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Fires in the world’s largest wetland turns Brazilian farmers into firefighters

Moisés and Joel Oliveira.

Moisés and Joel Oliveira, son and father, have a cattle and cassava smallholding in Poconé, a region known as the gateway to the Pantanal. Image by Sarah Brown for Mongabay.

  • Fires in 2020 ravaged an area larger than Belgium in the Brazilian Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland, killing at least 17 million animals and leaving locals without water.
  • Several initiatives by local nonprofits are taking on the challenge of protecting this unique region by educating residents about fire hazards and training Pantanal cattle ranchers as volunteer firefighters.
  • Most of the 2020 fires in the Pantanal started on private farms, according to a study, underscoring the importance of training farmers to suppress flames before they surge into wildfires.
  • Experts say fire alerts in the Pantanal are down by 91% so far this year compared to the same period in 2020, thanks to increased efforts by the state government and volunteer programs, as well as wetter weather.

Moisés Oliveira de Carmo tells of the day in 2020 when he watched a chain of flames spread sideways at the edge of his farm, melding together to create a formidable burning wall.

The wind caused the biggest problem, he says. It fanned the flames in unpredictable directions, leaving him and his family waiting anxiously to see where it would turn next, and praying it wouldn’t edge into their farm in the Furna Dois community in Poconé municipality, in the midwestern Brazilian state of Mato Grosso. They were armed with thick branches and buckets of water to beat and douse the flames, but they knew this would have been futile against the fire that towered 4 meters (13 feet) high.

Oliveira was one of hundreds of farmers affected by the record fires in 2020 in the Brazilian Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland. He was one of the fortunate few; the flames skirted around his smallholding and were eventually put out by state firefighters thinly spread across millions of hectares, trying to extinguish relentless blazes.

The damage to the Pantanal was catastrophic. In 2020, almost a third of the wetland was destroyed by fires, an area larger than Belgium. The blazes killed at least 17 million vertebrates and devastated the lives of thousands of residents. “In the largest floodplain in the world, people in the region didn’t have water to drink,” said Vinicius Silgueiro, coordinator of the Instituto Centro de Vida (the Life Center Institute), a land conservation nonprofit.

Spanning 210,000 square kilometers (81,000 square miles) across Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay, the Pantanal is the world’s largest tropical wetland and home to thousands of animal and plant species, many threatened with extinction. Image by Sarah Brown for Mongabay.

To avoid a similar disaster from happening again, local initiatives are taking on the challenge of protecting this unique region. Private teams from NGOs are collaborating with communities in the Pantanal to educate locals about fire hazards and train cattle ranchers as volunteer firefighters.

“Community and private brigades, with the support of farmers and local eco-lodges, can reduce fire response time,” Silgueiro told Mongabay by phone. “The quicker you arrive and fight the fire, the greater the control and the greater the chances of reducing the fire’s negative impacts.”

In 2009, Aliança da Terra (the Land Alliance) became Brazil’s first volunteer firefighter training program. The nonprofit educated and trained locals across the Cerrado, Brazil’s vast savanna biome, in partnership with the United States Forest Service (USFS), before dispersing teams across the Pantanal last year in response to the fires there. In the past decade, the alliance has fought more than 500 fires and trained more than 930 people, including farmers and Indigenous communities.

The combination of training from the USFS and an encyclopedic knowledge of local conditions has made the brigades highly effective in training locals and combating fires, said Caroline Nóbrega, the Aliança brigade manager. “The teams really understand what we call the science of fire,” she told Mongabay by phone.

Aliança da Terra currently has 168 farms registered with its program, helping to protect 2.2 million hectares (5.4 million acres) of native vegetation across the Pantanal and Cerrado. The brigades visit the farms to accurately assess any fire hazards and provide tailored solutions to make the property less vulnerable to burning.

One of the regions they operate in is Poconé, known as the gateway to the Pantanal. The municipality spans an area of 1.7 million hectares (4.2 million acres); more than half of this was burned to the ground in the 2020 fires, almost all of it in the Pantanal. Nearly 80% of the fires there occurred on farmland, according to a 2021 study, underscoring the importance of training farmers in fire combat to suppress small flames before they billow into wildfires. “Aliança da Terra was designed specifically for private areas,” Nóbrega said. “It’s a system where you have a highly able team that’s providing support to groups of rural producers.”

From March to May, before the fire season begins, the Aliança da Terra team in Poconé trains cattle ranchers to become volunteer firefighters, in an effort to tackle the region’s devastating blazes. Image courtesy of Aliança da Terra.
Upon completing the Aliança course, community members receive a certificate affirming that they’re ready to tackle fires as volunteers. Image courtesy of Aliança da Terra.

The team of five firefighters who operate in Poconé monitor a region of more than 400,000 hectares (988,000 acres), using drones to scan the land for signs of smoke or fire, and satellite data that generate real-time fire alerts sent to their phones. If an alert appears within their region, they’ll race to the scene to investigate it. When there are no alerts, the brigade uses the time to speak with the community about fire hazards and check that preventative measures are in place.

