Brazil’s Pantanal Wetland is On Fire, Joining Other Places Where Wildfires Rage or Have Recently Burned Out of Control

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

The West Coast apocalypse has crowded out much discussion of other wildfires. And as the southern hemisphere moves into its summer season, Australia is bracing itself that it doesn’t repeat last season’s armageddon. But many people are not aware that Brazil’s  Pantanal – the world’s largest wetland which is only one of the natural wonders of that country, is on fire and has been burning since July, joining the Amazon in flames. In Brazil, it’s not just the Amazon that is burning. The world’s largest wetland is on fire too.

In June 2004, I took my first trip to Latin America, beginning with some birdwatching in Peru with my husband, and guided by Swedish bird guide Gunnar Engblom. After that trip, which included my first foray to Machu Picchu, I joined a small group tour, which ranged over Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, including an overland cross through the Pantanal, with a brief dip into Argentina to look at their side of the majestic Iguazu Falls. After saying goodbye to my tour mates in Rio de Janiero, I joined a friend, and we explored Rio and then Salvador da Baia.

So that I am saddened to report on its current travails. Over to Reuters:

A fire has been burning since mid-July in the remote wetlands of west-central Brazil, leaving in its wake a vast charred desolation bigger than New York City.

A team of veterinarians, biologists and local guides arrived in late August to prowl the bumpy dirt road known as the Trans-Pantanal Highway in pickup trucks, looking to save what injured animals they could.

Jaguars were wandering the blackened wasteland, they said, starving or going thirsty, with paws burnt to the bone, lungs blackened by smoke. They saw bodies of alligator-like caiman, jaws frozen in silent screams, the last act of creatures desperate to cool off before being consumed by flames.

This massive fire is one of thousands of blazes sweeping the Brazilian Pantanal – the world’s largest wetland – this year in what climate scientists fear could become a new normal, echoing the rise in climate-driven fires from California to Australia.

I well remember those caiman, who sometimes approached a bit too close for comfort. They’re not quite nearly as large or as dangerous as Australian crocodiles. And that’s a good thing for me. Because if they were, I would be unlikely be present to tell this amusing story.

One afternoon, our local wildlife guide took us to the shores of a lake, where I am ashamed to say, he showed the gringo tourists what piranha could do by attracting them with a small bag of meat.  And then he wandered a bit inland off the shore, at one point leaving behind the remaining meat. I don’t fault him, as the bag was still heavy and he didn’t want to carry it. We turned to watch the guide.

And then we all turned back to the lake. From which several caiman had emerged, wanting some dinner. And they all froze. It was a bit like they were playing that children’s game – I believe it is called Red Light, Green Light. Everyone lines up, and someone plays leaders, and turns around, and screams out Green Light. And then all the players race to tag the leader.

Except, he can yell out Red Light, and turn to face her or his challengers, each of whom must STOP immediately. Otherwise if the leader catches them in motion, s/he can call them out and send them back to square one.

So here we all were, faced with a line of caiman, who were poised on their way to claiming that meat. Or for all we knew, us.

I’m here to tell the tale, and perhaps we were never in real danger, as the guide didn’t even raise his defense stick. But as recently as August 2004, the Pantanal was teeming with caiman. But perhaps no more. And no one seems to know for sure what the damage has been. As the fires are still burning, it will take some time before the damage may be assessed.

As Reuters confirms:

The fires are now threatening one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet, biologists say. The Pantanal is home to roughly 1,200 vertebrate animal species, including 36 that are threatened with extinction. Across this usually lush landscape of 150,000 square kilometers (57,915 square miles) in Brazil, rare birds flutter and the world’s densest population of jaguars roam.

Including a plethora of bird life – I remember in particular, tall marabou storks, and several kinds of macaws – scarlet, blue, and hyacinth.

Including a particular hyacinth specimen who ruled over the campground where we slept. Her name: chica teta (IIRC), which I believe means little girl. (Forgive my spelling, I’m operating on memory here, and Google translate has been no help. Anyone who can help, please chime in in comments, and I will correct the spelling.)

Anyway, she was anything but a little girl, and held court behind the bar, unless one of the guides – with whom she was in love – was nearby. And she would then clamber onto his shoulder. As sometimes happens with large birds – especially rare ones that rarely see a mate – she had transferred her affections to a big strapping man. To everyone else, she was beastly. I mean, she delighted in grabbing cameras, binoculars, or sunglasses, and then taking them to a great heightt far above. Since she was more than a meter tall, she could fly quite high, even carrying something. She would then release her treasure which would shatter when it collided again with the earth.

