The surge in fires burning in Brazil sparked a storm of international outrage last week. Actors, singers, environmentalists, and political leaders all blamed the cavalier attitude of the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, for destroying the world’s largest rainforest, the Amazon, which they labeled as the “lungs of the world.”
Celebrities including Madonna and Jaden Smith shared photos on social media platforms that were seen by tens of millions of people.
“The lungs of the Earth are in flames” – Actor Leonardo DiCaprio.
“The Amazon Rainforest produces more than 20% of the world’s oxygen” – Tweet by soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo.
“The Amazon rain forest — the lungs which produce 20% of our planet’s oxygen — is on fire” -Tweet by French President Emanuel Macron.
But strangely, most photos weren’t actually of the fires and many weren’t even of the Amazon rain forests. Ronaldo shared a2013 photo that was taken in southern Brazil, far from the Amazon while the photo endorsed by DiCaprio and Macron was found to be over 20 years old. Even the photo Madonna and Smith shared is more than 30 years old. Some celebrities even shared photos from Montana, India, and Sweden.
To their credit, both CNN and New York Times debunked the photos and other misinformation about the fires.
“Deforestation is neither new nor limited to one nation,” clarified CNN.
“These fires were not caused by climate change,” explained The Times.
But both publications repeatedly claimed that the Amazon is the “lungs” of the world.
“The Amazon remains a net source of oxygen today,” maintained CNN.
“The Amazon is often referred to as Earth’s ‘lungs,’ because its vast forests release oxygen and store carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas that is a major cause of global warming,” repeated The New York Times.
But, Dan Nepstad one of the world’s leading Amazon forest experts said about the “lungs” claim, “It’s bullshit. There’s no science behind that. The Amazon produces a lot of oxygen but it uses the same amount of oxygen through respiration so it’s a wash.”
Another claim by The New York Times stated that “If enough rain forest is lost and can’t be restored, the area will become savanna, which doesn’t store as much carbon, meaning a reduction in the planet’s ‘lung capacity’”. Nepstad said even this was not true.
The lead author of the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, confirmed, “The Amazon produces a lot of oxygen, but so do soy farms and [cattle] pastures.”
Regrettably, the “lungs” myth is just the tip of the iceberg. CNN ran an extensive segment with the banner, “Fires Burning at Record Rate in Amazon Forest” and a leading climate reporter even claimed, “The current fires are without precedent in the past 20,000 years.”
Nepstad reveals that though the number of fires in 2019 is undeniably 80% higher than in 2018, it’s just 7% higher than the average over the last decade.
Leonardo Coutinho, one of Brazil’s leading environmental journalists agrees that media coverage of the fires has been misleading.
He said over email, “It was under [Workers Party President] Lula and [Environment Secretary] Marina Silva (2003-2008) that Brazil had the highest incidence of burning. But neither Lula nor Marina was accused of putting the Amazon at risk.”
Coutinho’s standpoint was shaped by a decade long on-ground reporting in the Amazon for Veja, Brazil’s leading news magazine. In contrast, many correspondents reporting on the fires have been operating from the cosmopolitan cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, which are 2,500 miles and four hours away by jet plane.
Coutinho elucidated, “What is happening in the Amazon is not exceptional. Take a look at Google web searches search for ‘Amazon’ and ‘Amazon Forest’ over time. Global public opinion was not as interested in the ‘Amazon tragedy’ when the situation was undeniably worse. The present moment does not justify global hysteria.”
Additionally, while fires in Brazil have increased, there is no evidence that Amazon forest fires have increased as well.
A Brazilian journalist wrote in the New York Times, “What hurts me most is the bare idea of the millions of Notre-Dames, high cathedrals of terrestrial biodiversity, burning to the ground”.
Nepstad claims that the Amazon forest’s high cathedrals aren’t burning to the ground, “I saw the photo Macron and Di Caprio tweeted but you don’t see forests burning like that in the Amazon.”
According to him, Amazon forest fires are hidden by the tree canopy and only increase during drought years.
He explained, “We don’t know if there are any more forest fires this year than in past years, which tells me there probably isn’t. I’ve been working on studying those fires for 25 years and our [on-the-ground] networks are tracking this.”
What increased by 7% in 2019 are the fires of dry scrub and trees cut down for cattle ranching as a strategy to gain ownership of land.
