Disasters & Accidents

Fire in the Great Pantanal, the largest wetland on the planet

Carlos Meneses

Miranda, Brazil, Nov. 19 (EFE).- In southwestern Brazil, flames continued Sunday to devour everything in their path in the Great Pantanal, the largest wetland on the planet, amid an atmosphere of tension as landowners made access difficult for firefighters and journalists.

Never before has the Great Pantanal, a rich ecosystem shared by Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay and home to one of the largest jaguar populations on the planet, suffered so many fires in November, traditionally a month of spring rains, of which there was no sign this year.

Officials say there have been 3,880 fires so far in November, a record for the month. The causes include the El Niño weather phenomenon and an extreme drought that has affected the Amazon in recent months.

The Great Pantanal lies just south of the Amazon basin and receives rain and moisture from it through atmospheric currents known as “flying rivers”.

In the Brazilian states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul, which border Bolivia, the battle against the fires is being fought day and night.

In addition to temperatures in excess of 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) and strong gusts of wind, firefighters must contend with a complex topography and with the large landowners who control these lands.

“There are fires that only God can extinguish,” Ronaldo Constantino, head of the indigenous brigade ‘Terena Taunay Ipegue’ of the firefighting division of the Brazilian Institute for the Environment, told EFE.

Constantino and his team have been staying for a week in a huge cattle ranch called Estância Miranda which is very close to the Pantanal do Rio Negro State park and serves as a base for their operations.

Although it is one of the most diverse biomes on earth, 90% of the Brazilian Pantanal is in the hands of private individuals, mainly cattle ranchers and farmers.

Spirits are low among the fire brigade; unable to stop the flames, they have settled for building fire breaks in recent days, hoping for a miracle in the form of rain.

“I’m in charge here”

Near the ranch headquarters, in a vast area of native vegetation, two kilometers of fire fronts advance uncontrolled, as witnessed by an EFE team that was forced by the ranch foreman to erase the images.

“In the absence of the owner, I’m in charge here. You have no right to be here. You need to go back and erase the pictures,” he demanded.

According to a source in a federal environmental agency, this reaction could be due to the possibility that one of these fire fronts could have been started by them, and thus they fear a future audit of the causes of the fire.

A fire sergeant working in the area told EFE that it is “extremely difficult” that in an area with native vegetation, a fire could have originated from natural causes.

The declared owner of the ranch is a private pilot, a civil engineer and the son of a businessman who made money in the construction sector and expanded his business into agriculture in the Great Pantanal. His marriage was reported in the local press.

Speaking to EFE, he said that his “only and constant concern is the misrepresentation” that the media may make in registering the fires in an area he claims is his.

“We have nothing to hide,” he assured.

He also stressed that the culture of fire is part of the marshlander’s life and that the drought they are experiencing theis year is part of a “normal cycle.” Meteorological experts, on the other hand, say that droughts are worsening due to climate change.

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