The beef we eat, from the UK to Italy, could be supplied by ranchers responsible for setting these destructive fires.
Rampant fires have engulfed the Pantanal in Brazil, one of the world’s largest tropical wetlands and home to endangered species and indigenous communities.
According to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (Inpe) and the Alarmes System by LASA and the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), 1,272.050 hectares have already suffered devastation from fires this year, a figure three times higher than the recorded incidents in 2022.
Leonardo Gomes, the executive director of SOS Pantanal, is working in the field and described the situation: “The theme of fire persists in the Pantanal. Since 2019, a combination of droughts and the repercussions of climate change have led to a significant number of hot spots emerging right in the middle of November, a month that typically experiences rainfall.”
The Pantanal is home to a diverse range of wildlife, featuring more than 2,000 plant species, 174 mammals, 580 birds, 271 fish, 131 reptiles, and 57 amphibians.
Among its inhabitants are numerous vulnerable and endangered species, including the giant otter, giant anteater, giant armadillo, lowland tapir, and the world's largest parrot, the hyacinth macaw. Additionally, the Pantanal hosts the highest density of jaguars globally.
It covers an estimated 16 million hectares in total, stretching across Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia. Within Brazil, the Pantanal occupies portions of the states of Mato Grosso (35 per cent) and Mato Grosso do Sul (65 per cent).
Luciana Leite, a biologist and climate campaigner, points out that the Pantanal is an important carbon sink, playing a fundamental role in regulating the climate of South America. Leite explained: “This year, we confronted an atypical drought with rising temperatures and heat waves, and as a result, the fires returned.
"The shortage of firefighters, aircraft, machinery and expertise, posed challenges in addressing the fires, ranging from crown fires in forested areas of the biome, to peat fires that can persist and reignite without adequate post-event management and monitoring.”
In the summers of 2019 and 2020, the Pantanal experienced a shortage of rainfall, as indicated by climatologist José Marengo's study. This was attributed to a decrease in the transport of warm and humid summer air from Amazonia to the Pantanal. Instead, there was a dominance of warmer and drier air masses from subtropical latitudes, leading to a scarcity of summer rainfall during the peak of the monsoon season.
Consequently, the region endured prolonged periods of severe drought conditions. Marengo described the 2019-2020 Pantanal fires: "Fires caused on one hand by warmer air and lack of rain in the Pantanal, and on the other by the burning of areas to clear the vegetation for cattle to graze, resulted in environmental disaster.”
Steve Trent, Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) founder and CEO, said: “While so much of the wildlife and ecosystems in the Pantanal have been irrevocably destroyed, there is still time to rescue what remains. We’ve been campaigning for the EU to widen the scope of the regulation on deforestation-free products to include precious ecosystems beyond forests, to protect wetlands like the Pantanal.
The beef we eat, from the UK to Italy, could be supplied by ranchers responsible for setting these destructive fires.
“Already, land clearance in the Pantanal is accelerating, with 83 per cent of a category known as 'Other Natural Ecosystems' disappearing in 2020 to 2021 compared to the year before. Stronger regulations from the EU and Brazil are crucial to preserve what is left of the Pantanal.”
“How much of the biome do we need to lose for the world to see what is happening? In 2020, almost 30 per cent of the Pantanal biome burned. Scenes of jaguars with their paws raw went viral, as did the mockery and denialism of then-president Jair Bolsonaro,” described Leite.
“Organised civil society was essential in fighting the fires, rescuing the victimised fauna, establishing watering and feeding points for animals that survived the flames and faced the so-called 'silent hunger', crossing decimated landscapes,” she added. In 2020, fires claimed the lives of over 17 million vertebrates and released 115.6 million tonnes of CO2, exceeding the carbon emissions of Belgium for that year.
“One of the contributing factors to the rapid spread of the fire is the loss of surface water. Since 1985, the Pantanal has lost 74 per cent of its surface water,” said Leite.
Rodrigo Agostinho, the president of the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama), told The Ecologist about one of the issues affecting the region.
“The Pantanal faces a set of challenges, with its lands experiencing increasing dryness. The installation of more than 500 small hydroelectric power plants (PCHs) in the Upper Paraguay river basin, a crucial water source for the region, has altered the natural rhythm of the waters, complicating the filling of the floodplain,” he said.
Gomes said about his experience. “In the Pantanal, specific remote areas undergo rapid transitions from flooding to quick drying, in a time frame of approximately two months, leading to fires that make access to these locations impossible. The challenging conditions in these hard-to-reach regions further complicate effective management.”
Certain meteorologists attribute the surge in fires to the El Niño phenomenon, intensified by climate change. However, cattle farmers seeking to expand grazing land, a crucial economic activity in the Pantanal, may have initiated a substantial number of these fires.
According to a report by EJF a total area of 751,249.6 hectares of forest, savanna, grassland and wetland formations in the Pantanal were converted into pasture between 2010 and 2021. The estimated total cattle population in the Brazilian Pantanal stands at 3.8 million animals.
Between 2019 and 2022, an area equivalent to the size of Barcelona was deforested in the Pantanal. Unfortunately, this situation appears to be worsening, exacerbated by El Niño, climate change and the expansion of agribusiness. Approximately 12 per cent of the Pantanal’s native vegetation has vanished due to the growth of cattle farming and agricultural practices.
Agostinho said: “Although the Pantanal remains the most conserved biome in Brazil, deforestation rates have risen. The reduced humidity has led landowners to shift their investments towards agriculture.
