Brazil’s Pantanal wetlands face worst fires

By Thomson Reuters Jun 12, 2024 | 6:04 PM

CORUMBA, Brazil (Reuters) – Fatima Brandao goes looking for her chickens in the backyard amidst a veil of smoke from the spreading fires that are engulfing the world’s largest tropical wetland faster than ever before.

“There never used to be smoke here. The sun shone clearly and the sky was always blue. Now the whole hill is on fire and smoke has clouded the entire area,” she said.

The Pantanal wetlands in central-western Brazil are home to a wide variety of animals, including jaguars, anacondas and giant anteaters.

A shortfall of rain this year has caused the wildfire season to start earlier and become more intense than in previous years, threatening to exceed the worst blazes on record that in 2020 decimated a third of the wetlands and killed 17 million vertebrates.

This year, the fires have already incinerated monkeys, caimans and snakes.

Satellite data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) showed that the Pantanal fires have surged almost tenfold so far this year. The figures have raised alarms as the region heads into the riskiest season for wildfires, which usually starts in July and peaks in August and September.

Brandao who was born and raised here said she has never seen anything like it.

The inhabitants of the Pantanal are mostly farmers, hunters, and fishermen, and they are increasingly turning to ecotourism to tap the rich biodiversity of the wetlands.

Climate change has threatened that livelihood by increasing the incidence of fires that ravage the region, killing the flora and fauna.

“We are breathing in this smoke. Who is going to go out to work in these conditions,” Brandao said, complaining that the smell was acrid and there was dust everywhere in her house.

Weak rains have disrupted the seasonal flooding of the Pantanal wetlands, which are about 10 times the size of the Florida everglades, leaving them more vulnerable to fire.

(Reporting by Leonardo Benessato and Ueslei Marcelino in Corumba and Dani Morera in Sao Paulo; Editing by Sandra Maler)