- Fires have reignited in the Pantanal region of South America, the world’s largest tropical wetland, a year after it lost 30% of its biome to the catastrophic fires of 2020.
- With more than 700,000 hectares (1.7 million acres) of the Pantanal already burned, some experts say this year’s fires could be nearly as devastating as last year’s if the situation is not carefully managed and the current fires are not contained.
- Others are not as concerned, noting that fire is part of the natural ecological process in the Pantanal, and that this year’s fires aren’t nearly as damaging or substantial as last year’s.
- One marked difference between 2020 and 2021 is this year’s increased efforts to fight the fires, with government agencies, NGOs and communities working together to protect the Pantanal.
The fires that tore through South America’s Pantanal region in 2020, destroying 30% of its area, are still scorched in memory. And now, the world’s largest wetland that fans out across Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay is burning again.
Scientists are still trying to quantify the full extent of the damage of the 2020 fires, considered the worst in the Pantanal’s history. But it’s estimated that it may have impacted 65 million native vertebrates, including iconic species like jaguars (Panthera onca) and giant anteaters (Myrmecophaga tridactyla), as well as about 4 billion invertebrates.
As this year’s fire season kicks off, some experts are concerned about its cumulative impacts with the 2020 fires. In August, more than 1,500 fires were detected in the Brazilian section of the Pantanal, according to data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE). Most are believed to have been set off by humans, either accidentally or intentionally. The ongoing drought in the region has created “the perfect landscape for fires,” said Heideger Lima do Nascimento, a biologist at the NGO Chalana Esperança.
It’s estimated that the fires have burned more than 700,000 hectares (1.7 million acres) across the Pantanal region in the aggregate period between January and August this year, the second largest in a decade, according to data compiled by the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). The extension of this year’s fires — also endorsed by the Instituto SOS Pantanal — shows that this is again “an atypical year in the volume of fires,” URFJ climatologist Renata Libonati told Brazilian newspaper O Globo.
While the fires are not currently as big as last year’s, Nascimento said there’s a possibility that the burned area will be “even larger than last year, but in a fractional way due to the different dynamics of the fire.”
“When the fire starts, it never stays in the same place,” Nascimento told Mongabay in an interview via phone and text messages. “It always spreads. “So instead of one big fire … we have several smaller ones that spread out more and more.”
Nascimento, who recently spent time fighting the fires near the Transpantaneira, the main road that crosses through the Pantanal, took a series of dramatic photographs that showed red flames licking through a landscape of trees and low-lying vegetation. The images showed planes flying overhead, dropping water onto the fires while firefighters battled the flames on the ground.
One of the hardest things Nascimento saw was the “despair of animals fleeing the fire,” he said. At one point, he said, he noticed a yacare caiman (Caiman yacare) diving into a swimming pool on private property to escape the smoke and flames.
The Pantanal is a wetland biome that sprawls across nearly 19 million hectares (47 million acres) — an area larger than the U.S. state of Florida — and consists of grasslands, waterways and islands. The region, which has several conservation areas listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, boasts one of the highest concentrations of wildlife in South America. It’s home to a range of rare and threatened species, including the giant otter (Pteronura brasiliensis), hyacinth macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus) and maned wolf (Chrysocyon brachyurus).
Nascimento said he’s troubled about this year’s fires, calling them “very abnormal.” But other experts don’t share the same level of concern, noting that this year’s fires are much smaller and less substantial than last year’s. Despite these differing opinions, most experts do seem to agree that human-induced climate change has played a large part in making things drier and more fire-prone, and that government agencies, NGOs and communities need to continue working together to help protect the Pantanal from catastrophic fire events like the one in 2020.
‘A long war’
While the Pantanal is still relatively untouched by agricultural activity, cattle ranching and other farming practices have taken over about 16% of the area, according to a previous Mongabay article. There’s also an increasing number of soy farms moving into the area, which has caused an uptick in agrochemicals that are polluting the Pantanal’s waterways.
The smoke from this year’s fires across the Pantanal is also causing problems in nearby urban areas, including the city of Corumbá, which became shrouded in smoke when a fire erupted in the Pantanal near the city’s port. Marcelo Lunes, the city’s mayor, made an emotional plea for help to the government in a statement, saying that Corumbá’s inhabitants “cannot and will not sit idly by waiting for a solution.”
There are also fires beyond the Pantanal’s borders. Last week, news emerged that fires had started in the Parque Altamiro de Moura Pacheco in the nearby city of Goiânia, threatening a key conservation area and a reservoir that supplies water to the city.
Recent rainfall helped extinguish some of the flames in the Pantanal and nearby areas, but there are still plenty of active blazes keeping firefighters busy. For instance, fires are still burning in the Parque Nacional do Encontro das Águas, a state park inside the Pantanal that is known to be one of the largest jaguar refuges, according to local firefighters.
Agnaldo Pereira de Souza, operational director of the military fire department in Brazil’s state of Mato Grosso, said the fires in the state park are burning underground, which makes it difficult for emergency vehicles to access the area.
According to a recent essay published in Perspectives in Ecology and Conservation, the Pantanal is considered a “fire-dependent” ecosystem, meaning that some plants and animals have adapted to survive, and even to thrive, in fire conditions. However, the authors of this essay also suggest that the ongoing drought and land use changes are making severe fire events increasingly common, and lessening the region’s resilience.
Nascimento said the battle to extinguish this year’s fires is part of “a long war.”
“The enemy is not the fire,” he said. “The fire is [the] consequence. The real enemy is the large and prolonged drought that causes fire, which should be something natural, but is above what the environment can support.”
