Mato Grosso do Sul State


In 2020, the Pantanal, the largest continuous wetlands in the world, was prominently featured in the news when large forest fires swept through the region, destroying almost a third of its total area. In the state of Mato Grosso do Sul alone, 1.7 million hectares turned to ashes. According to the Pantanal Observatory organization [Observatório do Pantanal], approximately 4.6 billion animals were affected and at least 10 million died as a result of the fires.[1] It is already known that both in Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul states, the fire originated in cattle farms before it spread throughout the territory.[2]

Forest fires in the Brazilian Pantanal had already been wreaking havoc prior to 2020, as recalled by Dona Leonida Aires, a resident of the Barra de São Lourenço traditional pantaneira community, and president of the Renascer association of women artisans:

As a matter of fact, the fires started in 2019. We had only heard about them then, and when we would travel around, we could see some places were burning, but we never imagined the fires would get to us. Then, in 2020, the fires began inching closer and closer, until they unfortunately reached our community. Many of ours, about three families, had to be evacuated because the fire was too close and particularly intense in the bush, with a heavy smoke. They were elderly and had to be taken away. The firefighters brought them over here to our school, where things were safer, while they fought the fire by their house, so they could return to their home. But the fire also reached the area behind our community.

See: “Um ano após perder 26% do bioma, Pantanal corre o risco de ter incêndios piores neste inverno” [“One year after losing 26% of its biome, Pantanal at risk of more aggressive fires this winter”], from G1. 07/10/2021.

See another article from this same dossier, titled “Fire in the Pantanal:
the home of its traditional communities is burning”.

The Barra de São Lourenço traditional pantaneira community is located in the municipality of Corumbá, state of Mato Grosso do Sul. It is situated in a permanently flooded area, near the international border between Brazil and Bolivia, just beneath the confluence with the Cuiabá river, on an island on the left bank of the Paraguay river. The community covers an area of 12,241 square meters and was declared an area of public interest by the Federal Heritage Office (Secretaria do Patrimônio da União, SPU), as per ordinance no. 57 of April 2016. Currently, Barra de São Lourenço community is fighting for its territory to be recognized as a Sustainable Development Reserve (Reserva de Desenvolvimento Sustentável, RDS).

The community is home to 25 families, a number that was much higher in previous decades. Their livelihood revolves around traditional fishing practices, gathering live bait, producing native rice crops, extracting aguapé (Eicchornia crassipes) for use in making handicrafts, harvesting fruits and other natural resources, in addition to small-scale farming and livestock ranching. They utilize, manage, and conserve the Pantanal territory by employing complex knowledge systems and practices that ensure abundance for future generations.

The region where the community is located is one of the better preserved areas of the Pantanal, comprising several protected areas, such as the Private Reserve of Cultural Heritage (Reserva Particular do Patrimônio Cultural, RPPN), and the Pantanal National Park [Parque Nacional do Pantanal], which are manaced by the harmful actions taking place in the upper Pantanal region, such as deforestation, pesticide use, and the silting of water resources.

In this region, known as Amolar, the fires were most intense between September and October of 2020, and reached the banks of the Paraguay river, located 223 km from the municipality’s headquarters and about 8 hours by boat north of Corumbá. Remembered by the community as “days of fire”, of Dona Leonida recalled that:

The fire was approaching the area behind our community, it was very hot, really… nobody could sleep, I just heard the sounds of the fire which were really loud, the sounds were terrifying, and they continued until they weren’t just sounds, until the fire got very close to us and became a reality.
Within the community, scenes of the fire struck fear and were indirectly responsible for victims among the residents
“The winds were so strong that they gave rise to a huge storm, causing the flames to reach far and cross the river. The flames rose so high and land caught fire out of nowhere. Suddenly, as we watched, an area would ignite, as if the earth had a combustion so potent that it caused the land to catch on fire out of nowhere. A lot of people were hurt, I was one of them, I got hurt when I fell in the water. We also lost a child in the midst of all this madness while their father was helping as a member of our community’s firefighting brigade; this child drowned.
Dona Leonida. Fotografia: Cláudia Sala de Pinho

In previous years, the fire reached nearby areas but not the community’s territory. Community residents teamed up by setting up a volunteer firefighting brigade that often fought the fires in the region, based on traditional knowledge derived from their deep attachments to ancestral territory.

