Thousands of fires are burning in the Amazon, eliciting panic around the world and offers of help from the Group of Seven meeting. Tropical rainforests cover only 2 percent of the Earth's surface, but they have an outsize impact on providing habitat, storing carbon and regulating the flow of water. From the "Save the Rainforest" T-shirts of the 1990s to the sci-fi movie "Avatar," these areas have come to symbolize the abundance of the natural world — and its vulnerability. But misconceptions abound.

Myth No. 1: Logging companies drive deforestation.

Calling logging "perhaps the most iconic symbol of forest destruction," the Union of Concerned Scientists lists "wood products" among its top four causes of deforestation. HowStuffWorks also claims that logging is a "primary driver"of the problem. This myth has worked its way into popular culture: The animated film "FernGully: The Last Rainforest," from 1992, depicted a logging operation as the main existential threat to the forest's adorable creatures. And it's true that logging wreaks havoc on the rainforest: Often conducted illegally, it creates significant carbon emissions and reduces species richness. It can also lead to future deforestation by building roads that increase access to remote areas.

But logging is currently responsible for less than 10 percent of deforestation in the world's largest tropical rainforests, according to a recent study in the journal Science. With deforestation, a forest is completely cut down and converted to another use, which normally doesn't happen when loggers selectively remove valuable trees.

Agriculture accounts for 80 percent of deforestation in the tropics, with a large portion tied to just three commodities: palm oil, soybeans and beef. 

Myth No. 2: The Amazon rainforest functions as the Earth's 'lungs.'

French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted that "the Amazon rain forest — the lungs which produces 20% of our planet's oxygen — is on fire," a claim repeated by the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio and Cristiano Ronaldo. 

Though trees do produce oxygen, they also consume it during cellular respiration. From there, microbes and other organisms use much of the oxygen generated by rainforests, resulting in a net production of oxygen close to zero. "There are a number of reasons why you would want to keep the Amazon in place, oxygen just isn't any one of them," Michael Coe, a scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts, told National Geographic. (In fact, our planet's atmosphere is breathable thanks to phytoplankton trapped at the bottom of the ocean, which generated oxygen over billions of years.)

Still, rainforests across Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia store about a quarter of the world's carbon, and their deforestation accounts for more than 15 percent of gross human-caused greenhouse gas emissions worldwide each year.

Myth No. 3: The rainforest is uninhabited wilderness.

Advertisements for tourist excursions often refer to tropical rainforests as "virgin" and "untouched." To many, these places exemplify wilderness — paradises untrammeled by human intervention and thus teeming with plant and animal life. This misconception has had tragic consequences for local and indigenous people. According to a U.N. report from 2018, countries including Peru, Panama and Indonesia have forced communities from their traditional lands to create protected areas of "pristine" nature.

In truth, these areas are not naturally uninhabited. People have lived in tropical rainforests for thousands of years and continue to occupy large areas within them: Indigenous territories cover 35 percent of the Amazon, for example. Local communities have made a profound impact on the forests' structure across time: Recent archaeological and ecological studies suggest that pre-Columbian peoples changed the plant composition of the Amazonian rainforest by domesticating and cultivating species such as the Brazil nut.

Myth No. 4: Tropical rainforests are doomed.

It's hard not to be alarmed reading the headlines about tropical rainforests. As early as 2009, the Independent said that the "fate of the rainforest is 'irreversible.' "

"We are destroying rainforests so quickly they may be gone in 100 years,"the Guardian said in 2017. The Economist says that the Amazon is on "deathwatch." Last year the world lost 3.6 million hectares of primary rainforest, an area the size of Belgium.

But some countries have managed to significantly slow deforestation. Global Forest Watch reported a 40 percent decline in Indonesia's forest loss in 2018 compared with its 2002-2016 average, thanks in part to the government's response to the massive fires in 2015. Before its recent policy reversals, Brazil actually reduced large-scale deforestation in the Amazon by 70 percent between 2004 and 2012.

We know how to stop deforestation — by increasing law enforcement efforts, establishing protected areas, recognizing indigenous territories, regulating agricultural conversion and paying landowners for environmental services. If Indonesia and Brazil, historically the worst deforesters, are capable of turning things around, there's hope.

Weiss is a manager at the Global Forest Watch program at the World Resources Institute.