I’m of two minds about posting a video produced by a zoo. I ‘ve opted to do so, so that readers who have never seen one of these beautiful, blue birds, can do so. I trolled through lots of videos to find this one, and it was the least offensive of the lot.

And, I regret to say, that alas, with the damage we seem determined to inflict on wildlife, we may only in futures be able so see these natural wonders in zoos. Which I, as an avid birdwatcher, find so depressing to say.

Massive Wetland Wildfires

Reuters tells us that the wildfires have been especially bad this year:

A record 23,490 square kilometers have burned through Sept. 6 – nearly 16% of the Brazilian Pantanal, according to a Federal University of Rio de Janeiro analysis.

And I emphasize, this is in a wetland, not in dry territory; it typically floods during the rainy season. Reuters again:

The Pantanal is known for being wet, not dry. The world’s largest flood plain normally fills with several feet of water during the rainy season from around November to April each year.

….

This year, the floods never came. Only a little bit of water pooled in a ditch nearby, he said. Now as water evaporates in the dry season, the Paraguay River that traverses the Pantanal has receded to its lowest point since 1973, according to Julia Arieira, a climate researcher at Brazil’s Federal University of Espirito Santo.

Ocean warming is causing the burning, the Atlantic equivalent of the Pacific phenomenon known as El Niño.  As per Reuters:

Scientists blame the drought on warming in the Atlantic Ocean just above the equator that’s drawing moisture away from South America and will send it north, likely in the form of stronger hurricanes.

NASA scientist Doug Morton said this phenomenon is caused by shifts in ocean temperature known as the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation – the Atlantic Ocean’s equivalent of El Niño in the Pacific. Unlike El Niño, which typically happens every 2-7 years, the oscillation alternates between hot and cold roughly every 30-40 years.

When it runs hot, as it has been since the 1990s, the warming in the tropical North Atlantic is more likely to occur, contributing to South American droughts and fires.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonoro hails from the Donald Trump school of climate change denial, and he has weakened environmental enforcement. So the only optimistic thing I can find to say about fires in the Pantanal is, according to Reuters:

No humans have died in the Pantanal fires, according to Mato Grosso state firefighting Lieutenant Colonel Jean Oliveira, who has been leading all government agencies in the fire response. Separately, local media on Thursday reported one fatality in the state.

But that doesn’t mean nothing has died, writes Reuters:

While there aren’t exact counts, at a minimum thousands of animals have perished, according to biologist Rogério Rossi at the Federal University of Mato Grosso.

The roving veterinary team is able to save only a tiny fraction of the injured animals. Many of these creatures are difficult to catch, far from accessible roads.

I encourage interested readers to click on the link above, which features a slideshow.

And the entire article is worth a read, if only as a reminder that climate change-fuelled fires respect no borders, although the US is not the only country to be saddled with climate change denialists.

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16 comments

  1. YuShan

    With your birding visit to the Pantanal, you have yourself contributed to the global warming that causes its demise. It keeps surprising me that so many birders overlook that obvious point.

    To be clear: I’m an avid birder myself and have travelled a lot to enjoy nature. I am really struggling with this paradox. To feel less bad about my own behaviour, I keep telling myself that I am somehow an ambassador for nature, that my visit encourages local communities to protect their natural treasures and that my visit is somehow net positive, while feeling superior to someone who travels the same amount for a party and beach holiday. But at the end of the day, I am just doing this for my own pleasure and doing my own bit to destroy nature.

    Reply
    1. JohnnyGL

      I really think this focus on individual actions is misplaced. In fact, I think it’s harmfully distracting.

      We’re almost at 8bn people on this planet, and yes, the lifestyles of the 1-2bn of the wealthiest are the ones that are causing the problems.

      The issue of climate change is at such a mindbogglingly large scale that the solution HAS to be both political and global in scale. In the past 6 months, we’ve basically seen a near-complete shutdown of travel and tourism due to the pandemic and it’s barely made a dent in global emissions.

      I wish I had a clear plan I could lay out on what to do, but I don’t think modern society has figured out what a comfortable lifestyle looks like while keeping planetary damage at a low level.

      However, what I’m now quite sure of, is that turning inward and critically examining our personal behavior, along with the behavior of those around us, is absolutely not going to get us anywhere good.

