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Firefighters work to extinguish a fire in a ranch amongst smoke in the Pantanal, the world's largest wetland, in Pocone, Mato Grosso state, Brazil, Aug. 28, 2020.  

Environment

Brazil’s wetlands ravaged by out-of-control wildfires

Over 7 million acres of the Pantanal has gone up in smoke — roughly 50% more than all of the land that has burned so far along the entire US West Coast.

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Firefighters work to extinguish a fire in a ranch amongst smoke in the Pantanal, the world's largest wetland, in Pocone, Mato Grosso state, Brazil, Aug. 28, 2020.  

Credit:

Amanda Perobelli/Reuters 

A car rumbles over a dirt road through an apocalyptic-looking scene in Encontro das Águas State Park in Brazil's Pantanal, the world’s largest, tropical wetland.

Fires engulf the forest while thick, black smoke fills the air. A sick, red orb of a sun hangs on the horizon watching over the destruction, a recent video shows.

The Pantanal, one of the most biodiverse regions in South America, is home to the largest concentration of jaguars on the planet.

Related: Brazil’s Indigenous peoples fight COVID-19 in their territories amid government neglect

The area has been almost completely destroyed by catastrophic wildfires ripping through the region this past year. Over 7 million acres of the Pantanal has gone up in smoke, according to Brazil's National Center for the Prevention of Forest Fires. This is roughly 50% more than all of the land that has burned so far along the entire West Coast: California, Oregon and Washington, combined, an analysis by The World shows. 

About 22% of the Pantanal’s unique biome has burned, according to Vinicius Silgueiro, director of the Center of Life Institute, which has been monitoring the extent of the destruction. He says that 95% of that land contained native vegetation, a stunning loss.

“We’ve never seen anything like this. That’s why we are so distraught. It’s so hard to accept this scenario.” 

Vinicius Silgueiro, Center of Life Institute

“We’ve never seen anything like this. That’s why we are so distraught. It’s so hard to accept this scenario,” he said.

This year’s drought, the worst in almost 50 years, is making it hard to fight the blazes, which have been burning for more than 70 days. With the rainy season not expected to arrive until November, many are concerned for what still lies ahead, this year, and far into the future.

Related: Brazil’s Indigenous communities suffer grave losses from coronavirus 

“These more severe droughts that we are facing are further confirmation that every year the climate crisis is getting worse,” Silgueiro said. “For me, it’s very intense. This was the most-preserved, natural biome in Brazil.”

Sheila S. Santana, a lieutenant colonel overseeing teams of firefighters in the region, agrees: “Truly, the challenges to fight and control the fires in the Pantanal region are huge, and very atypical compared with previous years,” said

They’ve been fighting to clear vegetation and build trenches or firebreaks to stop the fires.

“Unfortunately, most of the time, we end up losing, because the wind fuels the fire and it jumps the firebreaks and the blaze continues,” said Fernando Tortato, a biologist who spent more than a month working as a volunteer firefighter near the Encontro das Águas Park.

Last week, the state of Paraná announced it would send in reinforcements and equipment to fight the fires, which are not natural — they are often started by cattle ranchers and large landowners looking to clear forest for pastures. Federal police are investigating five landowners who they believe are behind some of the fires.

President Jair Bolsonaro has recognized the Pantanal fires as a federal emergency and allocated $2 million to fight the blazes on top of the usual firefighting budget. But environmentalists blame Bolsonaro for giving a green light for illegal fires like these. He’s pushed development in the countryside and largely suspended fines for environmental violations like setting fires.

Related: Brazilian housing movements fight surging evictions amid coronavirus

Bolsonaro denies that climate change is a major issue. He’s gutted environmental agencies. In May 2019, he cut 95% of the country’s funds allocated to fighting climate change.

Last week, he fired back at criticism of his government’s handling of the fires and the environmental concerns.

“Brazil is the country that preserves the environment the most. Some don't understand that. It's the country that suffers the most attacks from abroad regarding its environment.”

Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro

“Brazil is the country that preserves the environment the most,” Bolsonaro said. “Some don't understand that. It's the country that suffers the most attacks from abroad regarding its environment.”

‘There’s nothing left’ 

“The wildlife are the true victims of the fire,” said Abbie Martin, director of the Jaguar Identification Project and founder of the Pantanal Relief Fund. “There are only estimates on the impact of the wildlife, but the numbers are well into the hundreds of thousands of dead … Mainly snakes, reptiles, caimans, but they’re even seeing dead deer, dead tapir, dead monkeys, dead coati.”

Teams of volunteers are working to rescue the animals. In this video, a local guide asks for help to save an adult Brazilian tapir and her young. The animal breathes heavy and lays motionless near charred grass. The volunteers pour water into a trough and push it toward her.

Related: Indigenous mothers in Brazil mourning their children's deaths seek closure

Martin says her group has set up 20 water troughs like this in the hardest-hit areas, so animals can get water.

Another video shows a team of almost a dozen people working to help a hurt jaguar. It lays unconscious on a table behind the back of a pickup truck. They wash and wrap its paws, which have been burnt from the charred ground.

Fortunately, Martin says, this is one of only a few jaguars that they know of that has been seriously injured. Most have found a way to avoid the fires.

Meanwhile, the fires have seriously impacted the Indigenous Guató and Bororo communities that live in the Pantanal region, destroying nearly half of Indigenous land in the Pantanal, according to a report from the Brazilian news outlet Agencia Publica. At least 100 members of the Bororo people had to be evacuated from their homes on Sept. 13.

“Look at this. Everything’s burned. There’s nothing left. It’s terrifying the speed at which this fire came.”

a member of the Native Gautó people in a video

“Look at this. Everything’s burned. There’s nothing left,” said a member of the Native Gautó people in this video. The black and charred land of their territory stretches to the horizon. Smoke rises from the burning forest in the distance. “It’s terrifying the speed at which this fire came.”

“We have also received word that they don’t have potable water because they are drinking water, which is dirty from the fires because there has been no rain,” said Eliane Xunakalo, a leader of the Mato Grosso Federation of Indigenous Organizations.

“The Amazon is under attack, the Pantanal is under attack,” Xunakalo said. “We know that if these biomes are destroyed it is going to impact a lot of people, not just us Indigenous.”

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