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AP investigates Brazil’s weak response to burning wetlands

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A Brazil-based AP all-formats team went beyond just documenting the fires that swept across Brazil’s Pantanal wetlands, decimating wildlife, but also reported that the government’s meager response allowed the blazes to spiral out of control.

The Brazilian government said it mobilized hundreds of troops and agents to douse wildfires in the Pantanal – the world’s largest tropical wetlands. The AP sent video journalist Tatiana Pollastri and photographer Andre Penner to the remote region, and what they found was galling: Dozens of people said the government had exaggerated its response, particularly initially. Some assistance came from planes dropping water, but only after great delay. Almost one-quarter of the Pantanal went up in flames – an area bigger than the state of Maryland, and double what California lost this year.

The AP used witness testimonials,local data and its journalists’ own observations – they didn’t find a single armed forces member during five days in the northern Pantanal,where the fires were centered. Sources yielded further evidence. With help from news director David Biller and reporter Mauricio Savarese,Pollastri convinced a pilot to confirm the rumors that the government had prevented firefighting planes from flying,which hadn’t even been reported elsewhere. A government source who was involved in the Pantanal fire strategy later confirmed the same,despite the continued assertion by Brazil’s environment ministry that its response was stellar. The Pantanal registered far more fires in 2020 than any year on record.

Penner’s photos were powerful,showing the fire’s impact on animals that perished,were injured and lost their habitat. And video coverage was compelling,with both Pollastri filming on the ground and Penner shooting drone footage that revealed massive devastation.

The team produced multiple packages, one of which was the most used from Latin America by AP clients for all of September.

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A volunteer tries to douse a fire on the Transpantaneira road in the Pantanal wetlands near Pocone, Mato Grosso state, Brazil, Sept. 11, 2020. The number of fires in the world’s largest tropical wetland more than doubled in the first half of 2020 compared to the same period last year, according to data released by a state institute. – AP Photo / Andre Penner
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