Nestled along Brazil’s western frontier, stretching across the borders of Bolivia and Paraguay, sits the Pantanal — a vast wetland beloved by botanists and naturalists for its abundant flora and fauna.
Sprawling over an area of more than 180,000 square kilometres — about the size of Uruguay — the Pantanal is home to hundreds of species of animal, including jaguars and giant anteaters, and thousands of species of plant, which — until recently — flourished in pristine conditions.
In the past five months, fires have ripped through the biome, destroying almost 30 per cent of the natural vegetation, killing countless animals and devastating local tourism, which has long supported the region’s poor communities.
“It is an incalculable loss — the loss of vegetation, animals, the millions of greenhouse gas emissions, the loss of resources for small producers. There are cases of communities that have lost everything,” says Rômulo Batista of environmental pressure group Greenpeace.
Following rampant blazes this year in Australia and the US, the destruction in this little-known corner of Brazil is to many international observers just the latest example of the impact of rising global temperatures and climate change.
At home, however, the fires reignited a debate on conservation and sustainability that underlines the challenges facing Brazil in protecting its natural environment in the Pantanal, the Amazon rainforest and other ecologically sensitive areas.
While there is universal agreement that a harsh drought played a central role in the Pantanal fires, environmentalists have butted heads with local communities over the role of farmers as well as over best practice to preserve the environment.
In scenes replicated across the country — particularly in the Amazon rainforest — non-governmental groups have accused farmers of not obeying environmental regulations, while the local communities say only they have the knowhow to sustain the land.
“These fires in the Pantanal were deliberately set,” says Mr Batista. “The farmers wanted to increase their grazing areas and increase the cultivation of grasses for cattle.”
His comments echo those of federal prosecutors, who have launched an investigation into a handful of farmers in the region, who are accused of setting the blazes but then losing control.
Such investigations are commonplace in the Amazon rainforest, where environmental authorities are constantly battling fires set by farmers to clear land for cattle ranching. Last year, Brazil grabbed global attention after reporting almost 90,000 wildfires in the Amazon — a number that has already been surpassed this year.
But the communities of the Pantanal tell a different story. For them, fire has long been used by farmers as a tool to manage the land. Instead they blame the government for demarcating environmental reserves, which they say are then not adequately maintained and become overgrown, creating fuel for the fires.
It is a familiar argument in Poconé, a small, impoverished town affected by the fires. “We have been invaded by plants in the last 30 years and we were banned from clearing them. Those are the plants that are now burning,” says Arlindo Márcio de Moraes, president of Poconé’s rural syndicate, a body representing local interests. “We cannot clean up these areas because the authorities view it as deforestation.”
Others agree. Mônica Dorileo Falcão, a community activist in the town, says that cows would traditionally have eaten the biomass in the reserves and thus cleared the area of combustibles.
“In the past, 30 years ago, all the farmers had a large number of cattle and large areas of land extensions. But with the changes to the wetlands, we have had to reduce our cattle, which means the biomass increased. This caused the fires we are seeing today.”
It is an idea that has been seized upon by the Brazilian federal government, including agriculture minister Tereza Cristina, who elicited smirks when she used the phrase “boi bombeiro” — firefighter cow.
Few actual firefighters or scientists in the region are convinced by the logic, however.
“Cattle acting as a fire preventative actually works. But it is not relevant to the areas that are now on fire. This part of the Pantanal is flooded for 200 days a year, so the use of cattle has always been restricted,” says Geraldo Damasceno, a professor of ecology at the Federal University of Mato Grosso do Sul.
Paulo Da Silva Barroso, a colonel with the local firefighters, also dismisses the idea, saying “the fires were 99 per cent caused by men.”
“And if you don’t punish them, they don’t learn,” says Mr Barroso, who has spent the past months rescuing animals, including endangered jaguars. Meanwhile, he adds, the world has “turned its back” even as the Pantanal has become an “open-air cemetery”.
The cultural clash between environmentalists and farmers has not been limited to pinning down the causes of the blazes. As towns like Poconé try to return to normality, both sides are quarrelling about how long the recovery might take.
While activists say the area may never recover its lush flora, locals including Ms Falcão say that the rich soil means plants will start to regrow within weeks.
Indeed, not far from her home, in the ash-shrouded fields that weeks ago were ablaze, green shoots are beginning to appear — though the silence that prevails is a reminder that it will be a long time before any fauna follow.