In 2020, the Pantanal wetland in Brazil suffered record fires, with almost a third of the entire ecosystem going up in smoke. This included conservation areas and parts of the wetland ecosystem that had never burned. The impact was severe: 17 million vertebrates were directly killed by the flames.
Conservationists, including the dedicated volunteers of Chalana Esperanca – a grassroots collective that my organization, the Environmental Justice Foundation, is proud to support – are working to protect wildlife in the Pantanal, but they have a need urgent for more help.
A human “helping hand”
It may be hard to believe that a wetland could be so badly affected by the fires, but there was a ‘helping hand’ fanning the flames.
Researchers found that 80% of fires in conservation units started within 10 km of areas of human activity.
According to Brazil’s federal police quoted in the Guardian, the fires were deliberately set by ranchers aiming to convert more of this globally important wetland into cattle pasture. Firefighters reported that 96-98% of fires were intentional.
Some ranchers sold their cattle to meatpacking giants like JBS, Minerva and Marfrig, which sold the meat to household names like McDonald’s, Nestlé and Carrefour. Indigenous peoples, local communities and wildlife are losing their homes to the flames in a trade that could end up on supermarket shelves in the UK, EU and US.
In the past, large parts of the Pantanal were under water for four to eight months of the year. But in 2020, dry river beds, rich in aquatic vegetation, turned into corridors of fire that spread the flames. These fires have turned a vital carbon sink into a emitter of huge amounts of climate-destroying carbon dioxide.
Scientists have shown that a dangerous feedback loop has begun; fires will make future fires more likely.
The Pantanal is getting hotter, drier and more prone to heat waves. Without significant reductions in global emissions, the destructive fires of 2020 could be just the average of any given year by 2100.
Bolsonaro’s blame game
In 2020, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro tried to blame the Pantanal fire on indigenous peoples. In truth, they are the ones whose human rights are violated.
An indigenous community, the Guató, suffered fire damage in 83% of their indigenous reserve – fires that satellite data shows started outside their land. The fires “directly burned entire homes and plantations of riverine and indigenous families.” They have caused the loss of livelihoods and food security, among the most basic human rights we share.
Throughout Brazil, the indigenous group APIB reports that “violence and violations of constitutional rights are constant”.
The Pantanal and surrounding regions are no exception, as ranchers, loggers and many others are aggressively encroaching on indigenous lands, knowing that the Bolsonaro administration will let them act with impunity. Even the water is unsanitary. Mercury from mining, agricultural waste, pesticides and other contaminants from industry accumulates in waterways north of the wetland, poisoning wildlife and humans.
More than 1.2 million people depend directly on the Pantanal for their food, livelihoods and water, and it supports many more by reducing flood risk. Wetlands are also an important store of carbon, helping to protect us from climate degradation: scientists report that it could take hundreds of years to offset the emissions caused by the conversion of the Pantanal to agricultural land.
Any nation or group that does not take all possible measures to protect the Pantanal knowingly leaves the door open to horrific human rights abuses and environmental injustices, and undermines human rights around the world. as one of our life support systems fails.
The rapid drying and conversion of the Pantanal means that each successive disaster will come more easily. With less water and wildlife, the ecosystem is less resilient, so every pocket of land converted by ranchers brings this invaluable ecosystem closer to collapse. The intentional destruction of the homes, culture and history of indigenous peoples in the Pantanal means that the voices that world leaders need to listen to are being silenced.
Faced with this environmental injustice, European leaders must stand up to protect the Pantanal.
The first step they can take is to broaden the scope of their historic law to keep the products of deforestation and human rights abuses out of EU supply chains. The Pantanal burns to supply beef and leather to Europe.
According to Trase researchers, protecting other Brazilian ecosystems but not the Pantanal will lead to leakage effects, where environmental destruction is displaced rather than completed, accelerating the loss of this precious wetland. We urgently need time-bound, ambitious, evidence-based and transparent goals to defend the Pantanal.
This crisis is not inevitable or inevitable. There’s still a big chunk of the Pantanal left, and if he gets the support he needs, he can recover. However, the death spiral that has set in motion demands that change be global and immediate. It is time for our leaders to act, now.