      The focus HAS to be on politics, as slow and frustrating as that answer is, it’s the only place where a solution can be found (assuming one exists)!

      Reply
      1. YuShan

        “I really think this focus on individual actions is misplaced”

        Individual actions is the only thing that you can really control. It’s easy to point to politics to solve it, but first of all you have no real control over politics (unless you are a billionaire), and second: what is politics going to do? At the end of the day, the main thing they will do is dis-encourage activities that cause global warming by for example taxing fossil fuel/ flying and meat consumption and subsidising “green” solutions. In other words, measures to steer individual actions in a certain direction. Eventually it is all about the sum of everybody’s individual actions.

        Reply
        1. JohnnyGL

          “Individual actions is the only thing that you can really control.” — exactly, we’re NOT in control, and what we do have actual control of, — i.e. consumption choices, is highly constrained by the parameters of public (and corporate) policy.

          “At the end of the day, the main thing they will do is dis-encourage activities that cause global warming by for example taxing fossil fuel/ flying and meat consumption and subsidising “green” solutions.” — The limits of what is ‘on the table’ for options is precisely the problem. It’s a big reason why the Green New Deal (even though it was just a resolution) was so important. It’s one of the few high profile efforts to get citizens to imagine he possibility that we could be a lot more ambitious with our democracy. We’ve been told for over 40ish years than the government can’t do anything big or important, it’ll screw it up. Leaning on our history is an important way to combat that kind of cynicism about what can be done.

          If there is any silver lining to come out of the pandemic, it’s to hammer home the idea that change is very much possible and can often happen very quickly, — if there’s political will.

          Reply
      2. lyman alpha blob

        I do think focusing on individual actions is misplaced because the problem isn’t one person traveling, it’s those nearly 8 billion people traveling. Just like the issue isn’t fossil fuels per se, it’s those 8 billion people all burning them.

        The root issue is overpopulation, and the solution is having fewer people on the planet. Not sure if there is a viable political solution here, because trying to non-voluntarily limit the population isn’t exactly a political winner. “Vote for me and mandatory sterilization after two procreations” isn’t really a great campaign slogan.

        So handwringing over a travel and cancelling a flight or two here and there isn’t really going to do much, even on an individual level. But voluntarily having two or fewer children will do a LOT more to reduce a carbon footprint.

        Reply
      3. Synoia

        We’re almost at 8bn people on this planet, and yes, the lifestyles of the 1-2bn of the wealthiest are the ones that are causing the problems.

        That why we have Biden, It is the rich who have to behave better, the remainder need to lose their cars, Biden’s job, and Kamela’s, is to maintain the rich.

        Reply
      4. troublemecca

        Overpopulation is NOT the problem. OVERCONSUMPTION is the problem. These Malthusian concepts are just a scapegoat to justify the mass slaughter of poor people, so that those in ‘developed’ nations can ignore their absurdly disproportionate contribution to the problem. If the solution is depopulation, then you should start with your children, otherwise your cancerous ‘growth’ will destroy the planet anyway. I recommend tightening your belt, but I gather that’s heresy.

        Reply
    2. drumlin woodchuckles

      The same argument could be made about eco-tourism to the rainforest too. But on the other hand, the only thing cash-money economically which makes the rainforest worth preserving is the money it allows people to make by selling eco-tourism services and experiences to the eco-tourists.

      “No money = you die” applies to the rainforest as well as to people in our current social order. If the rainforest cannot be made to Earn Its Keep through eco-tourism, it will be burned down and something else planted in its place which WILL be made to ” earn its keep”.

      So what you thought was a fun little junior high school game of ” spot the hypocrisy” turns out to be in fact the sort of delicious little irony in which life abounds.

      The MegaFauna East African savannahs are facing this irony in a much more immediately extinction-o-genic way. When COVID collapsed and abolished jetplane eco-tourism to East Africa, the eco-tourist industry collapsed to near zero. The collapsing eco-tourist industry collapsed all the income going to local village-loads of Africans living in or near the lucrative animals eco-tourism zone.

      With eco-tourism gone, the animals are now worth precisely zero money in their current alive form, and they are being poached for famine-meat to a rapid extinction. By the time air travel has revived to East Africa, the only reason tourists would ever go there . . . the animals . . . . should be extinct. Thanks to the functional abolition of air travel to East Africa.

      Greta Thunberg would be proud.