“Luckily, we haven’t had many fires this year in Poconé,” Eusimar Araújo, the brigade leader, tells Mongabay in the municipality. “Last year we fought 23, one of which lasted 17 days. This year, we’ve put out just one so far.”

Fire alerts across the Pantanal region have gone down over the past two years. From January to August this year, Brazil’s space agency, INPE, recorded 907 fire alerts across the Pantanal, a 62% drop from the same period the year before (2,384 fire alerts) and 91% from the same period in 2020 (10,153 alerts). In the Amazon Rainforest, which borders part of the Pantanal, fire alerts skyrocketed this year, hitting a 10-year high.

Experts attribute the reduction in fires in the Pantanal to a combination of increased state government reinforcement, wetter days, and local volunteer brigades working together to quickly combat fires. “It shows these initiatives are useful to avoid fires, as well as offering a quick response to fires while they are small,” Silgueiro said.

Community spirit to combat fires

The Aliança van rattles as brigade leader Araújo guides it down a short dirt track. He’s on one of his routine trips to meet local farmers, this time paying a visit to Oliveira.

In the lead-up to the fire season, Araújo and his team visit local farmers and eco-lodges from March to May to train locals in how to prevent and safely put out fires. They teach them how to use oxygen-removing blowers and water tanks that shoot targeted jets at flames, as well as how to make counter fires and fire breaks.

“Before, they [Oliveira and neighboring farmers] didn’t know how to manage or fight fires,” Araújo said. “They didn’t know how to avoid fire hazards on their land.”

They also didn’t work together when it came to fighting fires, he said. If a neighboring property had a fire, it was considered that particular farmer’s responsibility to put it out. Today, the farmers work together to put out any nearby flames, taming the blazes before they get out of hand.

Since last year, the team has trained 30 local volunteer firefighters in Poconé. Oliveira is one of them. He helped the brigade extinguish a large blaze last year and can now be relied on within the community to help in the event of a local fire.

Brigade leader Eusimar Araújo uses a blower to starve a fire of oxygen, helping to quickly and safely extinguish the flames. Image by Sarah Brown for Mongabay.

Two dogs run over and bark as Araújo pulls into the drive of Oliveira’s single-story farmhouse. The surrounding land is home to swaths of cassava and white Nelore cattle with their distinctive large neck humps. As Araújo and his team jump out of the van, Oliveira and his family greet them with coffee, local cheese and homemade cake.

“Araújo saved us,” said Joel Oliveira de Carmo, Moisés’s father. “It’s been so good having him and his team help us. We now know what to do if there’s a fire, we’re much safer now.”

It wasn’t easy getting locals on board in the beginning, and the team had to build up trust within the community. “We went around door to door introducing ourselves. At first, people were wary and unsure,” Araújo said. Farmers were concerned that the brigade was part of the federal environmental protection agency, IBAMA, there to fine them for any unauthorized fires. “But then when a fire came, they called us and they saw that we were there just to help,” Araújo said. “Word got around that way.”

Involving the community in fire combat reduces response time and the impact of fires on livelihoods and wildlife, said Leonardo Gomes, coordinator at SOS Pantanal, a conservation nonprofit. The group also has a volunteer firefighting program that operates in the Pantanal. “Besides the community unity, the volunteer programs end up really improving the dialog between farmers, firefighters and IBAMA,” Gomes told Mongabay by phone. “We’re all talking the same language now.

“We also notice that just having the presence of these brigades in the Pantanal — people in uniforms and participating in environmental education — creates a scenario of greater surveillance and deters people from burning land,” Gomes added.

Moisés Oliveira’s farm in Poconé was affected by fires in both 2020 and 2021. Although the flames skirted around the property, the smoke invaded the family’s home and made it uncomfortable to breathe. Image by Sarah Brown for Mongabay.
The Aliança brigade members put on protective balaclavas and prepare their equipment to practice fire training with a local farm. Image by Sarah Brown for Mongabay.

Climate change provokes fires

Wildfires in Pantanal are normal in the dry season, typically the middle months of the year, when the land goes dry. But the increasing number and severity of fires in recent years is linked to the complex interplay between climate change and human activity.

Silgueiro said almost all fires can be traced back to a human source. In 2020, nine points of origin were linked to 67.5% of everything that had burned in the Pantanal in Mato Grosso until mid-August – eight of those nine points were inside private rural properties. “There is a relationship between fire incidence and agricultural use,” Silgueiro said.

Burning is a common practice among farmers and ranchers to clear land and renew pasture. The Mato Grosso environmental agency, SEMA, authorizes controlled burning upon request and supervises the burning between November and June. To make a request, the farm must be registered on the Rural Environmental Registry (CAR), but not all of them are, which means some of the burning is unauthorized, Silgueiro said.

