History, environment and poetry: multiple narratives of the nature-cultures of the Brazilian Pantanal

In today’s blog, Ana Lucia Camphora, whose book Animals and Society in Brazil will be published by WHP in Spring 2021 spotlights the ongoing ecological damage to a unique Brazilian ecosystem.

 It is 31 October 2020, smoke still billows from the soil in some places in Brazil’s Pantanal,  the result of fire that has penetrated deeply into ground and roots.  After the worst drought in the history of the biome, the rainy season is approaching, slowly and late.  The unparalleled fires that destroyed around 26% of the biome over September and October of this year are already being referred to as the most devasting environmental disaster to date in the world’s largest freshwater wetland.

Tuiuiu bird. By kind permission of Gustavo Pedro, 2017.

Severe damage wrought on the incredible biodiversity of the Pantanal has not yet been adequately assessed, nor have its impacts on the delicate balance of  primary productivity, nutrient availability, water quality and population dynamics of the floodplains.

The Pantanal and its singular entanglements of nature-cultures are driven by a defiant balance of cyclical variations of floodplains.  When I visited the Pantanal once, a moment in the 1990s, I was impacted by its uniqueness, an almost indescribable experience in a landscape of light, water and sky. This stunning scenery is also an expression of the powerful reality in which human and non-human animals have lived in close interconnection to the physical variations of elements. In fact, over the last decades, due to  regional economic development, the levels and the structure of such entanglements have become uneven, mainly concerning the most characteristic activity, cattle ranching. The traditional routine of the ‘pantaneiro’ (cattleman), and  intensive agribusiness technology coexist, with contrasting  temporalities, scope  and environmental pressures. 

Seeking to move beyond a linear understanding of these events, my approach here involves the use of a lens that enables us to examine the materiality and immateriality of the real world, the reciprocal shaping of multispecies events in plural timescales, based on contributions from history, literature, poetry and natural sciences.

Capivara and black bird. By kind permission of Gustavo Pedro, 2011

Two renowned Brazilian writers have opened our minds to the beings who live entangled with the reality of the Pantanal landscape, and to the inherent senses of belonging, vulnerability and resilience that are characteristic of such hybrid protagonism. The post-Modernist poet Manoel de Barros (1916–2014), who was born and lived in the Pantanal region, wrote of human beings transformed into stones, plants, wildlife and objects. Blurring the boundaries between fiction and reality, Barros’s ecopoetics is engaged with the ‘ninhais’ (place where thousands of birds nest), the snakes, alligators, jaguars, large rodents and many other living creatures associated with these ‘more than human histories’.  

João Guimarães Rosa (1908–1967) plunged into the intersubjectivity of pantaneiro man, his horse and cattle in the tale ‘Entremeios com o vaqueiro Mariano’ (‘Reminiscing with Mariano, the cattleman’). In an intense ‘conjugation of regional, popular speech’ and with singular narrative inventiveness, Rosa gave visibility to their daily routine,  as well as to their joint battle against wildfire, which occurred as a result of the climatic-landscape variations of the dry season. Walking alongside both these poets who reinvented the relationship between language and natural world, I reflect on how natural and cultural realms are woven together. I ask how, from the complementarity between these different perspectives, a greater understanding of such unlimited complexity and richness can emerge. As Manoel de Barros wrote,

Wish to be

Science is able to classify and name the organs of a

sabiá thrush

but it cannot measure its charms.

Science cannot calculate how much horsepower

exists in the charms of a sabiá thrush.[1]

The natural heritage: ‘In the breeze a silence of herons is always coming[2]

In 2000,  Brazil’s Pantanal Conservation Area was included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List, for its uniquely important ecological gradient and dramatic landscape. The Pantanal is the smallest of the six Brazilian biomes, defined as a collection of diverse fauna and flora characteristic of a landscape formed by specific geological and climate conditions. Covering 1.78 % of Brazilian territory, its 140,000 square kilometres correspond to almost twice the territory of Ireland. 

The Chapter on Environment of the Brazilian Constitution of 1988 recognises the Pantanal, the Amazonian Forest, the Atlantic Forest, the coastal area and the Serra do Mar (long system of mountains and escarpments of the Southeastern coast) as national heritage and determines that their  usage must ensure their environmental sustainability. The Brazilian System of Protected Areas (Sistema Nacional de Unidades de Conservação – SNUC)  is structured  at Brazilian municipal (county), state and federal levels, and encompasses various categories of protected areas oriented toward the integral protection and sustainable use of natural resources. By 2018, a total of 34 protected areas covered around 5.4 % of the Pantanal, still below the target of 10 % established by the UN Biodiversity Convention.[3]

The phytogeography of Pantanal is classified into 11 sub-regions, characterised according to their flooding regime, soil, vegetation and topography. Areas of connectivity between different biomes are especially valuable in terms of biodiversity and, in this regard, the Pantanal is connected to the Amazon, to the north; Cerrado, to the east; Atlantic Forest, to the centre-south; and to the Bolivian and Paraguayan Chaco, to the west. 

Ariranha and fish. By kind permission of Gustavo Pedro, 2013

The land occupation: ‘Men from this place are a continuation of the waters[4]

The Pantanal’s earliest occupants were the native Amerindian people of Guapó, Bororo, Xaraiés and Orijone. Guapos people were skilled canoeists and jaguar hunters.[5] The history of colonial occupation of the region begins later, in the eighteenth century,  made very difficult by the variations of the floods, which systematically imposed natural obstacles to transit, settlement and other human activities. The environment of the wetlands was seen as the source of damage and loss, insalubrity, unfertile land and disease and, in this context, the development of human activities was widely described as a (partial) triumph  over nature. 

Such loneliness!

Alligators making their way through the house, its  empty rooms

Grabbing  fish from table  drawers[6]

Over the centuries, the occupation of the floodplains was defined by large-scale low-intensity cattle ranching, subsistence fishing and mining activities which distinguished the singular culture of ‘pantaneiro’ and its deep environmental interconnections. The roughness, bravery and persistence that defined the character and personality of the Pantaneiro man were also assimilated as attributes of the domesticated non-human animals which participated in the process of regional development, becoming a singular trait of regional breeds – the Pantaneiro cattle and the Pantaneiro horse. 

Both cattle and horses crossed the Paraguay River and the borders of  Spanish and Portuguese colonies of South America. Herds  flocked to the natural pastures of Pantanal as part of the movement associated with mining activities in the city of Cuiabá, from 1740, and the War of Paraguay (1864–1870). The first ranchers faced complications in transporting herds by boat over the Paraguay River, through the floodplains. 

The Pantaneiro cattle was one of the first Brazilian breeds to emerge over the course of centuries of adaptation to regional diversity and, above all, to the precarious systems of management that had no variation from one region to another.  Main breed characteristics continue to be rusticity, hard hooves that can bear dry or wet soil, and good adaptation to insect attack and extreme climate variation.

The Pantaneiro horse is defined as a unique equine able to endure the cyclical adversities and hard work of the floodplains. Grazing with cattle in natural pastures, the main  threats to their survival are jaguars and snakes. Descending from the Iberian horses brought to the Americas by Spanish and Portuguese colonisers, they are described as breed that runs well on both dry and wet lands.  According the Brazilian Association of Pantaneiro Horse Breeders, there are 5,000 purebred specimens in Brazil today (ABCCP, 2020).

Poet Manoel de Barros transmitted the vivid intimacy and timeless interlinkage between man, cattle and horse, who have worked together despite of the adversities of extensive journeys and Pantanal’s slow-moving routines.

In solitude horses moved in circles,

Calves nibbled on cattlemen’s clothes[7]

‘Here, the bulls raise us’[8]

João Guimarães Rosa’s tale describes his meeting with José Mariano da Silva, Pantaneiro cattleman, in the ranch ‘Firme’ (a Portuguese word making reference in this case to land that is ‘firm’ and dry). In response to his request to ‘know about the soul’ of the bulls, Rosa heard stories such as one about a young bull named Guabiru, who always bellowed nine times on his way back to the ranch in the evening. Mariano also recounted the panic of herds that agglomerated in small dry areas to escape the waters of the floodplains, which at the end of the rainy season became a veritable  heap of bones. He provided a detailed account of when he and his horse steered herds to escape fire, surrounded by smoke, flames, ashes and by confused birds in flight, injured cattle running alongside deer. All attempting to escape that inferno, ‘we kept waiting, in there with the bulls, all brothers … closing their eyes, trusting us. My horse, who was spirited, did not put down his ears, not calm at all, like me.[9]

The flooding regime is an annual phenomenon propagated from north to south by the influence of Amazonian rainfall on the Paraguay River. Intense cyclical flooding is responsible for high nutrient levels (biochemical, micro-nutrients and invertebrates) in both terrestrial and aquatic areas, which in turn respond with a plentiful supply of fauna.[10]

There was only water and early sun in this corner.

Men herded cattle. Things did not yet have names.  

As in the beginning of time.  Then came the piranha.  Next, Sundays and holidays.[11]

Yet it can be potentially unstable, with unexpected consequences for living beings. There are historical registers of extensive dry seasons and great flooding, as well as in the more recent past,  from the 1940s to the 1980s.[12]

The river that bent back behind our house was the

image of a piece of soft glass that bent back behind

our house.

Later a man passed through and said: That bend in the

river back behind your house is called a slough.

It was no longer the image of a glass snake that

bent back behind the house.

It was a slough.

I think the name impoverished the image.[13]

In a process that encompasses both destruction and reconstruction, fire has been an irrefutable expression of human occupation.  Traditionally, ranchers used fire to clean pastures, eliminating the haematophagous bats, flies and snakes which led to herd losses. According to them, without this burning there wouldbe significant accumulation of dry vegetation which in turn would lead to ‘great’ and uncontrolled fires.[14]

Over the last few decades, the expansion of cattle farming has intensified environmental impacts affecting the resilience and the ecosystems’ restorative capacity. In circumstances of climate change, the consequences of fire have strongly affected the biodiversity as well as the spreading of nutrients throughout the entire basin and the most important reserve for maintaining fish stocks.[15] The sustainability of dispersed traditional communities, including Amerindian villages, and of regional ecotourism,  are linked to underwater biodiversity, directly threatened by these impacts.

The intensification of livestock production in the Pantanal was a result of the prohibition of sugar cane production in the Amazonian and Pantanal biomes, from 2009. The concentration of sugar plantations in states previously occupied by livestock activity stimulated the search for pastureland  in the north and central-western regions, as did the increased price and demand for beef,  and  government incentives for cattle ranchers. The Pantaneiro cattle is a rare breed that would require protection in genome banks, while extensive pastures are now full of Nelores, a zebu breed. In 2016, the estimated cattle population in Pantanal territory was of around 7.6 million head.[16]   

The Pantanal knows no bounds[17]

Satellite images have widened global awareness of loss of Pantanal nature-cultures.  The recent history of fires in Pantanal records the effects of climate change on the biome, providing a baseline to the implementation of urgent alternative management and effective enforcement. The database available from 2002 from the National Institute of Spacial Research (INPE),  offers a picture of the area that has been impacted, as presented in the graph below.  The INPE database also permits the association of focal points of fire and the Brazilian registry of rural properties (until now, including only the Amazonian biome), offering a clear localisation of their source in one specific rural property.  In preparing this graph, I took September and October as references for the period of greatest concentration of fires in the region. There were a few years (2014 and 2018) in which the areas where fires occurred remained under 2,000 square kilometres. 

Graph 1. 

Source: National Institute of Spacial Research – INPE (Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais) 2020. Portal of Fire Monitoring,  available at http://www.inpe.br/queimadas, 20 Nov. 2020.
Fire in the Pantanal biome,  September 2020. Source: National Institute of Spacial Research – INPE (Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais) 2020. Portal of Fire Monitoring,  available at http://www.inpe.br/queimadas, 20 Nov. 2020.

Ironically, the traditional argument that associates risk of fire with the amount of dry vegetation underwrote the official position of the Brazilian government concerning environmental disaster.  For both the Ministries of Environment and of Agriculture, cattle in Pantanal can be seen as ‘firefighter animals’ whose grazing directly contributes to decreasing accumulated vegetation and, consequently, the risk of fires. They attributed the origin of fires to the preserved natural vegetation of protected areas, arguing that intensified grazing of livestock in Pantanal lands is the best way to avoid future fires.[18]

The objectivity of satellite images cannot be blinded by discourses of arsonists which are aligned to the lack of Brazilian environmental policies. Fortunately, walking alongside Manoel de Barros’ poetry, it is possible to highlight the fundamental capacity of reconciliation between humanity and nature, denying any idea of purity and distinctness, in a radical intimacy perspective: an ecocritical claim to engage us in a profound solidarity with everything that comprises the more-than-human-world.    

The dry leaf travels

 along the river – a frog sitting on  it

chooses clouds

In the clouds,  a fire of herons[19]

[1]          Manoel de Barros (‘Desejar ser’, 340-341), translated by M.K. McNee, ‘Backyard Swamps and the Cosmos: Place, Space, and the Intersubjective Mesh in the Poetry of Manoel de Barros’. Ellipsis 11 (2013): 161–186, (p. 178).

[2]          Manoel de Barros (‘Seis ou treze coisas que eu aprendi sozinho), in M. Barros, Poesia completa – Manoel de Barros (São Paulo: Leya, 2010), p. 258.                            

[3]          J.V.B. Chaves, and J.S.V. Silva, ‘Evolução das unidades de conservação no Pantanal no período de 1998 a 2018. Anais 7 Simpósio de Geotecnologias no Pantanal, MS, EMBRAPA Informática Agropecuária/INPE’, (2018) pp. 676–685.

[4]          Manoel de Barros (‘Narrador apresenta sua terra natal’, 53-54), in Poesia completa, p. 197.                                             

[5]          https://observatoriopantanal.org/povos-tradicionais

[6]          Manoel de Barros (‘A voz de meu pai’, 14-16), in Barros, Poesia completa, p. 77.                                                          

[7]          M. Barros (A voz de meu pai, 59-61) in Barros, Poesia completa, p. 77.            

[8]           J.G. Rosa, ‘Entremeios com o vaqueiro Mariano, in Rosa, Estas estórias (Rio de Janeiro: José Olympio, 1976), pp. 67–98 (p. 72).     

[9]          Ibid., p.77.

[10]         C.J.R. Alho et al. (2019) ‘Ameaças à biodiversidade do Pantanal brasileiro pelo uso e ocupação da terra’, Ambiente and Sociedade  22(2019): 1–22.                                                     

[11]         M. Barros (Nos primórdios) in Barros, Poesia completa, pp. 209–210.  

[12]         I.R. Kmitta, ‘Descortinando os pantanais: a construção de um paraíso às avessas entre o limite das águas e dos homens’. Tese Doutorado. História. Universidade Federal da Grande Dourados, 2016. 

[13]         Manoel de Barros (‘Uma didática da invenção’, 340-341), trans. by M.K. McNee, ‘Backyard Swamps and the Cosmos’, pp. 178–179.             

[14]         O.C. Rossetto, ‘Sustentabilidade Ambiental do Pantanal Mato-Grossense: interfaces entre cultura, economia e globalização’, Revista Nera, Ano 12, 15,  jul/dez 2009:  88–105.                                     

[15]         https://whc.unesco.org/en/decisions/2428

[16]         L.O.F. Oliveira et al. ‘Estimativa da população de bovinos no Pantanal por meio de modelos matemáticos e índices tradicionais’,   Comunicado Técnico, 99, ISSN1981-7231 (2016).

[17]         M. Barros, (Mundo Renovado), in Barros, Poesia completa, p. 206.                 

[18]         https://valor.globo.com/brasil/noticia/2020/10/09/boi-e-o-bombeiro-do-pantanal-diz-ministra-da-agricultura.ghtml, accessed 27 Nov. 2020.

[19]        M. Barros (Beija-flor de rodas vermelhas, 20-23) in Barros, Poesia complete, p. 268.

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