From January to August, fires in the Pantanal had already burned 18,646 km2, or 12% of the total area of the biome, according to data from the National Institute for Space Research (INPE). INPE also detected 10,316 fires from the beginning of the year until September 3, the highest rate for the period since 1998, when it started to monitor the area. Until that week, the data indicated that in the state of Mato Grosso, 95% of the destruction occurred in areas of native vegetation, according to the NGO Instituto Centro e Vida (ICV). On September 15, the state was the national champion of fires with almost 2,200 hot spots, accumulating 60% of the flames in the country, according to INPE. Alone, Mato Grosso State burned more in that span than the other eight states in the Legal Amazon. Since the fires weren’t controlled, by mid-September, they had already ravaged 23% of the Pantanal biome.
The Pantanal is one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet, home to around 1200 species of vertebrate animals, including endangered species and the most dense jaguar population in the world. Until 2020, it was also one of the better preserved biomes in the country. In Mato Grosso, the flames have already consumed over 90% of the area of a sanctuary for the blue macaw. The species probably will return to the threatened with extinction list after the fires. The images of jaguars, anteaters, snakes and birds, dead and injured, have gained social media and shocked Brazil and the world.
A report by El País showed that the spread of fire to areas of indigenous reserves, such as the fire in the Indigenous Land Thereza Cristina, of the Boe Bororo people, forced the state government of Mato Grosso to declare an emergency on September 14. More than 100 bororo were hastily removed due to poor air quality; authorities took elderly and pregnant women to the Indigenous Health Center in Rondonópolis. After escaping the fire, the bororo ended up exposed to the coronavirus pandemic. In Rondonópolis, there were 156 confirmed cases of Covid-19 among indigenous people, in addition to 13 suspects and 31 patients, according to the Special Indigenous Sanitary District of Cuiabá, the State capital.
A similar situation occurred in the Xingu Indigenous Park, 900 kilometers away from Cuiabá, the second indigenous land most affected by fires in Mato Grosso. Sixteen houses were burned at the Diauarum post, in the center of the reservation. About six thousand indigenous people of 16 ethnic groups live in the park. In mid-September, 116 indigenous persons were in isolation in the Xingu due to the new coronavirus; 333 cases had already been confirmed.
Pantanal women who live on agro-extractivism (such as the collection of fruits and nuts) are also disproportionately affected by fires. The groups of women supported by the work of the NGO Ecoa – Ecology and Action, in Campo Grande (MS), lost areas of traditional crops in the region, such as bocaiúva, laranjinha-de-pacu and acuri, compromising their source of subsistence and income, in addition to the fire directly threatening their homes. “Here in Mato Grosso do Sul, for example, they are surrounded by monocultures and pesticides. The fires affected directly the reforestation work with native species that they lead”, reported the activist Nathália Eberhardt Ziolkowski.
According to NASA data cited in a report by the Reuters news agency, changes in ocean temperatures are a likely factor in creating drought conditions in the Pantanal and in the southern part of the Amazon, where the fires in August were the biggest in the last ten years.
In 2020, Pantanal experiences one of the worst droughts in its history, with rainfall 40% below the average of previous years. The main river in the biome, the Paraguay River, has the worst level of the watercourse in the last fifty years, aggravating the progress of the fire. According to measurements by the Geological Survey of Brazil, checked by UOL, the Paraguay River is registering one of the 13 weakest ebbs in the last 120 years. For researchers, human interference in the biome with livestock activities and expansion of the agricultural frontier, in addition to the growth of cities, may be exceeding the limits of what the Pantanal supports.
On September 20, dozens of civil society organizations and hundreds of individuals signed and forwarded an open letter to the Supreme Federal Court (STF) asking for the removal and civil, criminal and administrative responsibility of those responsible, by default or action, for the burning of the Pantanal.