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Why Everything They Say About The Amazon, Including That It's The 'Lungs Of The World,' Is Wrong

rise in fires scorching in Brazil set off a storm of international outrage last
week. Celebrities, environmentalists, and political leaders blame Brazilian
president, Jair Bolsonaro, for destroying the world’s biggest rainforest, the
Amazon, the so-called “lungs of the world.” Singers and actors incuding Madonna
and Jaden Smith shared pictures on social media that were viewed by tens of
millions of people.

Image result for The dramatic photos shared by celebrities of the fires in Brazil weren't what they appeared to be WIKIPEDIA

lungs of the Earth are in flames,” said actor Leonardo DiCaprio. “The Amazon Rainforest
produces more than 20% of the world’s oxygen,” tweeted soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo. “The Amazon rain
forest — the lungs which produce 20% of our planet’s oxygen — is on
fire,” tweeted French President Emanuel Macron.

yet the photographs weren’t really of the fires and many were not even of the
Amazon. The photo Ronaldo uploaded was captured in southern Brazil, far from the Amazon, in 2013. The image
that DiCaprio and Macron uploaded is over 20 years old. The photo Madonna and
Smith uploaded on Instagram is over 30. Some celebrities shared pics from Montana, India, and Sweden. To their
credit, CNN and New York Times exposed the
photos and other misrepresentation about the fires.

is neither new nor limited to one nation,” explained CNN. “These fires were not caused by
climate change,” noted The Times

both publications frequently claimed that the Amazon is the “lungs” of the

Amazon remains a net source of oxygen today,” said 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,” claimed The New York Times.

I was
inquisitive to hear what one of the world’s renowned Amazon forest specialist, Dan
Nepstad, had to say about the “lungs” entitlement.

bullshit,” he said. “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

use breathing to transform nutrients from the soil into energy. They use
photosynthesis to change light into chemical energy, which can afterwards be
used in respiration. What about The New York Times claim that

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

not true, said Nepstad, who was a main author of the most current International
Panel on Climate Change report.

 “The Amazon produces a lot of oxygen, but so
do soy farms and [cattle] pastures.”

people will no doubt wave away the “lungs” myth as critical. The broader point
is that there is an upsurge in fires in Brazil and something should be done
about it. But the “lungs” myth is just the tip of the iceberg. Consider
that CNN aired a long segment with the banner, “Fires Burning
at Record Rate in Amazon Forest” while a renowned climate journalist claimed, “The recent fires are without precedent in the
past 20,000 years.” 

the number of fires in 2019 is certainly 80% greater than in 2018, it’s just 7%
more than the average over the last 10 years ago, Nepstad said. Amazon forest
fires are concealed by the tree canopy and only rise during drought years.

don’t know if there are any more forest fires this year than in past years,
which tells me there probably isn’t,” Nepstad said. “I’ve been working on
studying those fires for 25 years and our [on-the-ground] networks are tracking

increased by 7% in 2019 are the fires of dry scrub and trees cut down for
cattle ranching as a tactic to gain ownership of land. Against the picture
painted of an Amazon forest on the edge of dying, a full 80% remains standing.
Half of the Amazon is safe against deforestation under federal law. 

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 decreased a
whopping 70% from 2004 to 2012. It has increased modestly since then but rests
at one-quarter its 2004 peak. And just 3% of the Amazon is fit for soy
farming. Both Nepstad and Coutinho say the actual danger is from unintended
forest fires in drought years, which climate change could worsen.

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.”

18 - 20% of the Amazon forest rests at risk of being deforested.

don’t like the international narrative right now because it’s polarizing and
divisive,” said 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%. 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.”

said that the limitations cost farmers $10 billion in foregone profits and
forest restoration.

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,” says Nepstad.

the international pressure and the government’s over-reaction is cumulative
resentment among the very people in Brazil environmentalists need to win over
in order to save the Amazon: forests and ranchers.

tweet had the same impact on Bolsonaro’s base as Hillary calling Trump’s base
deplorable,” said Nepstad. “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. 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

reaction from foreign media, global celebrities, and NGOs in Brazil stems from
a romantic anti-capitalism common among urban elites, say Nepstad and Coutinho.

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.’”

may have political motives.

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. 

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.

is 25% of Brazil’s GDP and it’s what got the country through the recession,”
said Nepstad. “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

argued that it would be a no-brainer for governments around the world to
support Aliança da
, a fire detection and prevention network he co-founded which is
comprised of 600 volunteers, mostly indigenous people, and farmers.

$2 million a year we could control the fires and stop the Amazon die-back,”
said Nepstad. “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.”

such pragmatism to take hold among divergent interests, the news media will
need to improve its future coverage of the issue.

of the grand challenges facing newsrooms covering complicated emergent,
enduring issues like tropical deforestation,” said journalist Revkin, “is
finding ways to engage readers without histrionics. The alternative is ever
more whiplash
 — which is the recipe for reader disengagement.”

 This article was originally published on Forbes.

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