Fires in Brazil documented by NASA’s Aqua satellite in mid-August 2019 (image via NASA/Flickr)

Last week, French president Emmanuel Macron tweeted an urgent plea for the Amazon rainforest, where fires have consumed more than 1,330 square miles of vegetation since January. Almost 80,000 blazes have rampaged the Amazon this year in Brazil alone, an 82 percent spike in destruction from last year according to the country’s government, which controls a majority of the woodlands. The fires burn so brightly that NASA satellites can see the destruction from space.

The world leader’s call to action included a photograph of the conflagration, which would help his 4.1 million followers visualize the fire’s scope of destruction. But while the catastrophe in the Amazon is very real, the image Macron used was fake.

The above image actually comes from a stock photo catalogue, which credits Loren McIntyre as its author. The celebrated photojournalist died in 2003, though, meaning that the visual was taken well over a decade ago.

But the French president is not the only public figure to publicize the Amazon’s predicament with misleading documentation. In fact, the actor Leonardo DiCaprio and the singer Ricky Martin also shared the same photograph with their combined 47 million Instagram followers.

On Thursday, Portuguese soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo shared a different image with his 120 million Facebook followers and nearly 80 million Twitter followers. According to a caption for the photograph published by the Baltimore Sun, it was originally taken in 2013.

Celebrities including Jaden Smith, Madonna, and the tennis star Novak Djokovic also shared a grainy image that appears to have been shot in 1989, according to an earlier Guardian article that included the photograph. “The Amazon is the largest rainforest in the world and is home to 15% of the world’s known land-based plant species, and nearly 10% of the world’s mammals,” reads the publication’s caption.

There are countless other examples where unwitting social media users have used incorrect images to illustrate the Amazon rainforest’s current catastrophe. These dramatic illustrations of destruction may capture the public’s attention, but they also fuel unsubstantiated conspiracy theories spread by Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro alleging that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) started the fire.

“Everything indicates” that NGOs traveled to the Amazon to “set fire” to the rainforest, Bolsonaro said in a Facebook Live broadcast last week. When asked if he had evidence backing his claims, he said that he had “no written plan,” adding “that’s not how it’s done.”

“This is a sick statement, a pitiful statement,” Marcio Astrini, Greenpeace Brazil’s public policy coordinator, told Reuters. “Increased deforestation and burning are the result of his anti-environmental policy.”

Bolsonaro is a longtime skeptic of environmental concerns. Since entering office, the former army captain has dismantled rules protecting the world’s largest tropical rainforest in favor of the agriculture and mining industries. Incidentally, scientists believe that many of the Amazon fires in Brazil were started by farmers trying to clear land for crops.

Conservatives on social media have seized on the false photos as evidence that liberals have co-opted the catastrophe to delegitimize Brazil’s populist government. Even federal officials in the Bolsonaro administration have taken notice, criticizing celebrities for the images’ inaccuracies.

“The photo he used in the post was taken in March 2013, in a fire at the Taim Ecological Station in southern Brazil, not at AMAZON,” chided one Brazilian official on Ronaldo’s Twitter post about the fires. “I suggest moving away from the resistance gang. Yes it is BURNT.”

Zachary Small was a writer at Hyperallergic.

2 replies on “Those Photos of the Amazon Burning? Not All of Them Are Real.”

  1. Sure, cool. Shit is burning everywhere and we sit here with our drinkie-poos in hand, pinkies out, and argue about the vetting of photos…

  2. the images are, in this case, ” just images”. if you are travelling by car or live nearby the burning, you can feel how awful it is. animals die ; thousands of them. and the farmers are, mostly, responsible for the fire, unde the guidance of this mad government. it is a shame…

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