Against the picture painted of an Amazon forest on the verge of disappearing, a full 80% remains standing. Half of the Amazon is protected against deforestation under federal law.
“Few stories in the first wave of media coverage mentioned the dramatic drop in deforestation in Brazil in the 2000s,” noted former New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin, who wrote a 1990 book, The Burning Season, about the Amazon, and is now Founding Director, Initiative on Communication & Sustainability at The Earth Institute at Columbia University.
Deforestation declined a huge 70% from 2004 to 2012 and has risen modestly since then to remain steady at one-quarter of its 2004 peak. Also, just 3% of the Amazon land is suitable for soy farming.
Both Nepstad and Coutinho agree that the real threat is from accidental forest fires in drought years, which climate change could worsen. “The most serious threat to the Amazon forest is the severe events that make the forests vulnerable to fire. That’s where we can get a downward spiral between fire and drought and more fire.”
Today, 18 – 20% of the Amazon forest remains at risk of being deforested.
“I don’t like the international narrative right now because it’s polarizing and divisive,” shared Nepstad. “Bolsonaro has said some ridiculous things and none of them are excusable but there’s also a big consensus against accidental fire and we have to tap into that.”
“Imagine you are told [under the federal Forest Code] that you can only use half of your land and then being told you can only use 20%,” Nepstad explained. “There was a bait and switch and the farmers are really frustrated. These are people who love to hunt and fish and be on land and should be allies but we lost them.”
Nepstad divulged that the restrictions cost farmers $10 billion in foregone profits and forest restoration. “There was an Amazon Fund set up in 2010 with $1 billion from Norwegian and German governments but none of it ever made its way to the large and medium-sized farmers,” continued Nepstad.
Both the international pressure and the government’s over-reaction is increasing resentment among the very people in Brazil environmentalists need to win over in order to save the Amazon: forests and ranchers.
Nepstad stated, “Macron’s tweet had the same impact on Bolsonaro’s base as Hillary calling Trump’s base deplorable. There’s outrage at Macron in Brazil. The Brazilians want to know why California gets all this sympathy for its forest fires and while Brazil gets all this finger-pointing.”
“I don’t mind the media frenzy as long as it leaves something positive,” opined Nepstad, but it has forced the Brazilian government to over-react. “Sending in the army is not the way to go because it’s not all illegal actors. People forget that there are legitimate reasons for small farmers to use controlled burns to knock back insects and pests.”
The reaction from foreign media, global celebrities, and NGOs in Brazil stems from a romantic anti-capitalism common among urban elites, say Nepstad and Coutinho. “There’s a lot of hatred of agribusiness,” said Nepstad. “I’ve had colleagues say, ‘Soy beans aren’t food.’ I said, ‘What does your kid eat? Milk, chicken, eggs? That’s all soy protein fed to poultry.’”
Others may have political motives. “Brazilian farmers want to extend [the free trade agreement] EU-Mercosur but Macron is inclined to shut it down because the French farm sector doesn’t want more Brazilian food products coming into the country,” Nepstad explained.
Despite climate change, deforestation, and widespread and misleading coverage of the situation, Nepstad hasn’t given up hope. The Amazon emergency should lead the conservation community to repair its relationship with farmers and seek more pragmatic solutions, he said.
Nepstad said “Agribusiness is 25% of Brazil’s GDP and it’s what got the country through the recession. When soy farming comes into a landscape, the number of fires goes down. Little towns get money for schools, GDP rises, and inequality declines. This is not a sector to beat up on, it’s one to find common ground with.”
Nepstad contended that it would be a no-brainer for governments around the world to support Aliança da Terra, a fire detection and prevention network he co-founded which is comprised of 600 volunteers, mostly indigenous people, and farmers.
Nepstad said “For $2 million a year we could control the fires and stop the Amazon die-back. We have 600 people who have received top-notch training by US fire jumpers but now need trucks with the right gear so they can clear fire breaks through the forest and start a backfire to burn up the fuel in the pathway of the fire.”
For such pragmatism to take hold among divergent interests, the news media will need to improve its future coverage of the issue.
Journalist Revkin summarized, “One of the grand challenges facing newsrooms covering complicated emergent, enduring issues like tropical deforestation is finding ways to engage readers without histrionics. The alternative is ever more whiplash journalism — which is the recipe for reader disengagement.”