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SÃO PAULO—The sky turned a deep orange as ash swirled into the flames consuming Brazil’s Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland.
Hyacinth macaws and toucans took flight as anacondas and giant otters plunged into rivers in an attempt to escape the inferno engulfing their home.
“I had never seen such a massive fire,” says Lourenço Pereira Leite, a lifelong traditional fisherman from the Pantanal. “My plants burned. I’ve always cultivated crops. I plant and harvest manioc, squash, bananas. But everything died.”
In 2020, satellites and aerial surveillance from scientific institutions like Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) and NASA’s Earth Observatory, and monitors on the ground from organizations like nonprofits SOS Pantanal and the Disaster Rescue Group for Animals, detected tens of thousands more fires than usual burning in the region. Farmers and ranchers intentionally started many of the blazes, an act that fell in line with far-right President Jair Bolsonaro’s agricultural expansion plans, clearing more land for planting and pastures in an ecosystem dried to tinder by the worst drought it had endured in almost 50 years.
Even before the fires started to wane, the devastation was palpable. What was once lush and green, home to more than 4,700 species of plants and animals, was burned black and dotted with the charred bodies of caiman, tapir and giant anteaters. Jaguars with paws burnt raw limped across the scorched ground where rich grasslands and water-filled pools once abounded. According to a study published by Nature, 17 million vertebrates were directly killed by the fires.
With their habitats, food and water sources gone, the future of the animals that survived the flames was uncertain. It was a level of damage never witnessed on the Pantanal before.
The people living there—many of them from traditional communities that strive to work the land sustainably—felt the heat, too.
Occasional droughts can occur naturally in the biome, but this one was amplified by climate change and commercial development, threatening the population’s food and water security, and creating an environment ripe for more fires. Land didn’t regenerate after the flames passed and invasive species and weeds started to take over. Natural water sources and wells dried up. For many local people, there wasn’t enough water to sustain their families along with their cattle and crops. Living through one catastrophe after another left them even more vulnerable, and the disruption of the ecosystem brought new and unexpected challenges.
“Since the fires, there have been so many rats,” says Claudia Sala de Pinho, regional coordinator of the Traditional Pantanal Communities Network. “Because snakes are the ones that keep the rats at bay. And the snakes burned.
“Now we can’t plant manioc, because the rats eat it all.”
And the fires returned the next year. Although the flames of 2021 razed a smaller portion of the wetlands—just half of what was lost in the record-breaking 2020 fires, thanks to community monitoring and volunteer firefighting projects—they still added another layer of destruction, as did this year’s fires, which again were fewer than last year. There has been no time for the Pantanal to recuperate. The devastation from the fires and drought has left communities in the biome close to ruin and the environment that supports them on the brink of disaster. Many of its residents say it is dying.
But Brazil’s federal government paints an entirely different picture. Despite evidence collected on the ground, viral narratives spread by Bolsonaro and his allies in both government and agribusiness insist the Pantanal is thriving. They tout cattle as key to fighting fires and proclaim, without proof, that Brazil is a leader in sustainability. With Bolsonaro up for reelection on Oct. 2, conflicting narratives presenting the Pantanal as either an environmental success story or a treasured landscape devastated by the flames of greed have become not only fodder in political campaigns, but also symbols of the possible futures for the nation’s vast rainforests, wetlands and savannahs.
At just over 42 million acres—an area slightly larger than England and more than 10 times the size of Florida’s Everglades—the Pantanal stretches across Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay.
From October to March, the upper part of the Pantanal basin acts like a sponge, retaining floodwaters that slowly drain out between April and September, providing flood control for millions of people downriver, as well as aquatic habitats and a source of drinking water and food for thousands of species. Its seasonal rise and fall is what gives the wetland life. Rich in biodiversity, the Pantanal has South America’s highest concentration of some keystone species, including the jaguar and the caiman.
But in 2020, more than a quarter of the Pantanal—over 9.6 million acres—was lost to the fires, according to SOS Pantanal. Researchers from INPE, the University of São Paulo and the National Center for Natural Disaster Monitoring and Alerts found that in January alone, 3,506 fires were detected in the biome, a 302 percent increase when compared to the average for the same month between 2012 and 2019. By the end of the year, 189,440 fires engulfed the region, 508 percent higher than average.
