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UN Urged to Protect Pantanal As Fires Threaten World Heritage Site

'In Danger' Status Sought Over Brazil’s Failure to Address Fires, Livestock Expansion
WASHINGTON -

The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned today for “in danger” status for the Pantanal World Heritage site in Brazil, which has been ravaged by severe, human-caused fires in recent years. As this year’s fire season escalates, fire outbreaks are jeopardizing the Pantanal — the world’s largest tropical wetland — and its imperiled wildlife.

Today's petition urges the UNESCO World Heritage Committee to include the Pantanal site on the List of World Heritage in Danger. If the Pantanal is listed, the committee will adopt corrective actions for Brazil’s management of the site to ensure the country complies with its World Heritage Convention obligations and addresses threats to the site’s integrity.

“UNESCO action is critical because the Brazilian government hasn’t done nearly enough to stop new fires from burning down the Pantanal’s incredible biodiversity,” said petition author Alex Olivera, a senior scientist and Mexico representative of the Center for Biological Diversity. “President Bolsonaro’s policies promote clearing land in the Pantanal for agriculture and livestock, and he’s weakening Brazil’s environmental enforcement and monitoring agencies by cutting funds. This compromises the government’s ability to prevent and fight fires, putting the whole ecosystem at risk.”

Since 2019 the Pantanal has suffered unprecedented fires that have devastated millions of hectares of critical wetland and other habitats. One-third of the Pantanal World Heritage Site burned in 2020 alone. Scientists estimate 17 million vertebrate animals died in the fires, epitomized by heartbreaking photos of jaguars with burned paws.

The 2022 fires have already destroyed a larger area than the same period last year, affecting the land and health of Indigenous and local communities and devastating the area’s biodiversity.

The Pantanal provides both essential habitat for imperiled species and ecological services. But it has been significantly modified by recent fires caused mainly by human action and fueled by drought, climate change, and the lack of effective public policies.

UNESCO designated the Pantanal Conservation Area as a World Heritage property in 2000 in recognition of the area's outstanding biodiversity. The biome is home to at least 3,500 species of plants, about 600 birds, 150 mammals, 175 reptiles, 40 amphibians and 300 freshwater fish. The Pantanal harbors animals that are in danger of extinction in other regions, such as the tuiuiú and jaguar, marsh deer, giant otter and macaw. Many of the Pantanal’s threatened animals exist nowhere else on Earth.

Under the World Heritage Convention, a site may be listed as “in danger” if is “threatened by serious and specific dangers,” including but not limited to “disappearance caused by accelerated deterioration” or “destruction caused by changes in the use of the site.”

If a property deteriorates “to the point where it has irretrievably lost those characteristics which determined its inscription on the List,” the property may lose its World Heritage status. An “in danger” designation will focus international attention on the Pantanal site and its habitat, as well as the ecological and cultural threats presented by Bolsonaro’s public policies.

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At the Center for Biological Diversity, we believe that the welfare of human beings is deeply linked to nature — to the existence in our world of a vast diversity of wild animals and plants. Because diversity has intrinsic value, and because its loss impoverishes society, we work to secure a future for all species, great and small, hovering on the brink of extinction. We do so through science, law and creative media, with a focus on protecting the lands, waters and climate that species need to survive. 

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