“Land in the Pantanal is being sold at lower prices compared to those in other parts of Mato Grosso do Sul and Mato Grosso. In more humid areas, landowners are directing investments towards drainage efforts to convert land into cultivated areas,” he added.
Trent mentioned: “The beef we eat, from the UK to Italy, could be supplied by ranchers responsible for setting these destructive fires. This means the international community has a responsibility - but also an ability - to stop the Pantanal burning.
"It’s time for more regulation, including on mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence, and enhancing and meeting international climate commitments.” The local and indigenous communities are also suffering, as their land has been completely destroyed by the fires.
At least 90 per cent of the Guató indigenous land, located in the western state of Mato Grosso do Sul, was burned by the 2020 fires. This year, the fires reached the backyards of inns in the region and very close to riverside communities.
“In April, we carried out extensive planning to prevent and combat fires in the Pantanal, significantly increasing the number of firefighters. The combination of El Niño and escalating climate warming formed an explosive mix. Without our proactive preparations, the magnitude of the disaster would have been far more significant,” mentioned Agostinho.
"The Pantanal, with less than 5% of its area under protection, stands out as one of the biomes requiring urgent Conservation Units (UCs). During a conciliation hearing in March, a mandate was issued for the State Environmental Education Police (PEEA) to develop a management plan within 90 days.
“The Mato Grosso government's failure to enact a plan containing directives for fire prevention and control constitutes a non-compliance with a court order," explained Leite.
The majority of the Pantanal remains without protection, designated as private lands, and lacks targeted policies to tackle deforestation associated with cattle farming and soy production. In 2015, a decree was enacted in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, legalising cattle ranching within Permanent Protected Areas (PPAs).
In August 2022, a comparable bill was sanctioned by the state of Mato Grosso, endorsing the utilisation of Permanent Protected Areas (PPAs) and Legal Reserves (LRs) for cattle farming in the Pantanal biome.
“We are also witnessing a serious political issue centred on a jurisdictional dispute. The firefighters in Mato Grosso formally communicated with the federal government, expressing that their efforts were unwelcome. Consequently, 40 per cent of Encontro das Aguas State Park ended up in flames and destroyed," argued Leite.
Gomes highlighted his concerns: “There is an immediate need for more robust planning and increased collaboration between the federal and state governments. The coordination and cooperation among agencies, including Ibama, the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio), and the Fire Department, must be further strengthened.
“Additionally, there is a necessity for improvements in field inspections, expertise to identify the root cause of fires, and the implementation of comprehensive management policies. Another point of frustration is the failure of Conservation Units (UCs) to set a positive example. Some state parks, despite having significant potential for finance revenue, lack the necessary investment. As a result, tackling fires within these parks becomes a nearly impossible task.”
A notable and disconcerting viewpoint articulated and defended by many local figures revolves around the idea that some local authorities deliberately procrastinate in controlling forest fires.
The hypothesis suggests that such delays serve a tactical purpose, enabling authorities to declare a state of emergency. This strategic move allows them to allocate resources without being constrained by the usual bureaucratic and bidding processes required during 'normal times.' This phenomenon is known as 'the industry of fire.'
Liana O Anderson, biologist and researcher at the National Centre for Monitoring and Early Warning of Natural Disasters (Cemaden), shared with me some information about a couple of interesting projects focused on fire prevention.
The first project is the Climate Science for Service Partnership (CSSP) Brazil, in collaboration with the MetOffice , which some of the results are available at the VIEWpoint website. As one of this project’s components, they developed a likelihood of fires up to three months ahead, which indicates priority areas.
It serves as a valuable information source for guiding planning efforts to proactively prevent fire disasters. “This product helps and shows when conditions tend to worsen, triggering the necessary mobilisations,” said Liana.
Another interesting project associated with fire prevention involves the launch of the educational book titled É Fogo!, designed for education practitioners and is adapted to schools, associations and organisations interested in developing activities related to fire risk and impacts understanding and prevention.
"The primary goal is to convert local institutions into miniature "Cemadens," serving as small research units equipped with tailored scientific methodologies for the general public. These units are specifically geared towards children and young individuals, empowering them to generate data and information.
Through this process, the aim is to create awareness, self-protection skills, and reflective capacities. “I am confident that these preventive tools can gradually reverse the widespread fire scenarios in the country. These efforts are dedicated to educating and informing individuals and institutions while also generating scientific information to support informed decision-making,” added Liana.
Marengo, the general coordinator for research at Cemaden, shared his insights through the findings of his studies. He mentioned that the expansion of agriculture, cattle farming, fishing and tourism should follow sustainable practices to ensure the preservation of the Pantanal. If the current trajectory of climate and land-management practices continues, the Pantanal would be at risk of disappearing.
He suggested that embracing anti-environmental policies could exacerbate this situation. The profound impacts of climate change are mostly felt in fragile ecosystems and the world's most impoverished communities. To avert catastrophic consequences, urgent global action is imperative in the coming decades, requiring drastic changes by 2050 in alignment with the goals outlined in the Paris Agreement.
Trent delivers a message to both Brazil and the global community: “Collective action should have been taken years ago to protect this one-of-a-kind wetland, but it isn’t too late. Now is the moment for global leaders to step up and do what is needed to meet their climate commitments, ending the climate crisis before crucial ecosystems like the Pantanal disappear forever.”
Monica Piccinini is a freelance writer, focused on environmental, health and human rights issues.