But the wave of fire began at least a year earlier. The Pantanal’s 2019 fire season was “unusually active,” NASA’s Earth Observatory reported in August of 2020. That set the stage for the bigger burns to come. Scarce rainfall in the following rainy season hindered the wetlands’ regeneration, making it easier for fires to ignite and spread in the first half of 2020. Fires intentionally set to clear land easily outpaced firefighters and the few resources they had to combat them.
According to Cátia Nunes da Cunha, an ecologist and associate researcher at the National Institute for Science and Technology in Humid Areas (INAUM), one of the most devastating results of these fires is the destruction of the old-growth trees in the Pantanal. It will take decades, she says, for new trees to grow as big as the ones that died, or for the ones showing new growth from their charred trunks to return to the size they were before they burned.
“Even the trees that grow quickly will take around 40 or 50 years to reach the size they were before the fires,” she says. “Some of their trunks died in the fires, but they’re sprouting again. But even though they’re resprouting, that doesn’t mean they’ll have a healthy, quality biological life. For this regrowth to reach the size the trees were before the fires it will take time. It’s almost a generation.”
Most of the destruction in 2020 was near the northern towns of Poconé, Barão de Melgaço and Cáceres, where Pinho lives. She has witnessed a shift in the ownership of the land around her, and also in how it is used, and says she’s not surprised by what’s happening in the Pantanal. Farms and ranches once run by people who grew up in the region and inherited both their land and way of caring for crops and cattle, so that their operations used fire sparingly and only in the appropriate season, are now being bought up by people from big cities looking to make a buck, she says. But they don’t understand the peculiarities of the Pantanal and that using fire to clear land for planting and pasture is a dangerous game.
“Fire out of season here is uncontrollable,” says Pinho. “The wind in the months of August and September is unbelievable. It’s so strong it creates these whirlwinds. [The fires] are one of the consequences of the lack of knowledge of the region.”
According to a 2021 paper published by Science Direct, this type of land-use change, coupled with increasingly dry conditions caused by climate change and poor governance of fire management, has brought the Pantanal to a tipping point.
But the deliberate push by Bolsonaro and those close to him to spread disinformation about the causes and effects of the fires has brought it even closer, the president’s critics say. The area has become a global source of beef, soy and other agricultural products, incentivizing the rapid expansion of ranching and farming operations. But the Pantanal also hears echoes of the public outcry regarding deforestation in its densely-forested neighbor to the north, the Amazon.
In a pre-recorded speech at the 2020 U.N. General Assembly’s general debate, Bolsonaro said Brazil had been unfairly depicted as being anti-environment.
“We are victims of one of the most brutal disinformation campaigns about the Amazon and the Pantanal wetlands,” he said that September, putting the blame on international institutions and “self-serving and unpatriotic Brazilian associations” he insists have ulterior motives and a desire to harm the country.
Still, under his government, not only have a record number of fires swept through the Pantanal, but the Amazon has also been engulfed in flames. INPE’s monitoring system detected 74,700 fires between the first day of 2022 and September 17, a 51 percent increase over the same period the year before and the highest number of fires the rainforest has seen since 2010.
According to a study conducted by the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), a scientific nonprofit focused on the sustainable development of the Amazon, from August 2018, when Bolsonaro was on the campaign trail and promised to exploit the Amazon’s natural resources if he became president, and July 2021, more than half way through his term, deforestation in the Amazon increased 56.6 percent over the prior three-year period.
When fires were raging across the Pantanal in September 2020, Bolsonaro and others in his inner circle, like former-Minister of the Environment Ricardo Salles, who stepped down from his post in June 2021 after a series of investigations of his ties to deforestation, tried to shift the blame away from farmers and ranchers.
“We have to take into account that a large part of these fires are not the result of bad actions by rural producers,” Salles said in an official statement made on Oct. 13, 2020. “On the contrary, rural producers are those who are interested that their properties remain healthy, with no environmental damage, because they live on the health of their property. Recognizing this, we know that the main cause is the issue of hot, dry weather, strong winds.”
The president also repeatedly blamed Indigenous peoples and other traditional communities in the Pantanal and the Amazon for starting the fires.
