PORTO JOFRE, Brazil – Only fragile wisps of freshly-sprouted grass dotted the charred plot of farmland in Brazil’s Pantanal wetlands. Standing amid the ash and burnt vegetation, Eledilson Nunes de Souza lifted his hand, marking a line halfway up his chest.
“Usually, at this time of year, it’s all flooded here – the water is up to here,” the towering 43-year-old said. “But this year, the rains didn’t come.”
Just a few weeks earlier, Nunes de Souza was standing in that same field, helping a brigade of firefighters combat the wild flames that were fast approaching the Panthera Brasil conservation farm, where he has worked for the last 11 years.
“It was fire that was out of control,” he said, squinting against the baking late afternoon sun. “We did everything possible to fight it, but it still advanced.”
The farm – a nonprofit that runs jaguar conservation projects – is nestled in the remote outpost of Porto Jofre, in the Poconé municipality of Brazil’s western Mato Grosso state. Here, the Transpantaneira Highway comes to a sudden halt, interrupted by a river. Beyond, there are no major roads and the only way to explore deeper into the region is by boat.
This area, some 250 km south of the state capital of Cuiaba, is part of the world’s largest tropical wetlands, or the Pantanal. Each year, between December and March, heavy rains drench this region, flooding about 80 percent of the land. The marshes of the Pantanal sprawl nearly 210,000 square km across Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay. In Brazil, it stretches across the states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul.
The Pantanal region is home to a staggering number of plant and animal species, some of which – like the cobalt-blue hyacinth macaw – are threatened with extinction. On a recent visit to the Porto Jofre area, toucans darted from tree to tree and kaleidoscopes of bright orange butterflies swirled through the air. Deeper into the wetlands, dozens of yacare caimans (Caiman yacare) lay sprawled on the banks of marshes. A jaguar and her cub lingered on the side of the dirt road providing the area’s only access.
Alligator-like yacare caimans bask in the sun, pondering the irony of wetland fires. Image by Ana Ionova for Mongabay.
Yet the rich plant and animal biodiversity of this region has been threatened by a wave of unseasonable fires since the start of the year, which have raised alarm among environmentalists, authorities and local communities.
The bulk have been concentrated in the Corumbá municipality in Mato Grosso do Sul, and in the Poconé municipality in Mato Grosso, where the Panthera Brasil farm is located. They have consumed large swaths of several protected conservation areas, including parts of the Pantanal Matogrossense National Park.
Between Jan. 1 and Feb. 25, there were 3,139 fire alerts in Mato Grosso, satellite data from the University of Maryland show, with about a quarter occurring within areas with intact forest. Some 1,313 of the fire alerts recorded in that time frame – or about 42 percent – were in the Poconé municipality.
“These fires were completely atypical,” said Lieutenant Daniel Alves de Moura, who is part of the 1st Military Fire Brigade in Cuiaba, which was called to combat the fire in Porto Jofre in late January. “They were totally outside of what’s normal at this time.”
These recent fires in the Pantanal only deepened the damage already done last year, when a toxic combination of searing temperatures and high winds spurred unprecedented fires in October and November that engulfed at least 2.4 million hectares across the region.
“The bush fires in Pantanal were a catastrophe,” said Júlio César Sampaio, coordinator of the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) Pantanal Program. “The fires affected protected areas, communities, river-dwelling people. And, of course, a lot of animals were impacted.”
Shifting climate, reckless burning
Wildfires are not unusual in Pantanal during the dry season, when the land becomes parched and temperatures soar. But the wave of fires during what is usually the region’s wettest period took most by surprise – and local sources say it is the result of a complex interplay between changing climate patterns and reckless human behavior.
Increasingly, precipitation has become more erratic and less uniform in this region. At times, rains pour over small slices of the Pantanal, while neighboring plots of land suffer drought for months, according to Alex Trindade, environmental analyst with the Mato Grosso State Department of the Environment.
This year, changing climate patterns have come into sharp focus: when large stretches of the Pantanal should have been flooded, the region was instead experiencing a prolonged dry spell. This made it more susceptible to fires sparked by natural causes like lighting, which is common in this region.
