28th Mar 2023


Lula's other problem — not the Amazon, the wetlands

  • The Pantanal wetland in Brazil is an extraordinary ecosystem of global importance - but 17 million vertebrates were directly killed by the 2020 blazes (Photo: Heideger Nascimento)
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In 2020, Brazil's Pantanal wetland suffered record-breaking fires, with nearly one 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 blazes.

This has global implications for biodiversity conservation: the Pantanal is home to large populations of species which are rare or endangered in South America, including giant otters and lowland tapirs. It is a "known hotspot" for mammals, including the highest density of jaguars in the world and the centre of "the greatest diversity of aquatic plants on the planet".

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  • Some ranchers sold their cattle to meatpacking giants like JBS, Minerva and Marfrig, who sold the meat to household names including McDonald's, Nestlé and Carrefour (Photo: Enivronmental Justice Foundation)

Environmental defenders, including the dedicated volunteers with Chalana Esperanca — a grassroots collective that my organisation, the Environmental Justice Foundation, is proud to support — are working to protect wildlife in the Pantanal, but they urgently need more help.

Human 'helping hand'

It may be hard to believe that a wetland could be so severely affected by fires, but there was a 'helping hand' fanning the flames.

Researchers have found that 80 percent of the fires in conservation units broke out within 10km of areas with human activity.

According to Brazilian federal police quoted in the Guardian, the fires were deliberately started by ranchers aiming to convert more of this globally important wetland into cattle pasture. Firefighters reported that 96-98 percent of the fires were intentional.

Some ranchers sold their cattle to meatpacking giants like JBS, Minerva and Marfrig, who sold the meat to household names including McDonald's, Nestlé and Carrefour. Indigenous peoples, local communities, and wildlife are losing their homes to the flames in a trade that may end on supermarket shelves in the UK, EU and the United States.

In the past, large parts of the Pantanal would be underwater for four to eight months of the year. But in 2020, the dry river beds, rich with aquatic vegetation, turned into fire corridors that spread the flames. These fires turned a vital carbon sink into an emitter of huge amounts of climate-wrecking carbon dioxide.

Scientists have shown that a dangerous feedback loop has started; the fires will make future fires more likely.

The Pantanal is getting hotter, drier and more prone to heat waves. Without meaningful global emissions reductions, the 2020 destructive fires could be just the average for any given year by 2100.

Bolsonaro's blame-game

Valdelice Veron is from the Guarani-Kaiowá community (Photo: Heideger Nascimento)

In 2020, Brazil's president, Jair Bolsonaro, tried to shift the blame for the burning of the Pantanal onto Indigenous people. In truth, they are the ones whose human rights are under assault.

One Indigenous community, the Guató, suffered fire damage to 83 percent of their Indigenous reserve — fires that satellite data prove started outside their lands. The blazes "directly burned whole houses and plantations of riverside and Indigenous families". They caused the loss of livelihoods and food security, among the most basic human rights we share.

Across Brazil, the Indigenous group APIB reports that "violence and violations of constitutional rights are constant".

The Pantanal and the surrounding areas are no exception as ranchers, loggers and more encroach aggressively on Indigenous lands, safe in the knowledge that the Bolsonaro administration will let them act with impunity. Even the water is unsafe. Mercury from mining, agricultural waste and pesticides and other contaminants from industry are accumulating in the riverways north of the wetland, poisoning wildlife and people.

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 a substantial store of carbon, helping to protect us from climate breakdown: scientists report that it could take hundreds of years to offset the emissions caused by converting the Pantanal into agricultural land.

Any nation or group failing to take every possible action to protect the Pantanal is knowingly leaving the door open for horrific human rights abuses and environmental injustices, and undermining human rights globally as one of our life support systems disappears.

The rapid drying and conversion of the Pantanal mean that each successive disaster will come more easily. With less water and wildlife, the ecosystem is less resilient, so each pocket of land converted by ranchers brings this priceless ecosystem closer to collapse. The intentional destruction of the homes, culture and history of Indigenous peoples in the Pantanal means the voices that world leaders must listen to are being silenced.

In the face of this environmental injustice, EU leaders must stand up to protect the Pantanal.

The first step they can take is to expand the scope of their landmark law to keep the products of deforestation and human rights abuses out of EU supply chains. The Pantanal is burning to provide beef and leather to Europe.

According to researchers at Trase, protecting other Brazilian ecosystems but not the Pantanal will lead to leakage effects, where environmental destruction is displaced rather than ended, accelerating the loss of this precious wetland. We urgently need time-bound, ambitious, evidence-based and transparent targets to defend the Pantanal.

This crisis is not inevitable or unavoidable. There is still a great deal of the Pantanal left, and if it is given the support it needs, it can recover. However, the death spiral which has started demands that change must be comprehensive and immediate. It's time for our leaders to take action — now.

Author bio

Steve Trent is co-founder and CEO of the Environmental Justice Foundation.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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