earlier this year.

But critics say that the measures taken by federal and state authorities came too late to curb the destruction in the Pantanal. Despite signs early this year that signaled an intense fire season ahead, Bernadino noted there was a lack of preparation by federal authorities, making it more difficult to control the blazes.

“These actions are important,” he said. “But there was a late mobilization of resources … Controlling fires of this magnitude requires massive resources. Unfortunately, the actions taken did not reach the scale necessary to control the situation.”

Environmentalists also say friendly signals by the federal government are encouraging agricultural burning and creating a climate of impunity. President Jair Bolsonaro has routinely railed against environmental protections and has made repeated comments undermining attempts by Brazilian  courts to roll out harsher punishment for criminal burning, land-grabbing and deforestation.

The Pantanal is the world's largest wetland. Image by Ana Ionova for Mongabay.
The Pantanal on a better day. Image by Ana Ionova for Mongabay.

Under Bolsonaro’s leadership, the capacity of federal agents to combat forest fires has also been hit hard. Ibama, Brazil’s main environmental enforcement agency, has seen its funding slashed dramatically on Bolsonaro’s watch, which has curbed the scope of its fire brigade scheme, Prevfogo. Weak enforcement of environmental laws, meanwhile, has meant that perpetrators of illegal burning and deforestation often face few consequences.

“The weakening of environmental agencies ends up giving a green light to this activity,” Silgueiro said. “Because, for those who are using fire or deforesting, they don’t worry about getting a fine, they don’t worry that they will be held responsible. So it sends a message that nothing will happen to whoever does this.”

While the worst of the fires may be over for now, a weak start to the rainy season is fueling worries that more drought and destruction may lie ahead for the Pantanal. WWF’s Bernadino noted that 2021 is expected to bring “a large number of fires, given the drought of the Paraguay River, the observed trend towards high temperatures and the persistent human activity.”

The impact of this year’s unprecedented fires is not yet clear but environmentalists say the Pantanal will likely be reeling from the damage for decades. The fires have been ecologically devastating, potentially wiping out rare species of animals and leaving others without habitat. They have also devastated traditional and indigenous communities living in the region, reducing their crops to ashes and destroying their livelihoods.

“Some areas will be able to recuperate quickly,” Silgueiro said. “But others will struggle to recover. It may be a very long time before we see the same diversity that these areas once had.”


Banner image of fires burning in Pantanal Matogrossense National Park in November 2020.

Editor’s note: This story was powered by Places to Watch, a Global Forest Watch (GFW) initiative designed to quickly identify concerning forest loss around the world and catalyze further investigation of these areas. Places to Watch draws on a combination of near-real-time satellite data, automated algorithms and field intelligence to identify new areas on a monthly basis. In partnership with Mongabay, GFW is supporting data-driven journalism by providing data and maps generated by Places to Watch. Mongabay maintains complete editorial independence over the stories reported using this data.

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Article published by Morgan Erickson-Davis
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