      Reply
  2. festoonic

    Mike Davis’s book, “Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World,” goes into great and harrowing detail about naturally-occurring shifts in ocean currents and the tremendous disruptions in weather they cause. These disruptions are, of course, almost always exacerbated and exploited by capital with the dire results we now see on every continent.

    Reply
  3. wilroncanada

    There was a world fire map linked here two days ago, I think. On it, the fires along the US west coast were a fairly small line. The south American fire zone reached all the way across from west to east, including most of Brazil, as noted in this story. The other continent-wide zone of fire was across sub-Saharan Africa, land being de-commoned for plantations? But every continent has major fires right now according to the map, from North and South America to Europe to Asia (including the Middle east) to Australia. Summer or winter, fires have already become the ever-present pestilence.
    Along with fires, there are storms of historic size and severity, flooding which the fire clearance of land will exacerbate, insect infestations–such as the one in Florida killing major mammals. The four horsemen are riding near. Which extinction is it now?

    Reply
    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      I’m glad you saw that map. This Pantanal post should serve as a reminder that the severe US west coast fires are only one of many.

      Reply
      1. Greg

        I would love to understand more about how “normal” the enormous amount of fire ranging across South America and Africa in that map is. Is it just what it always looks like at this time of year, but we don’t normally look? Or is there an even bigger abnormal disaster going on that isn’t reported because it’s happening in poor brown places?

        I also wonder whether regular global wildfires are one of those accelerating tipping points we’ve been so unable to put a specific projected date to. The amount of additoinal CO2 released last year in Australia alone was enormous. If we’ve now reached a global climate stage where massive wildfires are regular occurrences, the pace of CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere will drastically increase. That in turn will shorten all the worst projected consequences of greenhouse gas emissions, bringing forward a lot of those not-scary-because-too-far 2100 estimates.

        Reply
  4. Glen

    Thank you for posting this. The wildfires in America seem to have crowded out the fact that there are much larger fires in South America and Africa, and earlier this year, there were massive fires in Siberia.

    I honestly doubt that we are going to see anything done to mitigate the wildfires in the US. It’s obvious that we could restart something like the CCC, and get more people working to prevent or at least manage wildfires, but so far, TPTB seem to be content to argue about what’s causing the problem as the fires burn.

    Reply
  5. Neil

    geoengineering watch.org

    Learn about weather modification programs ongoing for 70+ years.

    Search: engineered droughts/wildfires, deluge scenarios, hurricane manipulation, artificial ice nucleation, US weather modification patents, soil/water tests, high-bypass turbo fan jet engine (the contrail lie), aluminum/alumina.

    Reply
    1. Fritzi

      If all this horror was actually deliberately engineered to the degree you claim, it would in a way really make more sense of some kind of super natural evil was ultimately be behind it.

      I don’t think it is, we have nothing to blame but ourselves, and the world and humanity itself do not make sense, which is ultimately both more horrifying and more depressing.

      But the supernatural evil version would be much more logical, really.

      After all that supernatural evil would not have to die a painful death in the planet it ruined, while watching it’s own kids and grandkids die too.

      Presumably it would be immune to all disasters it caused and could savely gloat about them.

      And frankly, even pure sadism (or pure hatred, even without specific reason or whatever), makes much more logical sense to me, seems more understandable, than pure, blind greed that goes up to totally suicidal levels.

      And destruction for it’s own sake may make sense for an entity that is some kind of metaphysical embodiment of evil, but never for mortals.

      Which does not mean that there aren’t the occasional mortals that do the destruction for destruction’s sake all the same, reason and logic be damned.

      Reply
  6. drumlin woodchuckles

    How much of the pantanal fires are due to deliberate mass arson by the Bolsonaro regime? As with the Amazon fires?

    The proper response might be a global extermicott against those parts of Brazilian economy which could be connected to the Bolsonaro arson-wave. Since any Brazilian beef or leather could be raised on arsonised Amazon or pantanal land, extermicott the Brazilian beef and leather industries from existence.
    Also, extermicott Brazilian soybeans and any other commodity which “could be” grown on arsonized land, because some of it IS grown on arsonised land, and there is no way to tell the provenance of a particular soybean.

    And the non-arson soybean you make sure to buy merely means that someone else will have to buy an arson soybean if they want any Brazilian soybeans at all. So a failure to exterminate the Brazilian soybean sector means the man-made Bolsonaro arson will go on and on and on.

    Reply

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