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Ousted Head of Science Agency Criticizes Brazil’s Denial of Deforestation Data

Ricardo Galvão was fired from the institute that monitors deforestation in the Amazon. Now he and other scientists are speaking out against attacks on science.

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Ricardo Galvão, the recently ousted leader of Brazil’s agency that monitors deforestation in the Amazon basin, said that the Brazilian president’s attacks on scientific data that show sharp spikes in deforestation have “backfired on the government.”

“The whole world puts its attention on the Amazon now,” said Galvão, who was director of Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) until he was removed from his post on 2 August.

Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s populist right-wing president who has worked to loosen environmental protections since taking office in January, falsely charged in July that INPE’s data on increased deforestation are lies. He also claimed without proof that INPE “seems to be in the service of some NGO,” or nongovernmental organization.

Galvão said he hopes that global attention on the Amazon, along with his own defense of science and sharp rebuke of Bolsonaro’s charges, will put up a roadblock against the government’s attacks on Brazilian science.

“The leader of any country should be aware that in scientific matters there is no authority above the sovereignty of science,” Galvão said.

Spikes in Deforestation

INPE’s satellite data show that deforestation in the Amazon in June 2019 was 920.21 square kilometers. This is an 88% increase from 2018, when fewer than 500 square kilometers were deforested.

The July 2019 increase in deforestation appears to be even more dramatic—reportedly 278% higher than July 2018, according to information widely reported by media in Brazil and elsewhere and attributed by the media reports to INPE data.

Philip Fearnside, an ecologist at the National Institute for Amazonian Research, told Eos that INPE had not yet released this July information on the agency website’s news section, “which appears to be a policy change” since Galvão’s ouster. Fearnside said that deforestation under Bolsonaro “is exploding.”

INPE’s Real-Time Deforestation Detection (DETER) system, which uses data from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instruments on board NASA’s Aqua and Terra satellites, provides rapid deforestation alerts. On its website, INPE warns people not to draw simple conclusions or correlations from the data. The website explains that DETER is an expedient methodology “developed to support surveillance” of forest-clearing activities and that DETER data “should not be construed as a monthly rate of deforestation” because of monthly changes in cloud cover and satellite resolution.

A second INPE system, the Program for Calculating Deforestation of the Amazon (PRODES), provides more accurate annual estimates of deforestation.

“While it’s true that DETER is a preview [of the deforestation] trend and it’s not the final number, it’s also true that those trends must be taken seriously,” said Raoni Rajão, an environment management professor at the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

Bolsonaro’s Attacks on Science Agency

During a conversation with foreign journalists on 19 July, Bolsonaro claimed that INPE was lying about the deforestation data. Galvão told Eos that he was “really horrified” by Bolsonaro’s accusations against INPE. “I could not believe I was hearing what I was hearing.”

Other scientists in Brazil and elsewhere also told Eos that Bolsonaro’s remarks alarmed them.

“It’s very worrying having the president interfering in scientific matters and saying that INPE’s data were lies,” said Fearnside. “This is something that intimidates scientists all over the country and all of the institutions, which may have been the intention.”

“President Bolsonaro has tried to find a chink in the armor of DETER and blow it out of proportion, but the scientific community, both within Brazil and internationally, will stand firm that these attempts at obfuscation are baseless from a scientific perspective,” said Eric Davidson, who has conducted field research on the effects of land use change on the biogeochemistry of forest and pasture soils in the Brazilian Amazon since 1992.

“The recent uptick in deforestation reported by INPE is beyond the uncertainties of the method,” said Davidson, professor and director of the Appalachian Laboratory at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science in Frostburg. He is also a past president of AGU, which publishes Eos.

The uptick in deforestation “must be accepted as evidence with high confidence that Brazil’s legacy is in peril as a leader among nations for demonstrating how it is possible to reduce rates of tropical deforestation while simultaneously growing agricultural GDP.”

Speaking Out Against Bolsonaro’s False Charges

Galvão has countered the charges from the Bolsonaro administration by speaking out “to protect Brazilian science and to protect the dignity of our scientists,” Galvão said.

“Not only as a scientist but as a citizen of Brazil, I’m very concerned about the increasing rate of deforestation in the Amazon,” Galvão said.

The most important reason for the deforestation “is the message that the present government is giving, that the Amazon is ours, is not the concern for the world, [and] we can do with it what we want. This is a very serious message for people that want to deforest the Amazon,” he said. “They take [it] literally and they start invading and cutting trees and exploring minerals and all that.”

Galvão said that he was also disturbed by the government’s plan to contract with an outside company to provide data on deforestation. The current DETER and PRODES systems “give great credibility” to deforestation monitoring, he said. A private company could provide data that the government wants and not the real data.

INPE has been criticized in the past by other government officials, including the governor of the state of Mato Grosso in 2008 during the presidency of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, according to Galvão. However, Galvão said that instead of striking out against INPE, Lula resolved the situation by observing the deforestation by helicopter and confirming INPE’s data.

Killing the Messenger

Carlos Nobre, a renowned climate and Amazon researcher, told Eos that Galvão’s removal “is like the old saying, ‘kill the messenger of bad news,’” with the bad news in this case being data showing increased deforestation.

Galvão has been “almost like a hero defending science [and] defending the quality of INPE’s data,” said Nobre, who worked at INPE for more than 35 years until his retirement 3 years ago. Nobre currently is a senior researcher at the Institute of Advanced Studies, University of São Paulo. He is the international secretary of AGU.

Nobre said he is deeply concerned about the state of the Amazon and threats to science.

If deforestation exceeds 20%–25% of the Amazon, calculations indicate the region will turn into a degraded savannah, said Nobre, who has extensively studied the risk of “savannization” in the Amazon. He added that the Amazon will face the same risk if warming exceeds 4°C in the region, even if deforestation is reduced.

Nobre said that with Galvão’s ouster, it is unclear whether INPE will be able to maintain budgets for its monitoring systems or maintain transparency in disseminating its data publicly.

In addition, Nobre voiced concern about a rising antiscience movement in Brazil.

“The empowerment of an antiscience movement really is very dangerous for humanity,” Nobre said. “These people, through social media, are spreading lies and fake science so effectively that we have to find ways to fight back.”

Some Hope Despite Attacks on Science and the Environment

Nobre said he is hopeful that over the course of a few years, the current antiscience sentiment will end “because society will start perceiving that moving in an antiscience direction is like…suicide.”

Fearnside told Eos that Bolsonaro already “had done a tremendous amount of damage in the environmental area, just in 7 months” and that “things are falling apart very quickly.” He noted, for instance, recent efforts to weaken the country’s environmental licensing law, which not only monitors use of pesticides and other pollutants but also could lead to loosened restrictions on upgrading existing roads, including roads through the Amazon.

Fearnside said that people need to keep working on protecting the environment without losing hope or becoming complacent. “You have to stay focused” on improving the situation, he said.

Galvão and others added that they hope a strong global reaction to the spikes in deforestation will pressure Bolsonaro to change his policies. International concern for the Amazon, Galvão noted, could be bad for Brazilian business.

“Once the world gets the message that we are producing [products] by deforesting the Amazon, that’s going to stop completely our [exports],” said Galvão. “I hope Bolsonaro very seriously notes that and changes his approach to global warming and to maintaining the Amazon jungle.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2019), Ousted head of science agency criticizes Brazil’s denial of deforestation data, Eos, 100, https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EO131399. Published on 20 August 2019.
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