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Brazilian Pantanal Faces the Greatest Environmental Tragedy in Decades

The Pantanal, the largest continental humid area on the planet, is facing the greatest environmental tragedy in decades. Comparing historical records of temperature and rainfall, technicians from the National Center for Monitoring and Natural Disaster Alerts concluded that this is the most intense drought to hit the Pantanal in at least 60 years. So far, fires have consumed 1.5 million hectares, 10% of the Pantanal area, according to the Folha de São Paulo newspaper.

The Pantanal biome, located between the states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso Sul in Brazil, has about 15 million hectares. National Institute for Space Research (Inpe) data show that outbreaks grew 206% in the first half of 2020, compared to the same period last year.  When considering both states, it is the biggest record since 1998, the period in which Inpe developed the platform that has become a reference for monitoring hot spots in Brazil.

According to a Brazil Agency report, from January 1 to August 16, a reference satellite accumulated signals from 5,959 hot spots in the territory of Mato Grosso do Sul. In the same period of 2019, 3,415 occurrences were recorded.

The same article noted that despite the attention on Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul, due to the flames that consume the vegetation of the Pantanal, the greatest increase in the number of records of outbreaks of fire and burning occurred in Santa Catarina, in the southern region of Brazil. The variation in the number of fires per state for the last five years in Brazil is shown in a comparative table prepared by Inpe:

Source: Divulgation Inpe.

A Gazeta writer Natália Araujo reported that in just a month the flames consumed 6% of the area of Pantanal within the territory of Mato Grosso. The Journal article noted that firefighters remain in region and act to combat the fire. The commander of the Environmental Emergency Battalion, Flávio Gledson Vieira Bezerra, states that every forest fire has a characteristic, but analyzes that the Pantanal has particularities that reinforce the difficulties:

“The vegetation is very dense, there is an accumulation of biomass in the region, exposed to the sun, to heat,” said Bezerra to A Gazeta.

In the last week, the Brazilian Minister of the Environment, Ricardo Salles, made a flyby in the areas affected by fires in the Pantanal region of Mato Grosso, in Poconé, and promised to make available everything necessary to contain the fires in the Biome.

Canal Rural writer Pedro Silvestre highlighted the drama of ranchers ‘trapped’ by the flames in the Pantanal of Mato Grosso. According the article, many pastures have been destroyed and farmers no longer know if there will be enough food to feed livestock:

“There is a farm that burned 100% of the area, but the biggest concern is the lack of pasture. The cattle will lose weight. The losses for the farmer will be very large,” Poconé, Mato Grosso farmer Arlindo Márcio Morais said.

BBC News writer Vinicius Lemos reported that in the first seven months of this year, the main river in the Pantanal reached the lowest level in almost five decades. Researchers point out that the situation in the biome should remain difficult for the next few months, the article said.

Correio Braziliense writer Simone Kafruni noted that, “while the eyes of the world are focused on deforestation in the Amazon, the fires do not stop burning the Brazilian Pantanal.”  According to the article, the lack of rain in the biome for the period is one of the worst in that region in the last 47 years:

“Fire is present as a tool for human activity in land management. Laws provide for cleaning pastures. It happens that, in a drought period, this type of fire is out of control,” explains Júlio Sampaio, manager of the Cerrado Pantanal Program at WWF-Brazil, environmental group.

Authorizations for the use of fire in this region were suspended for 180 days. Reuters writer Jake Spring pointed out that fires in the Pantanal threaten endangered species. The Pantanal is one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet containing more than 4,700 species of plants and animals, including some threatened with extinction, such as the jaguar, according to the WWF-Brazil.

Folha de São Paulo writers Fabiano Maisonnave and Lalo de Almeida revealed that the fire in the Pantanal destroyed the world’s largest refuge for macaws. The article noted that the fire is devastating Fazenda Sao Francisco do Perigara, a sanctuary that contains 15% of the free population of the species threatened with extinction.

Experts say it is too early to assess the full extent of the tragedy and warn that flora regeneration is uncertain and may take decades.

Joana Colussi is a journalist and visiting researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). Previously, she has reported on various agribusiness and economics topics for prominent Brazilian media publications, such as Grupo Globo affiliates. Joana holds a Master’s degree in Agribusiness, and is a Ph.D. candidate in Management at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS-Brazil).

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