Divided opinions on this year’s fires impact
But there are varying opinions about the severity of this year’s fires. Alice Thuault, deputy director of the Instituto Centro de Vida (ICV), a nonprofit environmental civil society organization in Mato Grosso, said that while human-caused fires in the Pantanal are concerning, the current fires are burning in less than 10% of the area burned last year.
“What we’ve been seeing this year is clearly a reduction in the amount of fires,” Thuault told Mongabay in a Zoom interview. “It’s not the same as last year.”
She added that at this time last year, about 1.76 million hectares (4.35 million acres) had already burned, making the situation 10 times more critical than it is this year.
Fernando Tortato, a conservation scientist for Panthera’s jaguar program, said he’s also not alarmed, noting that fires are part of the ecological process in the Pantanal, and that it’s even normal for 8-10% of the region to burn each year.
“In the Amazon, fires are not part of the ecological process, but in the Pantanal we need fires,” he said by phone. “It’s impossible to keep the Pantanal without fire for five years or 10 years.”
Tortato also points out that some parts of the Pantanal that burned in 2020 are undergoing regeneration. Burned landscapes are turning green again, jaguars are having cubs, and camera traps are capturing images of vertebrates that managed to survive last year’s fires, he said.
“These observations give us hope that the Pantanal continues to be a crucial area for the maintenance of biodiversity,” Tortato said.
But climate change will make the region more vulnerable to the catastrophic fires that happened last year, and the situation will need to be carefully monitored and managed, he said.
“We cannot ignore fires,” Tortato said. “I think we need to act … to avoid these normal fires turning into fires like last year. But fire is a natural condition, and this year it’s [easier to] control the fire. It’s different. We do not have winds, we have some rains, and with that it’s a calmer situation now.”
Nevertheless, Nascimento said it’s dangerous to use last year’s fires as a baseline.
“Because if we do it, we’ll start to believe the Pantanal will be safe if the fires burn less than 2020,” he said. “It’s not true. If the burned area were half of what we saw in 2020, the Pantanal will be in serious danger too. It’s not enough to decrease the burned area below [the] 2020 numbers, because 2020 was much higher than normal levels.
“Yes, the burned area is smaller than last year,” he added. “Last year we learned that we must combat the fire as soon as it arises or it’ll spread and take [over] everything. But it’s not enough. It’s just palliative.”
‘We cannot be entirely prepared’
What everyone does seem to agree upon is that the response to this year’s fires has been substantially better than last year, despite the federal government slashing funding for fire prevention and control for the second year in a row.
Federal funding has dropped to 29.7 million reais ($5.6 million) — a 35.3% decrease from 2019 — but the midwestern states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul obtained larger budgets for fire prevention and control. According to Pereira, the military fire director in Mato Grosso, the budget for firefighting efforts in the state increased from about 9.9 million reais ($1.8 million) in 2020 to 73 million reais ($13.8 million) in 2021, which allowed the state to hire 100 temporary forestry brigade members, deploy 80 vehicles and rack up about 700 hours of aircraft time to fight this year’s fires. He said this helped reduce the fires in the Pantanal in Mato Grosso by 92%.
Huesley Paulo da Silva, chief of the general staff at the military fire department in Mato Grosso do Sul, said his state also received a budget increase of 8 million reais ($1.5 million) for firefighting efforts, and with this, the state has been able to invest in more vehicles, equipment and materials.
Many NGOs have also provided ongoing funding and resources to help fight fires in the Pantanal, including Panthera, Chalana Esperança, SOS Pantanal, Aecopan, Ecotropica, GRAD, Instituto Homem Pantaneiro, and Ampara Silvestre. Their continued efforts have also made a big difference, experts say.
There are also efforts being made by the State Public Ministry in Mato Grosso to determine the origin of last year’s fires so officials can work with landowners and communities to help prevent future fires. According to a report put together by state prosecutors in Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul, nearly 60% of last year’s fires began on farms, while 18% began 150 meters (500 feet) from roads, 22% near rivers, and about 2.5% near electricity lines.
“We know we need to work with the farm[er]s,” Luciano Loubet, a state prosecutor in Mato Grosso do Sul involved in the report, told Mongabay in Zoom interview. He said the states are working to implement warning systems so that farmers can be alerted if a fire breaks out on their property, and they’re also helping to train farm employees to fight fires if there is an outbreak and educating farms about the right time and method to use fire to clean up their properties.
According to Nascimento, the only reason this year’s fires have not escalated to the level of last year’s fires is early intervention. For instance, he said that firefighting efforts helped prevent the current fire in the Parque Nacional Encontro das Águas from crossing the river and spreading into Porto Jofre.
“We have more equipment, more people but … we cannot be entirely prepared for where this fire will spread,” he said. “Even when you respond quickly, it’s difficult to be [prepared] for everything that will happen.”
CORRECTION (09/23/21): This article was updated to clarify the source of the term “fire-dependent” when referring to the Pantanal.
Pivello, V. R., Vieira, I., Christianini, A. V., Ribeiro, D. B., Da Silva Menezes, L., Berlinck, C. N., … Overbeck, G. E. (2021). Understanding Brazil’s catastrophic fires: Causes, consequences and policy needed to prevent future tragedies. Perspectives in Ecology and Conservation, 19(3), 233-255. doi:10.1016/j.pecon.2021.06.005
Banner image caption: A firefighter uses a water pump to try and combat flames around the Pantanal’s Transpantaneira on August 31. Image by Heideger Nascimento /Chalana Esperança.
Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.
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