Brazil under fire: why the Pantanal suffers the worst fires in decades

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In the largest wetland on the planet, fires have already calcined 22% of this ecosystem declared a World Heritage Site by the UN this year.

The Pantanal, the largest wetland on the planet, located in the heart of South America, suffers the worst fires in decades, an environmental tragedy in which several factors converge, but that the president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, tries to minimize before the international community.

According to the latest data from the Brazilian Institute of the Environment (Ibama), the fire has already calcined this year 22% of this ecosystem declared a World Heritage Site by the UN and which has a total area equivalent to the sum of Belgium, Switzerland, Portugal and the Netherlands.

The sources of fires in the Pantanal, which Brazil shared with Paraguay and BoliviaThey have already reached 5,966 so far in September, which already represents the worst figure for that month since statistics began to be recorded in 1998.

In these almost nine months of 2020 they have been notified 16,119 fires in the biome, already exceeding the figures of the last 22 years – the record so far was in 2005, with 12,536 fires – when there are still three months to go to the end of the year.

An unprecedented destruction in which different factors are combined:

Various official sources consulted by Efe coincide in stating that between 95% and 98% of fires that advance in the Pantanal have human origin.

“There is someone using fire for various purposes and, with the climatic conditions we have, the spread of that fire is extremely large, fast and difficult to control, “Alexandre Pereira, an environmental analyst at Ibama Prevfogo, tells Efe.

Among the hypotheses on the human origin of fires is when they are used intentionally to clean up an area at high speed and transform it into new areas for agriculture.

The Federal Police of Brazil investigate at least four landowners, after they found indications that some outbreaks emerged within their properties, causing the destruction of about 33,000 hectares in the Pantanal.

According to government data, approximately 95% of the surface of the Brazilian Pantanal are private properties that have extensive livestock farming as their main economic activity, and only 4.6% are conservation units.

In these private properties there is a culture of using fire for stubble burning, which is regulated by environmental authorities and must be produced under a series of criteria with prior authorization.

“This has simply been ignored and abandoned in recent years. In the past, farmers adopted these control practices much more and that greatly reduced the number of forest fires,” says Carlos Roberto Padovani, Pantanal researcher at the Brazilian Company of Agricultural Research (Embrapa).

This year they are registering temperatures above average, a lower rainfall regime and a lower level of flooding from the Paraguay River in the ecosystem. Outcome? The worst drought in 47 years.

The Paraguay River is a key element in the functioning of the Pantanal by flooding, in the flood period, vast areas of the Pantanal, but is in a critical situation with the height of its channel at historical lows.

Experts’ projections warned that one of the consequences of climate change would be precisely the appearance of longer dry periods and more concentrated rains in the biome.

“And that is what we are perceiving in the last two years in the Pantanal. It is already happening, as science had predicted several years ago,” Julio César Sampaio, leader of WWF’s Pantanal initiative, told EFE.

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