Brazil fires burn world’s largest tropical wetlands at ‘unprecedented’ scale

Smoke rises from an illegally lit fire in Amazon rainforest reserve, south of Novo Progresso in Para state, Brazil. Credit: AFP

A record amount of the world’s largest tropical wetland has been lost to the fires sweeping Brazil this year, scientists said, devastating a delicate ecosystem that is one of the most biologically diverse habitats on the planet.

The enormous fires — often set by ranchers and farmers to clear land, but exacerbated by unusually dry conditions in recent weeks — have engulfed more than 10 per cent of the Brazilian wetlands, known as the Pantanal, exacting a toll scientists call “unprecedented.”

The fires in the Pantanal, in southwest Brazil, raged across an estimated 7,861 square miles between January and August, according to an analysis conducted by NASA for The New York Times, based on a new system to track fires in real time using satellite data. That’s an area slightly larger than New Jersey.

The previous record was in 2005, when approximately 4,608 square miles burned in the biome during the same period.

And to the north, the fires in the Brazilian Amazon — many of them also deliberately set for commercial clearing — have been ruinous as well. The amount of Brazilian rainforest lost to fires in 2020 has been similar to the scale of the destruction last year, when the problem drew global condemnation and added to the strains between Brazil and its trading partners, particularly in Europe.

The enormous scale of the fires in the Amazon and the Pantanal, several of which were visible to astronauts in space, has drawn less attention in a year overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic, the protests over police brutality and the coming American election.

But experts called this year’s blazes in the Pantanal a particularly jarring loss and the latest ecological crisis that has unfolded on the watch of President Jair Bolsonaro, whose policies have prioritized economic development over environmental protections.

“The fires in the Pantanal this year are really unprecedented,” said Douglas C. Morton, the 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.”