15 Sep 2020

World’s largest tropical wetland ablaze: our statement

This year, the Pantanal – the world’s largest tropical wetland – has seen three times as many fires as 2019, exacerbated by climate change and likely started by humans. The BirdLife Partnership is calling on the Brazilian and international governments to urgently increase action.

Fires have destroyed 12,000 square kilometres of the South American wetland so far © Alamy
Fires have destroyed 12,000 square kilometres of the South American wetland so far © Alamy
By Jessica Law

Last summer, the news of the burning Amazon rainforest captured mass media attention and sparked worldwide outcry. But the worrying truth is that these fires never completely went out. In fact, this year, it seems that the whole of the Americas are ablaze. In California, huge wildfires are turning San Francisco’s skies an apocalyptic orange. In South America’s Southern Cone, the Dry Chaco forests and iconic Pampas grasslands are going up in smoke.

Worst of all, 2020 has seen catastrophic fires in the Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland, located mostly within Brazil but extending into parts of Bolivia and Paraguay. Spanning 210,000 square kilometres – larger than the whole of Great Britain – this verdant, incredibly biodiverse ecosystem is home to the largest aggregation of wildlife in South America, including rare species such as the Giant River Otter (Endangered), Jaguar (Near Threatened) and Hyacinth Macaw Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus (Vulnerable). From 1 January to 23 July, Brazil’s national space agency counted 3,682 fires in the Pantanal – three times greater than last year, and the highest number since records began in 1998. In total, 12,000 square kilometres have been devastated so far, and the number is still rising.

You may be wondering how a wetland can burn so rampantly. While smaller wildfires often occur in the dry season, this year’s exceptional drought in the Pantanal, which is most probably a consequence of climate change and deforestation of the Amazon in recent years, left vegetation and underground peat tinder-dry. Even more worryingly, sources state that these fires were deliberately started by humans – most likely to clear land for agriculture.

These fires have terrible social repercussions as well as ecological ones, destroying the livelihoods of communities who already earn a sustainable living from the Pantanal, for example from ecotourism, fishing or nomadic cattle ranching. The fires have entered the land of indigenous peoples, endangering their traditional way of life and destroying their rightful home. What’s more, the air pollution from the smoke causes severe respiratory problems in settlements for miles around. More widely, in destroying one of the world’s most important carbon sinks, we are losing a substantial defence against climate change – which could lead to a vicious circle of decline.

 

A Hyacinth Macaw stronghold has already been damaged and faces further destruction © MePixels

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One of the most important ecological refuges threatened by the fires is Fazenda São Francisco de Periguara, a traditional cattle ranch in Brazil, which plays host to around one thousand roosting Hyacinth Macaws and dozens of nests every year. The threatened macaw benefits from the dense population of palms, which produce nutrient-rich nuts. A large part of this ranch has already been burned and still faces the risk of more fires.

In Brazil, state and federal forces have been deployed to fight the fires. However, containing the inferno has been difficult as some areas of the Pantanal are completely inaccessible by land, and can only be reached by helicopter. This would be less of an obstacle if the Brazilian government had not dramatically cut resources and funding for the environmental agencies responsible for tackling the fire. President Jair Bolsonaro, who has been notoriously vocal about his opposition to environmental protection, recently defunded the federal agencies tasked with protecting the Pantanal and Amazon.

In July, the Brazilian government banned burning for agricultural purposes across the Pantanal and Amazon for four months. However, the enforcement of this law has been similarly compromised by lack of resources.

The BirdLife Partnership strongly denounces this catastrophic destruction of nature. We are calling on the Brazilian and international authorities to urgently increase their efforts to contain fires and strengthen the enforcement of anti-burning laws, for the good of both nature and people.