A record amount of the world’s largest tropical wetland has been lost to the fires devastating Brazil this year, destroying a delicate ecosystem that is one of the most biologically diverse habitats on the planet. The huge fires, often set by ranchers and farmers to clear land, have engulfed more than 10 percent of the Brazilian wetlands, known as the Pantanal. Scientists say this is an unprecedent number.
Between January and August, the fires in Pantanal – area located in southwest Brazil – raged across an estimated 7,861 square miles, according to analysis conducted by NASA. The previous record was in 2005, when approximately 4,608 square miles burned in the biome during the same period.
If that’s not tragic enough, to the north of the country, the fires in the Brazilian Amazon – many of them also deliberately set for commercial cleaning – have been devastating as well. The amount of Brazilian rainforest lost to fires is similar to the scale of the destruction during the entire last year. As a reminder, the results from 2019 drew global condemnation and increased the tension between Brazil and its trading partners, especially in Europe.
The enormous scale of the fires in the Amazon and Pantanal, many of them were visible to astronauts in space, has drawn less attention in a year overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic and the protests over police brutality spread all over the world.
However, experts called this year’s fires in Pantanal a particularly disturbing loss and the latest ecological crisis that has developed on the watch of President Jair Bolsonaro, whose policies have prioritized economic development over environmental protection. The President has constantly denied the fires, making assertions that are clearly false.
Owners of soy fields and cattle ranches set fires on their lands during the months of July and August, when the water level retrocedes. This year, several of those fires skipped over traditional barriers, powered by strong winds in the region.
During the wet season from October to March, most of the Pantanal region floods with water that might overwhelm populations downstream. As it dries from April to September, it provides a much-needed source of water for those populations. But the area, like much of the country, has been mired in drought this year, with below-normal rainfall and near-record temperatures during the wet season.
“The fires in Pantanal this year are really unprecedented,” said Douglas C. Morton, chief of the Biospheric Sciences Laboratory at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, who has studied fires and agricultural activity in South America for two decades. “It’s a massive area.”
Last year’s fires in the Amazon stimulated a major backlash against Brazil, which continues to face boycott threats and potential unraveling of a trade deal with the European Union. Trying to improve its image, the government declared a 120-day prohibition on fires in the Amazon and Pantanal last July. It also launched a military operation to prevent commercial deforestation, which is the main cause of fires in the country.
But experts say those measures have served mainly to manage a public relations crisis and have done little to the environment. They say the government’s efforts have fallen short because it failed to prosecute the leaders of the organizations driving deforestation. The government has also been unable to enforce regulations in protected areas and collect the environmental fines that are issued.
“There’s a sense that environmental laws can be ignored with impunity,” says Ane Alencar, the science director at the Amazon Environmental Research Institute in Brazil. “That’s clearly the result of how the government has been dealing with these questions.”
Across the Pantanal, firefighters, local tourism professionals and volunteers have joined forces to help firefighters combat the fires, a gigantic task that has often felt hopeless as the density of the smoke in the air makes it impossible to drench the flames from aircraft. “We received calls from people in tears, asking for help to combat fire on their property, but we couldn’t do anything,” Jean Oliveira, a firefighter in Mato Grosso state told during a meeting at the command base. “Fighting forest fires is like a war, and every day is a battle.”
One of the biggest losses in this year’s tragedy is the region’s wildlife. Many creatures thrive in the mosaic landscape that includes flooded areas, grasslands, lakes and forests. Scientists have documented more than 580 species of birds, 271 of fish, 174 mammals, 131 reptiles and 57 amphibians in the region.
The devastating images of the fires destroying that rich ecosystem, burning our fauna and flora and the general hopelessness must have some impact on society. We need to look at the root of the problem. What is happening now is a warning, and the question is what we will learn from all this tragedy.