Brazilian institute head fired after clashing with nation's president over deforestation data

Scientist had defended satellite data showing rising forest loss

Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro sits at a table with environment Minister Ricardo Salles.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro (left), here with Minister of the Environment Ricardo Salles (right), attacked the validity of satellite data showing deforestation in Brazil has increased since he took office.AP Photo/Eraldo Peres

The director of the Brazilian agency that monitors deforestation was fired Friday, following a public face-off with President Jair Bolsonaro. Physicist Ricardo Galvão announced his own ousting as director of National Institute for Space Research (INPE) to reporters in Brasília, saying his altercation with the president had made the situation "unsustainable." No replacement has been announced.

Known for his stout personality, Galvão challenged Bolsonaro on 20 July, rebutting remarks about deforestation the president had made the day before. Questioned by journalists about the rise of deforestation in the Amazon—as indicated by satellite data from INPE's Real-time Deforestation Detection System (DETER)—Bolsonaro called the institute's data "a lie," and said Galvão appeared to be "at the service of some nongovernmental organization." Galvão replied by calling Bolsonaro a "coward," defending INPE science, and daring Bolsonaro to repeat the accusation to his face.

Bolsonaro didn't meet with Galvão and continued to question INPE data in the following 2 weeks, even as deforestation continued. According to the latest DETER numbers, approximately 4500 square kilometers of forest were cleared in the first 7 months of this year, since the beginning of Bolsonaro's administration—60% more than in the same period in 2018.

Scientists and environmentalists were alarmed but not surprised—many had predicted deforestation would increase because of Bolsonaro's aggressive pro-development, anticonservation political agenda.

Most of the increase that DETER noted came in June and July when the drier climate makes it easier to destroy the forest and cloud cover lessens, exposing deforestation that may have been hidden.

"The numbers, as I understand, were mauled for the purpose, it seems, to strike at the name of the government and Brazil," Bolsonaro said during a press conference on 1 August. Sitting next to Bolsonaro, Minister of the Environment Ricardo Salles announced that a private monitoring service would be hired "in the shortest possible time frame" to complement INPE's work with daily high-resolution photos. His office asserted several "inconsistencies and errors" had been found in the DETER data, including several areas that were counted as deforested in June, but actually began to be cleared in 2018, and others that were allegedly counted twice by the system.

INPE then released a statement to "reaffirm its confidence in the quality of the data produced by DETER," noting that it has consistently used a well-known method for 15 years, and that "any comparison of DETER results with other methodologies or distinct images must be thorough and requires a more complete evaluation." The satellite's data have "contributed to the reduction of deforestation in the Amazon region when used in conjunction with law enforcement actions," INPE said. (DETER is designed to rapidly identify areas where illegal deforestation is happening and warn law enforcement in time to stop it.) Official deforestation rates fell by 80% between 2004, when DETER became operational, and 2014. Since then, they have been trending up slightly.

Founded in 1961 and based in São José dos Campos, Brazil, INPE is one of the country's most distinguished research institutions, recognized as an international leader in tropical forest remote sensing applications. Several scientific organizations have responded to Bolsonaro's criticisms by defending the institute. "The criticisms made have no scientific basis and disregard the immense contributions that the National Institute for Space Research give to Brazil and the world," the São Paulo Academy of Sciences wrote. The Coalition for Science and Society, a group of 65 Brazilian scientists concerned about political developments, said in a statement the government's attitude amounted to the "rapid scrapping" of Brazil's hard-built scientific credibility.

"The scientific community and international partners won't trust in a new ‘official' number cooked up by the government," said Raoni Rajão, an environment management professor at the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

Science minister Marcos Pontes didn't speak to the press after firing Galvão, but he posted a message on Twitter thanking Galvão for his "dedication and effort."

*Update, 5 August, 9 p.m.: This story has been revised to add comments from Ricardo Salles describing alleged errors in the DETER data, as well as INPE's response to those claims.

*Update, 6 August, 10:05 a.m.: Brazilian Minister of Science, Technology, Innovation, and Communications Marcos Pontes posted a video on Facebook on 5 August to announce that he has appointed Darcton Policarpo Damião as interim director of INPE. Policarpo Damião, a graduate of the Air Force Academy, has a bachelor's degree in aeronautical sciences, a masters in remote sensing from INPE, and a Ph.D. in sustainable development from the University of Brasília. Pontes said he will serve until a selection committee is assembled and a new director is picked. "We will improve [INPE's] satellites systems, the data analysis, and how this data is presented," he added.

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