Brazil Lawmakers Allow Extensive Cattle Ranching in the Pantanal, the World’s Largest Tropical Wetland

Cattle ranching is an important part of Mato Grosso’s economy
Cattle ranching is an important part of Mato Grosso’s economy and of the livelihoods of thousands of people who live there. The state was the largest beef producer in Brazil in 2021, producing around 1.4 million tons of meat. Ednilson Aguiar / Greenpeace
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By Sarah Brown

  • A bill loosening restrictions on cattle ranching in the Pantanal wetland has been approved by the Mato Grosso’s state legislature, prompting concerns it could lead to the loss of thousands of hectares of native vegetation.
  • The Pantanal is a major transitional area between the country’s other major biomes — the Amazon Rainforest, the Atlantic Forest, and the Cerrado grasslands — and its wet area has already shrunk 29% since the 1980s.
  • Advocates say they hope the new bill will bring an additional 1 million head of cattle to the Pantanal and improve declining socioeconomic parameters, but critics have warned of long-term environmental impacts.
  • Another bill, currently being heard in Congress, aims to cut the state of Mato Grosso out from the country’s legally defined Amazon region, further reducing the protection of the biomes within the state.

Lawmakers in Brazil have approved a bill that allows extensive ranching and tourism in protected areas of the Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland. The move by the legislature in Mato Grosso state comes just days after the state’s governor, Mauro Mendes, vetoed a law that would have banned small hydroelectric power plants along the Cuiabá River — a series of developments that environmental activists say threatens to further dismantle environmental regulations in the region.

“It’s a particularly worrying moment for the Pantanal,” Leonardo Gomes, strategy director for SOS Pantanal, a conservation nonprofit, told Mongabay by phone. “These actions loosen a lot of environmental protection in a short space of time.”

The state legislation, known as PL 561/22, has now been sent to Mendes, who has until the end of August to sign it into law. If that happens, the bill will amend a 2008 state law on the Pantanal that currently restricts activities that could damage the environment in the Upper Paraguay River Basin. Under the changes, ranchers would be allowed to graze cattle in permanent preservation areas, known as APPs, and legal reserves, the portion of their land that must remain preserved. Both areas are ostensibly legally protected and untouched reserves, and clearing them is currently prohibited and only permitted in land outside these regions. The amendments would also allow an increase in clearing of native vegetation, as well as permit tourism on protected lands.

About 80% of the Pantanal lies in Brazil. Of that portion, 65% lies in Mato Grosso do Sul state and the rest in Mato Grosso. The other 20% of the Pantanal stretches across Paraguay and Bolivia. Image courtesy of SOS Pantanal.

The Brazilian Pantanal is considered a major transitional area between the country’s other major biomes: the Amazon Rainforest, the Atlantic Forest, and the Cerrado grasslands. It covers an area of nearly 140,000 square kilometers (54,000 square miles), or nearly twice the size of Ireland, with 35% of it in Mato Grosso state and the rest in Mato Grosso do Sul. Extensive cattle farming has been practiced in the wetlands for more than 200 years and is the main economic activity in Mato Grosso. Ranching advocates say the 2008 Pantanal Law compromised the state’s agricultural economy. They say they hope the amendments can restore cattle productivity to pre-2008 levels by adding a million additional head of cattle to the region. They also hope it will boost tourism and lead to an improvement in Mato Grosso’s declining socioeconomic parameters.

“It’s very difficult to live with the farming restrictions we have,” Amado de Oliveira Filho, a technical consultant at the Association of Breeders of Mato Grosso (Acrimat) and participant in the bill’s discussions, told Mongabay by phone. “The Pantanal [in Mato Grosso] is losing economic viability.”

However, critics say the push for agribusiness and tourism overshadows environmental protection measures. “Both states, Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul, are beginning to look more at the Pantanal as a potential source of income from commodities,” Gomes said. “And it’s not wrong to think about the economy. But it is a region that has many peculiarities and fragility.”

The changes will allow ranchers to convert up to 40% of their private land into pasture. The bill also reduces the buffer zone area between farmland and riverbanks — a measure that was imposed to minimize the risk of soil erosion and protect rivers — by up to 70 meters (230 feet). “Just with that change, we will lose a few thousand hectares alongside important rivers of the Pantanal,” Gomes said.

Beyond agriculture, opening protected areas to tourism could also pose a major threat, environmental experts say. The new bill lacks a clear definition of which tourist activities are allowed, risking the construction of “large tourist resorts with high impact potential,” according to a statement from SOS Pantanal.

