Brazil’s Biodiversity-Rich Pantanal Wetlands “Ravaged” By Wildfires

Pantanal Wetlands of Brazil         Photo: Filipefrazao, Wikipedia  CC BY-SA 3.0

By Julia Fine, ODP Contributing Writer

Fires are “ravaging” the biodiversity-rich Pantanal region of Brazil, Jake Spring of Reuters reported Tuesday. In the first fifteen days of August alone, the national space research agency of Brazil recorded 3,121 fires, which is almost five times greater than last year. Already, 6% of the Pantanal burned from January to July due to high temperatures, dry conditions, and high winds.

Why This Matters: As the world’s largest wetland, the Pantanal is home to key biodiversity. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the Pantanal is 10 times larger than the U.S. Everglades and reportedly one of the most biodiverse places on Earth — it has “more than 4,700 plant and animal species, including threatened ones like the jaguar.” And, as the Pantanal Observatory noted, the fires pose an immense danger to people abutting the wetlands, as “fires cause respiratory problems, eye irritation, and allergies.” The fires, which are caused by both “criminal activity” and “climactic factors”, according to the BBC, must be mitigated to protect the people, as well as the plants and animals of the region.

Challenges to Fire-Fighting

            According to Environment Minister Ricardo Salles, “challenges loom large” in fighting the fires. Salles noted, “The atmosphere is very hot, very dry, with strong winds and high temperatures,” making fire-fighting more difficult. This effort has also been “complicated” by COVID-19, which effectively limits the people who can safely work together to address the fires.

A Catastrophic Scenario

Now, the Pantanal has seen a 200% increase in the numbers of fire in June and July from last year to this year. As Vinicius Silgueiro, territorial intelligence coordinator at the Instituto Centro de Vida, told Mongabay, “We are facing a scenario now that is catastrophic.”  In June and July, NASA satellites recorded 9,048 fire alerts in the region.

The situation is made more catastrophic by the geography of the Pantanal, with some areas being “completely inaccessible” by land. As Mongabay reported, firefighters have been forced to work on containing the flames rather than actively putting out fires. However, even natural barriers like rivers may “fail to stop the advance” of the flames.

In addition to physical access, access to resources is also impacting Brazil’s ability to fight the fires. “Dwindling resources” provided to environmental agencies are impeding their abilities to fight fires. As we have reported before, under President Bolsonaro deforestation rates in the first half of 2020 went up 25%, and Bolsonaro has dismantled many environmental laws. While state and federal authorities have worked to “reinforce” burning bans, according to MongaBay, early signs suggest these measures are not enough to mitigate the fires in Brazil.

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