He noted that shifts in the frequency and severity of the El Niño and La Niña weather patterns may also be playing a role in the changing climate of the Pantanal. During an El Niño phase, some parts of Brazil experience heavy rains while others suffer from prolonged spells of dry weather.
“Usually, in this time period, when fire catches, it’s extinguished right away by the rains,” said Trindade. “But we’re seeing change in the rain patterns. It’s not only the amount of rain but also the distribution of rain that’s having a huge impact.”
While El Niño events are natural,research indicates they are happening more often due to climate change. But human activity has also played a more direct role in the Pantanal fires.
Mato Grosso is an agricultural powerhouse, accounting for a huge chunk of Brazil’s soy, corn and beef production. While it is Brazil’s third largest state, it has a population of only 3 million people, spread out over an area about 10 times the size of Portugal. The vast terrain is also home to nearly 30 million heads of cattle.
For farmers, burning is a common way of clearing and renewing pastures, local sources say. There are restrictions in place aimed at controlling when burning takes place and ensuring fires that begin small don’t spiral out of control. But, in reality, this type of burning is carried out in a far more haphazard way.
Under the current system in place, the State Department of the Environment hands out authorizations and oversees the process of burning for the purpose of agricultural clearing. The agency is also in charge of punishing those who burn illegally without a permit.
“If they detect that you are using fire without authorization, they will give you a fine,” Sampaio said. “But it’s very rare. It’s not a frequent situation because there’s not enough people to monitor this.”
Even when farmers do have authorization to clear their land with fire, there is not enough oversight and support to ensure they employ best practices, Sampaio added. They are mostly left to their own devices, with no detailed guidance on when and how to burn in order to avoid unintentional wildfires.
“Burning is a way for the farmer to clear land cheaply and efficiently,” said Alves de Moura. “And the fires we see happening most often are those that start like this and go out of control.”
The Brazilian Pantanal, pockmarked by scorched earth. Image by Ana Ionova for Mongabay.
There are also cases of illegal burning by land-grabbers looking to turn a profit by deforesting and selling land. Others, meanwhile, are looking to expand their agricultural holdings by converting land to cattle pastures or soy fields.
Burning is also practiced by some indigenous communities who use fire to clear plots of land for farming or to drive animals out into the open when hunting, local sources said. But while in the past a more humid climate prevented the fire from spreading, the flames now rage out of control with increasing ease and frequency.
Ultimately, the majority of fires in the Pantanal can be traced back to a human source, said Coronel Paulo Andre da Silva Barroso, executive secretary of the Mato Grosso State Fire Management Committee and president of the National Forest Fire Protection Committee.
“At times it’s intentional and at times it’s carelessness,” he said. “They think they can control it, they don’t believe it will happen, they do it at the wrong moment.And then it spirals out of control.”
Labyrinth of water
While authorities mobilized to combat the flames engulfing the Pantanal in late January and early February, tackling the wildfires in this region was fraught with challenges. For one, firefighters were caught largely unprepared for the unseasonal fires, as the state normally disassembles its response forces in December and enters a phase of planning for the next fire season.
“These fires…caught us with a certain element of surprise,” Barroso said. “Because they occurred in a period when we normally have a lot of rain and very few fires.”
There are also few permanent posts in the more remote areas of the massive state, with fire-fighting units in just 22 out of Mato Grosso’s 140 municipalities. During the critical dry period from July to October, temporary units are dispatched to areas that are prone to wildfires. But outside of that time window, forces are only dispatched in response to crises, according to Alves de Moura.
“Unfortunately, we’re still very reactive,” said Alves de Moura. “We respond to fire where there is a need. We don’t do very much about prevention.”
Limited resources also mean that authorities must choose which fires to tackle, often focusing on state or federal conservation units that are under protection due to their particularly diverse ecology. Some areas outside those units, meanwhile, are left to burn.
Barroso noted that last year’s crisis in the region led to more resources for the state, which now plans to expand the number of fixed fire brigade units to 20 additional municipalities during the critical fire season. “I expect that we will have a better result this year,” he said.
The unique way in which fires burn in the Pantanal, meanwhile, makes it even harder to combat the flames, Alves de Moura noted. While in other regions of Brazil – including the Amazon – the flames engulf vegetation and trees, fires in the Pantanal tend to burn just below the surface of the earth, fueled by tightly-packed layers of decomposed, combustible vegetation called peat. And peat fires are particularly difficult to extinguish.
