RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Brazil's government on Wednesday said it was adding 43 more firefighters to a small force battling blazes that have charred a Belgium-sized swath of the world's largest tropical wetlands.
President Jair Bolsonaro addressed the United Nations this week to fend off criticism of his country's efforts in the Pantanal region as well as the Amazon rainforest to the north — both considered crucial and diverse environments.
Satellite images analyzed by the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro indicate this season's fires in the drought-parched Pantanal have covered 3.1 million hectares (nearly 12,000 square miles) — an area the size of Belgium or the U.S. state of Maryland and about a fifth of the entire wetlands.
It's the worst fire season since at least 1998, with more than 16,000 blazes recorded so far by Brazil's government Institute of Space Research, which also monitors satellite images. Meteorologists say the area is facing its most severe drought in 47 years.
As of Tuesday, a mere 241 firefighters — including soliders and local forces — were assigned to the blazes in the state most affected, Mato Grosso, according to its government. The federal Justice Ministry announcement on Wednesday adds 43 firefighters from the National Guard to that, in addition to a helicopter, which apparently would join about a dozen aircraft already involved.
The swampy Pantanal area in central-west Brazil holds thousands of plant and animal species, including 159 types of mammals. It's especially noted for an abundance of jaguars.
Bolsonaro has been outspoken in promoting development in the country's vast hinterlands, but he has bristled at accusations his government is encourging despoilment and deforestation.
“We are victims of one of the most brutal disinformation campaigns about the Amazon and the Pantanal wetlands,” Bolsonaro said Tuesday to the United Nations General Assembly.
“The Brazilian Amazon is well known to be very rich. That explains why international institutions support such campaigns based on ulterior interests, joined by self-serving and unpatriotic Brazilian associations, with the objective of harming the government and Brazil itself.”