Fires raze nearly half of Indigenous territories in Brazil’s Pantanal

Country/area: Brazil

Organisation: Agência Pública (apublica.org)

Organisation size: Small

Publication date: 17 Sep 2020

Credit: Bianca Muniz, Bruno Fonseca, Raphaela Ribeiro

Project description:

Based on satellite data from the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research, this report found that, in September 2020, nearly half of the certified indigenous territories inside the Pantanal, the world’s biggest wetland, had already been subject to fires. The data also indicate that some of the fires began on private lands before spreading to Indigenous territories, where it cut off villages, destroyed homes and farms, and sent community members to hospital for respiratory problems. The investigation analyzed all fire outbreaks reported from the beginning of 2020 until it reached its peak in August and September.

Impact reached:

This investigative report showed how the number of fire outbreaks began increasing at the end of July before taking of in August and September, which support the firefighting officials’ statements that there was ample warning about a higher-than-average number of fires in 2020, but budget cuts and a delay in hiring dashed any chance of efforts to prevent the burning. It also shows how outbreaks can start on private properties, where fire is used for clearing lands, and then spread to Indigenous territories and conservation areas. Finally, it revealed that the surge in the number and extent of fires came amid a plunge in the number of fines imposed by the Brazilian government for environmental crimes, including those related to burning and deforestation.

This investigative piece has been republished by 51 news websites, in portuguese, spanish and english, being featured in important national and international outlets, such as El País Brasil, eldiário.es, MSN (Spain) and Mongabay (US). It was even mentioned by the New York Times in an article entitled “The World’s Largest Tropical Wetland Has Become an Inferno“.

Techniques/technologies used:

We used the database of fines imposed by the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama), data from the National Institute of Space Research (Inpe), data from the national agency for indigenous affairs (FUNAI) Indigenous Lands Mapping and the national Rural Environmental Registry (CAR) database of private properties. We analysed all fire outbreaks reported in the Pantanal to monitor the evolution of the fires in the region and inside indigenous territories. Then, we overlapped this data with the CAR database of properties in order to see if the fires had started in public, private or indigenous lands. We used free data editing programs such as Libreoffice, QGIS and Open Refine and design programs for data visualization such as Illustrator and Photoshop.

What was the hardest part of this project?

The most difficult part were the linking of so many databases, as well as developing a method to visualize the historical evolution of fire outbreaks in an area as large and diverse as the Pantanal. The lack of response from public bodies and gaps of data in the CAR database also made it difficult to identify the areas where the outbreaks had begun. In addition, the emergency situation faced by the local population, combined with the Covid-19 pandemic, made it harder to get in touch with them to collect detailed accounts and interviews.

What can others learn from this project?

This piece is an independent and in-depth investigation into a problem that directly affected the indigenous peoples in the region. Linking of different databases allowed us to reveal other aspects of the devastation scenario and to contribute to indicate areas that should be prioritized by the government while fighting the fire outbreaks and providing social assistance to the local communities.

Project links: