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The Tenacity of Cantão

By Lindsay Renick Mayer on October 17, 2019   duration 9 min read

Cantão State Park , Brazil (Photo courtesy of Instituto Araguaia)
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Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC) changed its name to Re:wild in 2021

There is a place on Earth so magical that animals that don’t generally coexist prance and play and fly and thrive in the same space. So magical that once a year the lush tropical forests become underwater oases as the Araguaia River overflows, then leaves behind 850 lakes-turned-fish-nurseries after much of the water recedes five months later. It is a place where four-foot-long Giant River Otters build their dens and raise their pups, Pink Dolphins bound through the water, and sly Jaguars perfect their mad fish-catching skills. It is a rare place of life abundant.

It is Brazil’s enchanting Cantão State Park, at the northern tip of an island in the middle of the Araguaia River, where the Amazon rainforest meets the wooded grasslands and savannas of the Cerrado biome on one side, and the wetland marshes of the Pantanal biome the other.

And this year, like so many other places in the Amazon, these precious wildlands, this special and irreplaceable place, was illegally set ablaze, sparking the worst fire in its history.

A Deep Peace

On a Sunday morning in late August, staff from Instituto Araguaia — an NGO whose mission is to protect the biodiversity of Cantão State Park — noticed smoke in the park during a routine patrol. May through November is the dry season, when the team is always on the lookout for fires. This year, however, Instituto Araguaia was on especially high alert.

Cantão State Park on fire The forests of Cantão State Park on fire at the end of August. It took six days for the team, led by Instituto Araguaia, to put the fires out. (Photo courtesy of Instituto Araguaia)

“We were hearing about the fires burning in other parts of the Amazon and in the Cerrado,” says Silvana Campello, president of Instituto Araguaia. “Our current government has created policies that encourage deforestation, which leads to bigger fires, and has also cut patrolling and enforcement efforts in the park. We’ve seen more deforestation this year than we have in the last 10, so of course this year we’ve had the largest fires in a decade. Given the government’s attitude about all of this, we were very concerned that we weren’t going to get the help we would need if Cantão started to burn.”

When the team noticed the smoke, they used a program by a company called Planet to access satellite data, and what they saw in the satellite images confirmed their worst fears — a large fire had broken out near the Cerrado habitat. Most of the fires across the Amazon this year were started to clear land for agricultural production, overwhelmingly cattle and cattle feed, and got out of hand in part because of the drier local microclimate that results from tearing trees out of the ground.

The Instituto Araguaia team putting out the fires. The Instituto Araguaia team putting out the fires. (Photo courtesy of Instituto Araguaia)

The Cantão fire, however, was the result of another illegal activity — fishing. During the dry season, fishermen will come to the state park to illegally catch fish in the lakes, setting fires at their camps to cook. Usually government-led patrols would detect and prevent these activities, but this year, for the first time since 2010, the government suspended its cooperation agreements with all NGOs, and the number of patrol teams that Instituto Araguaia hosted at their base dropped from 38 last year, to zero this year. This August, one of these campfires got wildly out of control.

The government did eventually send help, but not until the second and third days of the fire, after it had already grown significantly. And the fire brigade was unequipped for the job, Campello says, lacking even boots. It took six days to put the fires out, and it was Instituto Araguaia — which had never trained to fight fires of this magnitude — along with community members paid a daily stipend, who led the efforts.

“It was very shocking to see the fire spreading and spreading and spreading and just our team alone out there fighting it,” Campello says. “But at the same time, we were entirely focused on putting the fire down. Nobody ever said ‘oh, enough,’ ‘time to go home,’ ‘time to eat’ or ‘I’m too tired.’ I never heard those words. The team was entirely committed to putting out the fire.”

For Campello, the most heartbreaking part of that week was the knowledge of what the animals — the very wildlife the NGO was established to protect — were experiencing.

“A lot of our people wanted to tell me stories about animals they saw, blind animals, animals trying to run but couldn’t because their paws were completely burned,” Campello says. “Everybody out there putting out the fires were witnessing the animals suffering and wanted to tell me about it. So suddenly a Giant Anteater shows up, totally burned. And you look at the animal and you see their expression and you feel their desperation. It’s so awful. There was a point where I said I didn’t want to hear it anymore. It was too much for me. That was my limit.”

In the end, it turned out that Instituto Araguaia was not left to fight the fires alone. Earth Alliance, a philanthropic alliance that includes Global Wildlife Conservation, worked with American Bird Conservancy to send funds from the Amazon Forest Fund to Instituto Araguaia to fight these fires. ABC partners with Instituto Araguaia on protecting habitat in the state park for the Endangered Kaempfer’s Woodpecker.

On the last day of the fires, Campello and George Georgiadis, executive director of Instituto Araguaia, sent this update to ABC, once the fires had finally been put out:

“We have had to use the research canoe with an electric motor to go back and forth between the fires and the base. Even at top speed, it is slow and very silent. It is a surreal experience to leave the hectic scene of the firefighting, or the equally hectic base where we are organizing logistics and sending out appeals for help, and in between be immersed for a while in the deep peace of Cantão, with river dolphins breathing softly as they follow the canoe and the timeless calls of the Tinamous echoing in the forest. Only when we look behind us and see the twin columns of smoke rising from either side of the river do we come back to the sad world we humans are creating.”

‘The Kind of Stuff Conservation Needs'

When Campello and Georgiadis first visited Bananal Island in 1996 as environmental consultants, they were mesmerized by what they found. “When we first set foot in this region as biologists, we were immediately struck by how incredibly rich and diverse this place was,” Campello says. “The more we learned, the more we fell in love with it. But the more we learned, the more fearful we were that a tsunami wave of soy monoculture would devastate the region.”

So they helped the Tocantins state government establish Cantão State Park in 1998, working on the park’s design, filling out the necessary paperwork and developing the park’s legal framework. That’s also when they created Instituto Araguaia, with the mission to protect the biodiversity of the Araguaia River basin, to do scientific research to better understand the place, and to build a local and global constituency in support of the park. They have committed their life to this place ever since.

Fast-forward more than 20 years and the locals, once annoyed that the establishment of the state park meant that they were prohibited from fishing in the lakes in Cantão, have now embraced the protection, noting the increase of fish in the Araguaia River. The Instituto Araguaia team has developed relationships with both the indigenous communities on the island and landowners who have been willing to set aside large areas of their property for conservation.

But they’re also taking stock of the destructive force of the first of what may be many fires to come in future years. Most of the damage, they found, was in the pristine Cerrado forest, with some damage to the Amazon rainforest, which will take decades to restore, Campello says. A number of acres set aside by landowners were also destroyed, in addition to one of the areas Instituto Araguaia had been considering next acquiring for conservation. They’ve also lost a season of scientific research, which included the tracking a family of Giant Otters whose den ended up collapsing during the fire.

Scientific research in Brazil Part of Instituto Araguaia’s mission is to carry out scientific research and disseminate scientific data that will contribute to the region’s conservation. (Photo courtesy of Instituto Araguaia)

The biggest surprise, however, came a few weeks after the fire, in the form of what amounts to a $15,000 fine from the local government. Brazil has a law that prohibits publicizing images of a park for commercial purposes without authorization. It is under this law that the local government is fining Instituto Araguaia, which posted photos of the fires and heroic efforts to combat them on social media and worked with TV crews that were sharing the story as it unfolded. The photos weren’t used commercially, and this exemplifies a worrisome trend of persecution of environmentalists in Brazil, Campello says.

“After we put the fire out, we gave the staff bonuses and then we all relaxed,” Campello says. “While we were in battle, the blood was hot, as we say. And then when we were done, we thought wow, this could happen again. This is not the end of it. And then two weeks later we got the fine from the local government for sharing the story of what was happening. You realize it’s endless. It all makes you understand that you can’t relax. We can’t ever relax.”

So instead the team is using the rest of the funds it received from the Amazon Forest Fund to prepare for the next crisis, whether it’s putting out another fire, or rescuing an animal stranded during the dry season because of the irrigation licenses the government is issuing. This includes buying water tanks, boots, masks and other equipment, and training staff for an increase in these kinds of emergencies.

“We simply cannot count on the government’s support,” Campello says. “We also cannot expose our people to the dangers that we have exposed them to this year. So we need to be prepared on our own for the task.”

And when asked whether the last few months have broken Instituto Araguaia’s spirit at all, Campello is quick to respond with the kind of tenacity reserved for places like Cantão and environmental heroes like Campello and her team.

“We are not giving up,” she says. “We will never give up. We have the kind of stuff that conservation needs right now. We need to stand up and say the truth, present the facts. And the fact is these are pristine environments that need to be preserved, Cantão is one of our planet’s hotspots. We must do whatever we can to deliver this to the future.”

About the author

Lindsay Renick Mayer

Lindsay is the Director of Media Relations for Re:wild and has a particular interest in leveraging communications to inspire conservation action. Lindsay is passionate about species-based conservation and finding compelling ways to tell stories that demonstrate the value of all of the planet’s critters, big and microscopic.

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