Between July and October, it’s strictly prohibited to burn land, except for Indigenous peoples for cultural reasons, research initiatives, or prescribed burning for fire management. Burning for any other reason during this period can incur a fine from IBAMA. However, the weakening of IBAMA’s powers under the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro, and budget cuts of 58% for firefighting, have hampered monitoring and surveillance since Bolsonaro took office at the start of 2019.

“What we’ve seen from people, especially in the last four years, is the belief that they can deforest or burn land, and nothing will happen,” Silgueiro said. “This is why the return of IBAMA is important. It’s been totally weakened under the current federal administration.” He added that while Silgueiro said Mato Grosso state authorities have increased enforcement actions, “it is not enough to tackle a problem of this magnitude.”

“The state is huge,” Silgueiro said. Mato Grosso covers an area of more than 90 million hectares (223 million acres). “So the presence of federal agencies is essential, combined and coordinated with the efforts of private and community brigades to reduce the response time.”

But while most of the fires are started by farmers, some also flare up by accident from electric cables, car accidents, and sparks from tractors, said Nóbrega, the Aliança brigade manager. “Last year, we had a lot of problems with the electric cables as a possible cause of fire,” she said. “Sometimes, outsiders start to create an image that those setting the Pantanal on fire deliberately are the Pantaneiros [Pantanal farmers]. But that isn’t always the reality.”

The immense biodiversity in the Pantanal depends on the region’s cycle of wet and dry seasons, which sees the wetland submerged for up to eight months of the year before drying out between July and November. Image by Sarah Brown for Mongabay.

Fires starting early

The fire season in the Pantanal in Mato Grosso is growing longer, which experts say is becoming the new norm in the region. “The fires started super early this year, and we were really surprised and worried,” Nóbrega. said, adding they were seeing fires as early as May. “This just didn’t happen in the past.”

“In July, we already had some fires of considerable size,” she said. “Not huge fires, but if they weren’t put out so quickly, they would have had the potential to become much bigger.”

The wet season in the Pantanal runs from November to April, when 40% of the land is flooded. The floodplains are usually submerged for as long as eight months of the year, as deep as 2 m (nearly 7 ft). However, this has changed in recent years, especially since 2019, which saw the worst drought in the region in the past 50 years.

“For those there [in the Pantanal], these changes are obvious,” Nóbrega said. “In these flooded areas, you arrive in April and the area is dry.”

“We don’t know how long this phenomenon will last,” she added. “The Pantanal today is in an absolutely atypical situation of drought.”

The Aliança brigade members and volunteers. Sarah Brown for Mongabay

The Pantanal lost 29% of its water surface area between 1988 and 2018, according to MapBiomas, a collaborative mapping initiative. A study published in 2016 concluded that by the end of the century, the Pantanal may experience a possible increase in average temperature of 4-7° Celsius (7.2-12.6° Fahrenheit) and up to 30% further water loss in the region.

“Climate change is real and unfortunately we will probably see scenes like [those in 2020] again,” Silgueiro said. “It’s essential that funds are established to provide emergency support to the population there quickly. The Pantanal is rich in biodiversity, but we also need to protect the local culture and ensure their survival.”

As the Pantanal succumbs to the climate impacts of ever more intense droughts and a shrinking water surface area, monitoring and fire prevention actions before the dry season are increasingly important to adapt to this new reality, Silgueiro said.

The months ahead could be challenging for the Pantanal, as September and October typically see a high number of fire alerts. INPE, the space agency, registered 8,106 alerts in September 2020, the highest single-month total since records began in 1998. In October 2020, INPE registered 2,856 fire alerts, the highest number for that month in more than two decades. Fire alerts for October 2021 dropped slightly to 2,515.

This year has seen an increase in rainfall, bringing some relief to the wetland. Araújo, the Poconé fire brigade leader, points to a vast swamp hidden under clusters of reeds, where dozens of caimans bask in the sun and shoulder-height storks and spoonbills tiptoe carefully through the murky water. “All of this was baked dry this time last year,” he says. “This year’s been much wetter.

“Although for how much longer, who knows,” he adds, looking at the 10-day weather forecast for high temperatures and sunshine.

 
Banner image: Moisés and Joel Oliveira, son and father, have a cattle and cassava smallholding in Poconé, a region known as the gateway to the Pantanal. Image by Sarah Brown for Mongabay.

Citations:

Marengo, J. A., Alves, L. M., & Torres, R. R. (2016). Regional climate change scenarios in the Brazilian Pantanal watershed. Climate Research, 68(2-3), 201-213. doi:10.3354/cr01324

Silgueiro, V. F., Souza, C. O., Muller, E. O., & Silva, C. J. (2021). Dimensions of the 2020 wildfire catastrophe in the Pantanal wetland: The case of the municipality of Poconé, Mato Grosso, Brazil. Research, Society and Development, 10(15). doi:10.33448/rsd-v10i15.22619

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