Extensive cattle ranching in Mato Grosso sees vast herds of cattle graze across immense expanses of land. Ranches in the state are often tens of thousands of hectares large, sometimes spanning up to 100,000 hectares (nearly 250,000 acres). Image © Ednilson Aguiar / Greenpeace.
About 1 million people visit the Pantanal every year, where jaguar tourism has become increasingly popular. It’s an important economic and ecological activity, contributing to conservation in the region and playing a significant role in locals’ livelihoods. Image courtesy of SOS Pantanal

The Mato Grosso Forum for Environment and Development (Formad) published an open letter, signed by 43 organizations and social movements, condemning the bill. “PL 561/2022 is an insult to the Brazilian Forest Code,” Formad said in the statement. “It will harm water quality, animal and plant species, ecological balance, and traditional and indigenous peoples of the Pantanal, largest floodplain in the world, which is already threatened by an increasing loss of its water surface.”

Experts say the bill also violates the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, an International Labour Organization convention that protects traditional peoples’ rights to land resources. Known as Convention 169, which Brazil ratified in 2002, it states that traditional peoples must be consulted about activities that may affect their territories and livelihoods. The Pantanal bill failed to do that for the Indigenous communities, riverside dwellers (ribeirinhos) and Afro-Brazilian hinterland inhabitants (Quilombolas) living in the wetland, according to Lúdio Cabral, a state legislator from the Workers’ Party who voted against the bill.

“Only the farmers who breed cattle were heard in the bill’s negotiations,” Cabral told Mongabay by phone. “The traditional communities, the Quilombolas, the ribeirinho communities, the Indigenous communities — they weren’t heard in the project’s discussions. This is a disrespect of the convention.”

Cabral said that if social organizations and the Public Ministry decide to go to court over this apparent violation, it could prevent the bill from being passed into law.

The Mato Grosso state government did not respond to Mongabay’s request for comment.

The Pantanal is the world’s largest tropical wetland. Environmental experts say the biome has lost 29% of its surface water since the late 1980s, and continues to face grave threats from climate change and agriculture in the region. Image © Gustavo Figueiroa / SOS Pantanal

Loosening Environmental Regulations

The dismantling of environmental protections in the region is moving at a rapid pace, environmental experts say. A week before the approval of PL 561/2022, Mato Grosso Governor Mendes refused to sign a bill that would have banned small hydroelectric power plants along the Cuiabá River, a regional waterway that’s important both for the environment and locals’ livelihoods, despite an overwhelming vote in the state legislature in favor of the bill.

“I think that the Pantanal runs the risk — even if it seems like an exaggeration to say — of disappearing over time,” Herman Oliveria, the executive secretary at Formad, told Mongaby by phone. The potential changes in water flows due to hydropower plants along the Cuiabá, coupled with changing agricultural landscapes, present a grave threat to the wetland, he said. “You will also have what ecologists call a point of no return. The Pantanal will become a desert.”

Another potential threat could come from Brazil’s lower house of Congress, the Chamber of Deputies. In March, the Chamber introduced a bill that seeks to redraw the Amazon’s borders in favor of agribusiness. If approved, the bill, PL 337/2022, would cut the state of Mato Grosso out from the country’s legally defined Amazon region, reducing the protection of areas of vulnerable biomes from up to 80% down to 20%. The bill is currently in deliberation.

A dust track cuts across the landscape in Mato Grosso state. Agribusiness advocates say socioeconomic conditions in the state are declining, and opening up protected land for cattle farming could help bring essential improvements to people’s way of life. Image © Gustavo Figueiroa / SOS Pantanal

“The economic cost of recovering legal reserves, or of compensating for this immense area, is massive and unjustifiable for one of the most important agricultural regions in the country,” Juarez Costa, the congressman responsible for the bill,  told the official news agency for the Chamber.

The dismantling of environmental protections comes at a time when the Pantanal is experiencing record levels of devastation from fires. In 2020, blazes destroyed nearly a third of the biome and killed an estimated 17 million vertebrates. The fires were mostly linked to slash-and-burn farming practices and human-induced climate change, which is drying out the wetland. The Pantanal has lost 29% of its wet area since the late 1980s, according to research collective MapBiomas.

Gomes said any damage done from the changes to environmental regulations won’t be immediate, but will become apparent over time. “The new legislation looks for the short-term benefits rather than the medium- or long-term ones. It favors the immediate results and the speed of development,” Gomes said. “I think that we’ll end up noticing the impact over the next few years or decades.”

Smoke drifts across the horizon as fires tear through dry vegetation in the Pantanal. According to Brazil’s space research institute, INPE, there was a record number of fires in the wetland between January and August 2020, with 7,727 hotspots detected — an increase of 211% over the same period the year before. Leandro Cagiano / Greenpeace

Reposted with permission from Mongabay.

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