The fires that hit the community in 2020 and 2021 originated in nearby areas, such as the Pantanal National Park and local agribusiness farms, as established by the federal police in an ongoing restricted investigation.

Fogo no entorno da Comunidade de Barra de São Lourenço

After the fire, came the ash fallout

Engulfed by these incidents, the community did not anticipate what was to come next: the ash fallout that enveloped their territory following a climatic phenomenon. It was October 13, 2020, and as per Dona Leonida:

Well, then the fire was put out, and all our agony came to an end. Until then, we were, as they say, feeling like we were above the fire. That we were being burned alive because it was so close. But by the grace of God it was over. At least we thought it was over, because then the rain came. We were very happy, despite everything being scorched, destroyed… But unfortunately the ordeal wasn’t over.

Suddenly, there was a windstorm, and the wind gave rise to a huge black blur that we couldn’t identify. I couldn’t explain what it was. At once, it began moving closer and closer… Then we realized it was not smoke, and we thought: by God, fire again? Is it burning again? But it wasn’t fire, it was ash, a great deal of it, ash coming down so hard… We covered our doors and threw water on our faces before putting on our masks, you know? Because that’s what we used to do when the fire was burning, we wet our masks before putting them on so we could breathe. Then we would dip a towel in water and throw it over our heads like this, you know? So we could breathe and protect our heads. With the children it was more difficult because they did not want to have their faces covered, as soon as you put their masks on, they wanted to take them off.

While inside the house with the doors shut, the gaps blocked with rags, we felt suffocated, overwhelmed by the lack of air. Each of these incidents lasted about forty minutes to an hour until all the ash had passed. We would then quickly open everything, airing the space so we could breathe a little better. This same situation happened six or seven times: when we least expected it, a storm would unfold and with it, a deluge of ash. Many people here have respiratory problems, there were people who fainted, I have issues myself, till this day I feel an itching sensation on my body, other people also feel it, I don’t know what it could be. We should now undergo exams to evaluate this. There were people who got badly sick. Several people fainted due to the smoke and ash.
The families had already lived through days of muddy waters, a direct result of the worst drought in 60 years. Following the fires, the water sources became contaminated with ashes. The community is still uneasy. Dona Leonida continued her account:
And we are in this situation, burdened with these health problems, precisely because of the fires, because of this tragedy that befell our Pantanal. We pray to God that this does not happen again, but we are fearful because we have seen several places burn again, and that would completely wipe out our wildlife and place us in a worse predicament. Because after these incidents we are already almost out of fish, there is no more bait. The plants that we put on the ground, if we don’t attend to them they don’t grow, because the soil is dry, lifeless, so we are now living off our supporters.

As this report shows, the situation faced by this and other traditional pantaneira communities is dire. From 2020 to 2021, there was not enough rain to replenish and “wash off” the Pantanal. As a result, water from rivers and streams, bays and streamlets, is scarce. Water levels are low, some sources are drying, and hence muddy, intermixed with ashes from the fires. This scenario denotes the fragility of the ecosystem and how it affects those who live in and share it.

The Barra de São Lourenço community continues to face many challenges, especially those related to water quality and scarcity.

The community carries out several initiatives that highlight its spirit of hope and resistance, such as the maintenance of a communal vegetable garden, collection of fruits for seedling production, and implementation of a native seedling nursery that will pave the way for the environmental and ecological restoration of the territory. In order to better prepare for the fires, the community has been bolstering its volunteer fire brigade, with its members partaking in fire-fighting trainings and opening a communication channel that will link them with potential partnerships and projects. They remain expectant that their collective rights as a traditional pantaneira community will be recognized and enforced in all corners of the Pantanal.

It is imperative that the State take action by investigating and exposing those responsible for the environmental crimes that have caused irreparable damage to the Pantanal region. Answering these challenges will encompass advocating for public policies and recognizing that, in direct opposition to the devastating fires caused by agribusiness, lie the community’s[3] traditional fire management practices.


On the traditional use of fire by communities, see “Saberes que vem de longe: usos tradicionais do fogo no Cerrado e na Amazônia” [“Knowledge from afar: traditional fire use in the Cerrado and Amazon“]

Cláudia Sala de Pinho is a regional coordinator at the Pantaneira Network of Traditional Communities [Rede de Comunidades Tradicionais Pantaneira] and former president and advisor to the National Council of Traditional Peoples and Communities (Conselho Nacional de Povos e Comunidades Tradicionais, CNPCT)