News / 21 September 2020

The Pantanal is burning: how a wetland became a hotspot for bushfires

The Pantanal, the world's largest freshwater wetland, is suffering exceptionally devastating forest fires, mostly caused by human activities. Over the past few months, an area as big as Northern Ireland has burned down. Both ENDS's partner organisations call for attention for this ecological and social disaster.

The Pantanal is a UNESCO world heritage site stretching over Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay. The region, consisting of rivers, swamps and lakes with in between forests, grasslands and peatlands, is known for its unique biodiversity and many special species.

This year, the Pantanal experiences extreme drought. It rained 50% less than the year before; in June the water level of the river Paraguay, which feeds the wetland with water, lowered 3,5 meters. According to Solange Ikeda of Both ENDS's local partner organisation Instituto Gaia (Brazil) the river is even complete dry now in some places.

The drought is not only caused by climate change, but also by deforestation of the nearby Amazon. The rains that fall in the Pantanal for a large part are being formed above the Amazonian forests.

Human activities make Pantanal vulnerable

Apart from the changing climate, the Pantanal also becomes more vulnerable due to human activities. Solange Ikeda: "Deforestation and the construction of dams in the Paraguay river and its tributaries lower the water level of the river further. Wet areas decrease, and the amount of dry matter increases."

Furthermore in the Pantanal farmers (illegally) burn pieces of land for cattle and soy, just like in the Amazon. The dry circumstances allow these fires to spread easily.

This makes it possible that more than a million hectares has been burned down in a region that is called "the Kingdom of Waters" by its inhabitants.

Fighting for the protection of the Pantanal

Both ENDS has been working for decades with a broad coalition of civil society organisations (including Instituto Gaia) to protect the Pantanal from canalization, hydropower dams and deforestation. Also our partners promote sustainable economic activities, for example agro-ecological food production.

The fires in the Pantanal show the importance of this protection. Not only for biodiversity and the world's climate, but also for the livelihoods of the people living there: "Many communities are now without food", explains Solange Ikeda. "Areas that were used by people for agriculture and medicinal plants are lost. The ash residue contaminates the water, so we expect increased fish mortality in the coming months. There is a lack of clean water and people experience respiratory problems, amidst the COVID-19 crisis."

Direct support to communities is difficult to organize. A boat expedition that Gaia planned to distribute food, water and hygiene products to effected communities had to be postponed because the boat got stuck in a sand bank.

Civil society fighting the fires and its consequences

So far, national and local governments are failing to effectively fight the fires. There is not only a lack of support for the prevention of illegal deforestation, but also the local fire brigades have experienced budget cuts in recent years.

Civil society is doing whatever they can now to mitigate the impacts of the fires. Gaia together with other organisations is setting up a project to form, strengthen and finance local fire brigades. They share their knowledge and experiences with politicians and encourage inhabitants to do the same.

Wetlands need protection, on national and international level

Just like the Amazon influences the situation in the Pantanal, the developments in the Pantanal take effect further downstream in the Paraná Delta in Argentina, a wetland stretching until Buenos Aires. Also in the Paraná Delta the fires rage out of control, mainly caused by the burning of land for cattle ranching combined with extreme drought, according to Laura Prol of Both ENDS's parter organisation Taller Ecologista.

Environmental organisations in Argentina have been calling for years for a law that protects wetlands like the Paraná Delta.

But also the Netherlands and the European Union can take action to stop this downward spiral in the Pantanal, the Paraná Delta and the Amazon. Where the Dutch government and others now are actively supporting companies to build infrastructure like harbours and waterways to support soy production (of which a large part is being exported to Europe), they could ask their colleagues in South America to protect these ecosystems and the communities that depend on them, and restrict the import of products linked to deforestation, such as soy.

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