Fires and deforestation in the Amazon, as seen by a sensor aboard a NASA satellite.

NASA Earth Observatory

In controversial move, Brazil may outsource Amazon deforestation monitoring

In a major change, Brazil's Ministry of the Environment is looking for a company to help it monitor deforestation in the Amazon. "This is a surprise for everyone … crazy stuff," says Tasso Azevedo, coordinator of the Greenhouse Gas Emission Estimate System and Observatório do Clima in São Paulo and former head of the Brazilian Forest Service. The controversial proposal led to the firing of one of the ministry's top scientists, who is a vice president of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  

Since 1988, the ministry has relied on the National Institute of Space Research (INPE) to analyze land cover changes in the Amazon, which holds the world’s largest intact swaths of forest. Efforts to combat deforestation there have been the focus of worldwide interest, in large part because of the region’s rich biodiversity and the forest’s role in shaping regional climate.

The ministry says INPE will continue to monitor the Amazon, but researchers worry that the $25 million annual contract will result in significant duplication of effort, a waste of scarce resources, possible confusion over deforestation rates, and create an apparent conflict of interest for the ministry. 

The data from INPE's remote sensing analyses helped the ministry create and enforce policies that slashed deforestation by 72% between 2004 and 2016. The flagship effort at INPE is the Program for Monitoring Deforestation of the Amazon by Satellite (PRODES), in which technicians analyze Landsat data to identify clear-cuts larger than 6.25 hectares and produce a yearly estimate of deforestation in the Amazon.

Since 2004, INPE has added techniques to detect smaller patches of illegal cutting, and also created a program called DETER to provide monthly and weekly updates that could be used for enforcement. The long track record with PRODES and INPE's newer approaches have won praise from international experts. "Brazil is the leading country in terms of monitoring deforestation," says Matthew Hansen of the University of Maryland in College Park. "No one touches Brazil."

But on 20 April, the ministry quietly issued a 160-page request for proposals for "contracting specialized services of support to the infrastructure of geoprocessing and remote sensing activities to meet the demands of environmental monitoring and geoprocessing." The 2-week deadline for proposals closes Thursday, after which the ministry will consider any bids for up to 60 days. The 12-month contract could be extended for up to 5 years. News of the proposal request was first reported Wednesday by Estadão.  

The decision to hire a commercial firm to do remote-sensing analysis was disputed within the ministry. The head of the program to combat deforestation, mathematician Thelma Krug, who helped create PRODES, reportedly objected to the decision. She was dismissed from her position on 19 April, the day before the request for proposals was issued. In a statement, the ministry said she wanted to spend more time on her work for IPCC. "She's a scientist who knows better than anyone in Brazil what's going on with measuring deforestation in the Amazon," says Paulo Moutinho, an ecologist at the Amazon Environmental Research Institute in Brasília. Her firing was "not good news for Brazilian society or those trying to protect the forest."  

In a statement yesterday, the ministry said that the purpose of the contract is to add technology, such as radar imagery, not available from INPE. The space agency will continue to monitor and estimate deforestation in the Amazon, the ministry said, and disputed that work done under the contract would be redundant with INPE’s activities.

But Raoni Rajão, a social scientist at the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, says that much of the work called for by the bid request is already being done by INPE, so hiring a contractor to replicate it is "basically a waste of money." The contract would eat up 18% of the ministry's budget, which was cut 51% in March to $142 million. That's money that could be better spent fighting illegal logging, which rose 29% last year, says Carlos Souza, a remote sensing expert with Imazon, a research institute in Belém.

There's also the potential for conflict of interest, critics say. The ministry would be paying a company to evaluate deforestation, which is one measure of how well the ministry is doing its job. That raises important questions, Souza says: "How transparent will the system be? Can it be verified by civil society?"

INPE's methods are transparent and its analysis independent of the ministry, experts say. "If you want to save the Amazon," says Moutinho, "we need a very robust monitoring system of deforestation."

Rajão, who has created an online petition to ask the ministry to cancel the request, also worries that the ministry could cherry-pick deforestation data from the contractor or INPE and highlight the better-looking numbers. Multiple sources of government information could create confusion over the status and trends of deforestation, he says.

A big value of INPE’s annual deforestation estimates is that they offer a simple, clear indicator about how the world's largest rainforest is faring, says tropical ecologist Dan Nepstad of the Earth Innovation Institute in San Francisco, California. "It's become part of the national narrative on the Amazon," he says.

With reporting by Herton Escobar.