“Sometimes you’re putting out the same fire two or three times,” said Alves de Moura. “You think it’s out and you come back only to see smoke again.”
Combatting fires in the Pantanal is also challenging due to the layout of the region. The patchwork of marshes forms a labyrinth of water and land, with many areas flooded and inaccessible by road. In Pantanal Matogrossense National Park, where fires were blazing as recently as mid-February, federal forces could only access the affected areas by air, according to one source at a government agency.
“During the wet season…we have a lot of flooded areas and we have no roads to access these areas,” Barroso said. “We can only use airplanes or boats to combat the fires.”
In Porto Jofre, poor road access deeper into the territory meant all that firefighting forces could do was attempt to strategically halt the advance of the flames beyond the only main road in the region. The idea was to preserve the vast adjacent area across the road, which was still untouched by fire and where most animals had fled, said Alves de Moura.
“We were trying to secure the area on this side, so it doesn’t pass through and destroy the bigger area on the other side,” Alves de Moura said as he waded deep into the soft, burnt vegetation flanking the Transpantaneira Highway.
He and three other firefighters battled the flames for a week, struggling to keep them from advancing and turning even more land into ash. Yet, ultimately, their efforts were dwarfed by the size and intensity of the fire.
“We succeeded in securing this other side which was still green,” he said. “But ultimately, who put out the fire? The rain. If the rains hadn’t arrived, it would be burning until today.”
Policy at play
Years of broader government policy may also have played a role in the fires. Traditionally, the Brazilian government discouraged any kind of burning in ecologically-rich areas. In more recent years, though, environmental agencies have started mulling how to effectively employ controlled, intentional burning as a strategy to reduce wildfires.
This practice typically sees strategic areas intentionally set aflame in order to reduce flammable matter or restore the health of an ecosystem. These low-intensity fires are normally carried out during wetter or cooler months, when there is lower risk that they may spread and burn out of control.
“It’s an idea that has potential – how we can use fire in a good way to manage natural lands to reduce the risk of bushfires,” Sampaio said. “But we need to be careful when applying it – we need a lot of intelligence, we need data, we need science. It’s not a simple thing.”
Through carefully controlled fire during Pantanal’s wet season, farmers could help eliminate some of the combustible matter and reduce the volume of vegetation susceptible to flame, according to Barroso. Sampaio, meanwhile, noted that educational training for farmers could lead to better practices as they learn when and how to clear their land without causing environmental degradation.
This strategy is already being used in some federal protected areas and indigenous territories, Barroso noted. Yet the process of formalizing the rules around controlled burning and broadening its use to state conservation units has been slow, with legislation pending in Congress since 2018.
Meanwhile, without a formal framework in place, farmers are left to burn with little oversight and accountability, critics argue. Alves de Moura noted more focus on fining and persecuting illegal burning could send a strong message and help reduce criminal fires.
“We need to work more on enforcement – we need to be more effective in this,” said Alves de Moura. “Because if we succeed in penalizing the people responsible, the number of fires will automatically decline. They will know that they will be held responsible if they do this.”
More integration among various government agencies could also help authorities tackle fires across the Pantanal more effectively. Efforts are already underway: in 2018, more than 10 institutions came together to form the Mato Grosso State Fire Management Committee that Barroso heads. The group consists of various state and federal arms, including Mato Grosso’s secretariat for environment and Brazil’s environmental agency Ibama.
The result has been greater coordination and Barroso said he is currently devising a concrete framework for boosting prevention and policing across Mato Grosso’s Pantanal, Amazon and Cerrado regions. But, for the time being, the remit of the group remains mostly on responding to fires, with a particular focus on Mato Grosso’s Amazon region.
This reactive thinking must shift if authorities stand a chance of bringing fires in Pantanal under control, Sampaio noted, especially as climate conditions continue to change. Over the next 50 years, the region is expected to see dwindling rains and rising temperatures – a dangerous combination that could trigger more frequent and unpredictable fires.
“Those kinds of events will probably be more frequent in the future,” he said. “Governments need to work the entire year to fight against the fires – and not just to manage crises.”
This article by Ana Ionova was first published on Mongabay.com on 27 February 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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