“The fires happen practically in the same places in the eastern surroundings of the forest, where caboclos and indians burn their brush in search of their survival in already deforested areas,” Bolsonaro said during his U.N. speech.
But satellite images cited by The Guardian, for instance, showed that fires that impacted 83 percent of the Baiá Guató Indigenous Territory actually started outside its borders.
“We wouldn’t burn our home,” says Pinho of the entire Pantanal and the traditional peoples living there. “The Pantanal is our home. If we destroyed it, where would we go?”
An investigation by Repórter Brasil published on Sept. 22, 2020, almost a month before Salles issued his statement, showed that some of the Pantanal fires in the state of Mato Grosso started on five ranches. Two of those ranches, they found, sold cattle to Amaggi, a company that supplies beef giants like JBS, Marfrig and Minerva.
When the focus shifted to how the Pantanal would recover from the devastating conflagrations, narratives about “cattle firefighters” and grazing combatting the blazes started to circulate en masse.
“This disaster happened because we had so much dry organic material that, maybe, if we had a little more cattle in the Pantanal, it would have been a smaller disaster than we had this year,” said Tereza Cristina, former-minister of agriculture, during a Senate committee meeting. “Cattle is the firefighter of the Pantanal, because it eats grass,” which the leader of the rural movement and face of the agribusiness lobby called “a highly combustible material.”
Her argument—that more cattle would mean fewer fires because the livestock would eat dry grasses that easily ignite and spread fire—had been used by Bolsonaro and Salles before and after Cristina’s statement. The claim was repeated by many others, including Jornal da Cidade Online, a widely read online newspaper that’s been accused of spreading disinformation, and YouTube channel Mundo Rural Business, which calls itself “the largest strategic information agency for agribusiness in the world” and has shared similar disinformation about other agribusiness and environmental issues.
Other politicians, including Reinaldo Azambuja, the governor of Mato Grosso do Sul, have also repeated the argument that cattle help protect the Pantanal from fire. According to another investigation from Repórter Brasil, one of the ranchers suspected of starting the 2020 fires had previously sold cattle to Azambuja, one of the state’s most prominent ranchers.
But a 2020 study conducted by the Federal University of Minas Gerais, which analyzed data from INPE and the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), found the areas in the Pantanal with the largest number of cattle are also the ones with the most fires.
While some experts agree that cattle can have a positive effect on fire management, it’s an argument, says Gustavo Figueirôa, a biologist with SOS Pantanal who witnessed the fires and their aftermath, “that has been taken out of context.”
“The presence of cattle, when properly managed on specific types of pastures, does lessen the amount of organic material present, but it is far from being a one-off solution to control fires,” he says. “There were several farms that had plenty of cattle on them and they burned a lot.”
The presence of cattle are not directly related to the amount of fire that occurs on the land, Figueirôa said.
“It’s a small part of a much larger context that helps reduce the amount of biomass,” he said, “but there are many other components—like controlled burns to clear pasture during the appropriate time of year and with permission from environmental authorities—that are much more important when trying to contain fire.”
Locals, like Uíses Faicon de Arruda, a traditional rancher better known as Tutu in the municipality of Poconé, have learned that more cattle do not guarantee more protection from fire. During the 2020 infernos, Tutu’s entire pasture went up in flames along with his fencing and cattle sheds worth 10 to 15 thousand Brazilian reals ($1,900 to $2,850). He also lost 20 head of cattle—worth $10,000—when one of the fires surrounded his herd. When he tried to stomp it out, he badly burnt the sole of his foot.
Tutu and his wife, Gloria, were the only ranchers in the region to take in the firefighters from the Ministry of the Environment’s Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio), who worked tirelessly to stop the fires from consuming farms and ranches. But they left the couple with an electricity bill that Tutu says reached 2,000 reals ($388). The only way he can afford to pay it is if he sells a calf or two.
For the rancher, the fast-spreading fires almost put an end to the only life he has ever known and the only place he has ever called home. The disinformation swirling around the blazes like smoke to obscure the causes and solutions for the conflagrations only adds to his frustration.
“I hope it doesn’t continue,” says Tutu. “I wouldn’t know what to do.”
Juliana Arini contributed reporting to this story.