Charred caiman corpses, flames devouring vegetation as far as the eye can see: the Pantanal, the largest tropical wetland on the planet, is in the throes of an unprecedented ecological disaster, with irreparable damage to biodiversity.
• Read also: Brazil: a jaguar sanctuary threatened by fires
• Read also: Brazil: environmental NGOs, a “cancer” for Bolsonaro
“I’ve been here for over twenty years and I’ve never seen such a thing,” Felipe Dias, director of the SOS Pantanal Institute, told AFP.
More than 2.3 million hectares have already gone up in smoke since the start of the year, according to data compiled by the Federal University of Rio (Lasa-UFRJ).
The National Institute for Space Research (INPE) satellites have identified 12,567 fires in the Pantanal since January, higher than all of 2018 and 2019 combined.
And above all, the record over a whole year (12,536 homes), dating from 2005, has just been beaten, in less than nine months, according to new data updated Wednesday.
But beyond the numbers, it is a real tragedy that is playing out in this biodiversity sanctuary with exceptional fauna, located at the southern end of the Amazon rainforest and which stretches from Brazil to Paraguay and Bolivia.
“Very few animals survive the flames and many of those that manage to escape in time end up dying of hunger or thirst. The damage is irreparable ”, deplores Juliana Camargo, president of AMPARA Animal, an NGO present on the ground to try to save endangered species.
“What is most despairing is to see people who fight fires day by day telling us: + there is nothing to do, everything will burn. Their only hope is that it will rain, but the rain is not expected until November, ”she adds.
Jaguars under threat
Many volunteers try to lend a hand to the firefighters, especially people who make a living from ecotourism, very developed in this region where visitors from all over the world usually ply the flooded areas in small boats to admire the caimans or giant otters named Capivaras.
But this ecological paradise has been ravaged by flames for several months, despite the army sending in August to fight the fires.
This week, the Encontro das Aguas Natural Park, near the border with Paraguay, known for being home to the largest concentration of jaguars in the world, was in turn hit by flames.
This disaster is primarily due to an exceptional drought: from January to May, in the heart of the wet season, it rained half as much as expected in the Pantanal and many areas could not be flooded as is normally the case. .
“The extreme drought, combined with high temperatures and strong winds, means that the vegetation catches fire very easily and that the fires spread very intensely,” explains Felipe Dias.
But the drought does not explain everything. According to Vinicius Silgueiro, of the Institut Center de Vie (ICV), new crops started by farmers also contributed to the fires. “Many native plants have been replaced by others intended for grazing,” he explains.
Some farmers practice burning which turns into a fire, and according to this specialist, one of the main problems is the “feeling of impunity” which reigns due to “the lack of resources of public environmental protection bodies”.
The government of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, in power since 2019, has come under heavy criticism for its environmental policies, and the resurgence of forest fires last year in the Amazon sparked a stir around the world.
Some studies show that deforestation in the Amazon, located north of the Pantanal, has an impact on the volume of precipitation in other areas of Brazil, the “flying rivers”, waterlogged clouds pushed by the wind, n ‘ being more as fed.
“It is too early to know if the drought observed in recent years in the Pantanal is directly linked to this phenomenon, but it is undeniable that people who, like me, grew up in the region, have been able to clearly observe climate change”, continues Vinicius Silgueiro.
Tasso Azevedo, head of the Mapbiomas collective, a collaborative platform bringing together scientific data or coming from NGOs, fears that this drought will now become a “new normal”.
“If we enter a period of prolonged drought, with new fires on already burnt areas, the vegetation may not be able to regenerate,” he fears.