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Brazilian institute head fired after clashing with nation’s president over deforestation data | Science | AAAS

Cyber Security | September 9, 2020

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro (left), here with Environment Minister Ricardo Salles, had attacked the validity of satellite data showing deforestation in Brazil has increased since he took office.

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

The director of the Brazilian agency that monitors deforestation was sacked Friday, following a public face-off with Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro. Physicist Ricardo Galvãoannounced his ownousting as director ofNational Institute for Space Research (INPE) to reporters in the capital Brasília, saying his altercation with the president had made the situation “unsustainable.” No replacement has been announced.

Known for his stout personality, Galvãochallenged 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 Galvãoappeared to be “at the service of some nongovernmental organization.” Galvãoreplied by calling Bolsonaro a “coward”, defended INPE science, and dared Bolsonaro to repeat the accusation to his face. 

Bolsonaro didn’t meet with Galvãoand 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 of 2018.

Scientists and environmentalists were alarmed but not surprised—many had predicted deforestation would increase because of Bolsonaro’s aggressive pro-development, anti-conservation 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 environment Ricardo Salles announced that a private monitoring service would be hired “in the shortest possible timeframe” to complement INPEs work with daily high-resolution photos. His office asserted several “inconsistencies and errors” had been found in the DETER data, but didn’t release evidence to support that claim.

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. 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 it has been trending up slightly.

Founded in 1961 and based in São Josédos Campos, INPE is one of Brazil’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,” wrote the São Paulo Academy of Sciences. 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.

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.”

This content was originally published here.