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Why everything you’ve been told about the Amazon wildfires is untrue

4 September 2019

5:00 AM

4 September 2019

5:00 AM

You have been told lies by the French President about the Amazon rainforest burning on an unprecedented scale. Everything – from the photo shared in his Twitter account to the wild claim about these fires harming the whole of humanity – is patently false.

Global Fire Data shows this year is unequivocally a low fire season in the Amazon. As noted by meteorologist Jesse Ferrel, prior to 2012 there were numerous years in which the Amazon had much worse fires than this year’s: 2003, 2004, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2010. In the words of environmental scientist Michael Shelleberger, deforestation in the Amazon has declined dramatically over the last 15 years. It remains at one-quarter its 2004 peak.

As of August 16, an analysis of NASA satellite data indicates that ‘total fire activity this year across the Amazon is slightly below the average in comparison to the past fifteen years’. NASA reminds us that, ‘in the Amazon region fires are rare for much of the year because wet weather prevents them from starting and spreading’. And, as NASA also explains, ‘in July and August, activity typically increases due to the arrival of the dry season … Typically, activity peaks in early September and mostly stops by November’.

As can be seen, there is nothing extraordinary about these fires in the Amazon. They are not the spontaneous result of “global warming” but their vast majority were set by farmers preparing Amazon-adjacent farmland for the next year’s crops and pasture.

National and international political opponents of Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, However, are cynically exaggerating the impact of these fires in an attempt to demonise ‘the Trump of the tropics’. There is clearly a misinformation campaign against the Brazilian President going on at the moment. Based on hyperbolic twitter photos, the French leader, Emmanuel Macron, is now threatening to cancel a foreign trade deal between Brazil and the European Union.

Macron has made the “international crisis” of the Amazon fires a “first-order” emergency to be discussed in the G7 Summit. Ahead of the G7 Summit held a week ago, Macron Tweeted: ‘Our house is burning. Literally. The Amazon rain forest – the lungs which produces 20% of our planet’s oxygen – is on fire. It is an international crisis. Member of the G7 Summit, let’s discuss this emergency first oder in tow days! #ActForTheAmazon.’

First, let’s clarify the facts. Although the French leader claims the Amazon produces 20 per cent of the world’s oxygen, it is not clear where this figure actually originated. According to Dan Nepstad, one the world’s leading Amazon forest experts, ‘the Amazon produces a lot of oxygen but it uses the same amount of oxygen through respiration’.

The 20 per cent figure claimed by Macron is ‘too high’, writes climate scientist Michael E. Mann.   The true number is actually closer to six per cent, he says. Even this is not entirely accurate according to him, because oxygen levels wouldn’t drop by six per cent as the crops being planted in the cleared forest areas would also produce oxygen – quite likely at higher levels.

Even the photo the French leader used in his twitter is fake. As noted by climate scientist Joanna Nova, it is a stock photo from Loren McIntyre, a photographer who died in 2013. Based on a fake picture, Macron is now threatening to cancel a foreign trade deal between Brazil and the EU. The hype serves the purpose of attacking the right-wing Brazilian leader. Instead of fighting what Macron says would be a fruitless battle with the U.S. President over global warming, he deliberately launched the G7 with an appeal to tackle the Amazon fires and a threat not to ratify the EU-Brazil trade agreement.

In an official letter to The Australian newspaper, Brazil’s Ambassador to Australia, Sergio Moreira Lima, expresses his hope that Australians can well understand the challenges and predicaments of managing great biomes in a continental-size territory. The fires which Australia experiences on a yearly basis or the frequent droughts, ‘should not be necessarily attributed to the irresponsibility or the incapacity of the Australian authorities’, he says.

The Brazilian Ambassador then explains that combating deforestation is a high priority of the Brazilian government. As he points out, just on the June 5, the right-wing government of President Bolsonaro ‘conducted the single largest operation to combat illegal deforestation in the Amazon. It brought together 165 federal environmental agents, who dismantled a criminal organisation specialising in illegal logging and timber trafficking. Currently, there is an extraordinary deployment of forces in the Amazon to combat fires’.

Ambassador Moreira Lima also explains that Brazil not only has dramatically reduced deforestation of the Amazon by 72 per cent during the past 15 years, but also that more than 9.4 million hectares of native forest have been regenerated and forests planted on a further 2 million hectares. He thinks it is important to remind that that 60 per cent of Brazil’s landscape remains covered by native vegetation and the country’s protected areas amount to approximately 25 per cent of its national territory – 50 per cent in the Amazon region alone. By comparison, while only 30 per cent of the Brazilian territory is dedicated to agriculture and ranching, in some European countries these figures are 65 per cent.

As can be seen, European leaders have a lot to learn from Brazil when it comes to improving the environment and environmental laws in their countries. In this context, Brazil has sensibly decided to turn down the G7 countries an offer of aid (US $20 million) in combating fires in the Amazon. In an official note, the Brazilian government stated that the funds would be much better used to plant trees in France, and to restore the many churches and cathedrals that have been destroyed by fire in this country over the last few months.

Brazil is the world’s ninth-largest economy by nominal GDP and the eighth largest by purchasing power parity. It certainly does not need this sort of financial assistance. After explaining that they ‘appreciate the offer’, the Brazilian government reminds that such money ‘would be put better use reforesting Europe’. It also notes the great irony of being offered money by the leader of a country that ‘can’t prevent even a foreseeable fire in a church that is a world heritage site’.

Of course, Macron does not really care about Amazon fires, which have decreased over the last 15 years. He is cynically using the environmental issue to attack the Brazilian leader because of his conservative values and association with the U.S. President. As journalist Igor Ogorodnev correctly points out, ‘what we are witnessing this month is the culmination of a deliberate campaign – call it propaganda, information war or fake news – executed at the highest level’.

One basic reason for this misinformation campaign by the French President is the international economic interest in the country’s northern region where the Amazon is located. It is a huge bank of endless natural resources. Brazil has the world’s largest percentage of sweet water, valuable minerals, petroleum, and so forth. This is ultimately aimed at the undermining of Brazil’s national sovereignty, dispossession of the Brazilian people of their land, and the stealing of a large part of the country’s incredibly rich national resources.

As can be seen, everything the unpopular French leader and his powerful media allies have told you about the fires in the Amazon is entirely false and misleading. Please don’t fall into this trap of fake news. Search for the truth.

Dr Augusto Zimmermann is Professor and Head of Law at Sheridan College, Perth/WA. He is also adjunct law professor at The University of Notre Dame Australia (Sydney campus) and President of the Western Australian Legal Theory Association (WALTA).

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