The 6th September 2019 in the city of Leticia in the depth of the Amazon rainforest in Colombia, the representatives and leaders of seven Amazonian states signed the treaty for protection of the Amazon, especially against wildfires and deforestation. It is partialy a result of the wildfires that has been ravaging the Amazonian region, especially in Brazil since the mid-August of this year. This topic got a lot of media coverage, causing the polemics about Brazilian right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro, that activist from all around the world willingly took up. In that number we should include show-business stars, such as Leonardo DiCaprio. The sudden popularisation of the subject created a natural chance for fake news to spread, especially because of the mainstream attitude towards the president of Brazil.
First pieces of fake news showed up in graphic form. Celebrities but also normal user flooded social media with photos. Some of them, among others, because of the hashtag #PrayForAmazonas, achived viral reaches.
The photo above showing a burning forest was shared by Jaden Smith. It got on his profile over 1.6 million likes. And, while it is really a photo of the Amazon, it is also from 1989 and was firstly published in The Guardian in 2007 in an article talking about the region deforestation during the last 40 years.
Another widely shared photo really touches the heart – a screaming monkey holds a dead baby monkey… the baby is not dead, though. It just fell over. And the picture was taken in India in Jabalpur in 2017 by Avinash Lodhi.
Mistakes were commited by Madonna, already mentioned Leonardo DiCaprio, Ronaldo and even French president Emmanuel Macron. Most of pictures really show Amazon forest fires but from previous years, some of them even twenty, thirty years old, but among fakes there were pictures of burning forests from other parts of the world, including Sweden (sic!).
But fake news in this topic in not only photos. The information that those are the biggest Amazon fires in the history is exaggerated. Although they are 80% bigger than in 2018 in the corresponding period, they are only 7% bigger than the average from the last ten years. Furthermore, as Matthew Hansen from the University of Maryland noticed, most of the fires are in fact controlled by farmers on already deforested terrains.
Another widely spread piece of false information is the statement that the Amazon is “Earth’s lungs” responsible for 20% of the oxygen in the atmosphere. Scott Saleska from the University of Arizona explains that, although the Amazon fires and deforestation are alarming, they carry no risk for the oxygen level in the atmosphere. Firstly, the net oxygen production of trees is practically zero in the longer perspective, because they breathe. They produce oxygen as the by-product of the photosynthesis, but dying they absorb it back to release in the form of CO2 with accumulated carbon as the product of decay or burning. The only plants that really produce oxygen for us, are those that ends their lives at the bottom of the ocean where they cannot absorb it back. Furthermore, the number of 20% has nothing to do with the reality. Saleska quotes numbers: tropics are responsible for 25% of land oxygen production. The Amazon is at best a half of tropical forests, so we are down to 12%. Additionally, the land oxygen production is only a half of total production – the other one belongs to water plants. Therefore, the Amazon rainforest in the best case is responsible for about 6% of the oxygen released in the photosynthesis worldwide. In the perspective of our atmosphere it is really little – especially that, as mentioned before, plants use most of it breathing.
As Leonardo Coutinho, on of the principal environmental journalists in Brazil told Forbes, the biggest forest fires took place in 2003-2008 during the government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva but no-one accused him of putting the Amazon on risk, as they do now with Bolsonaro. It seems, then, that the care about the Amazon rainforest is secondary up to certain level to the critical approach to right-wing Brazilian president.
For comparison, below you can find the results from Google Trends for the research of “Amazon forest fire” and “Siberia fire” from this year. The forest fires in Siberia touched almost 7,5 mln acres. In Amazon, 2,5 mln acres.