Deforestation is shooting up again in the Brazilian Amazon, according to satellite monitoring data. But Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, whom many blame for the uptick, has disputed the trend and attacked the credibility of Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), which produced the data. Bolsonaro called the numbers “a lie” during a 19 July breakfast talk with journalists, and suggested INPE Director Ricardo Galvão was “at the service of some [nongovernmental organization].” “With all the devastation you accuse us of doing and having done in the past, the Amazon would be extinguished already,” he said.
His comments triggered a fierce backlash from the scientific community, which feels increasingly under siege from the Bolsonaro administration. “Satellites are not responsible for deforestation—they only objectively record what happens,” says a manifest by the Coalition for Science and Society, a recently formed group of scientists concerned about political developments in Brazil. “Scientific facts will prevail, whether or not people believe in them.” Galvão called Bolsonaro a “coward” for voicing unfounded accusations in public. “I hope he calls me to Brasília to explain the data, and that he has the courage to repeat [what he said] face to face,” Galvão said in an interview with O Estado de S. Paulo newspaper.
Bolsonaro—who said Galvão could meet with a Cabinet minister instead—has since toned down his criticism but insists INPE should consult with government officials before releasing deforestation data in the future because it is hurting Brazil’s image abroad. (INPE’s official policy is to make all of its data public.) Many prominent scientists and environmentalists blame the increase in land clearing on Bolsonaro’s aggressive prodevelopment statements and policies, including the promotion of farming and mining on protected land.
INPE, a public research institute based in São José dos Campos, has been tracking deforestation in the Amazon through satellite images since the 1970s. “Those data have long been used as a reliable barometer of what’s happening in the Brazilian Amazon,” says Bill Laurance, director of the Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science at James Cook University in Cairns, Australia. One of INPE’s monitoring systems, called the Real-Time Deforestation Detection System (DETER), generates an alert every time a new clearing larger than 3 hectares is detected in the forest canopy. It is designed to function as an alarm system and guide law enforcement on the ground, but it also yields rough tallies of new deforestation that are released weekly. The most recent DETER data suggest more than 4200 square kilometers of forest were chopped out of the Brazilian Amazon between 1 January, when Bolsonaro took office, and 24 July. That’s 50% more than in the first 7 months of 2018, and more than double the area cleared in the same period in 2017.
Another system, the Amazon Deforestation Satellite Monitoring Project (PRODES), generates Brazil’s official yearly deforestation rates, calculated from a selection of high-resolution photos from different satellites. Although PRODES is more accurate than DETER, the two systems tend to agree with each other, so it’s likely that the next PRODES report, expected in December, will show a deforestation spike of similar magnitude, analysts say.
To declare INPE’s data a lie is akin to arguing that the Earth is flat.
Annual deforestation rates declined by more than 80% between 2004, when DETER became operational, and 2012, but have been trending upward since then. Some 7500 square kilometers of forest were felled in 2018. But this year’s spike stands out, experts say. “Rather than being a surprise, the result confirms the many anecdotal accounts of deforestation [activities] on the ground, and it fits with the expectation from the climate of impunity that the administration’s rhetoric has promoted,” says Philip Fearnside of the National Institute for Research in Amazonia in Manaus, Brazil.
Bolsonaro is a fierce critic of Brazil’s environmental regulations and law enforcement agencies, which he claims are biased against agriculture and economic development. He has transferred control over indigenous lands to the Ministry of Agriculture and promised to review the boundaries of national parks and other protected areas that he says are slowing down progress in Brazil.
Other scientists defend INPE’s numbers. “To declare INPE’s data a lie is akin to arguing that the Earth is flat,” Laurance says. “I have always been impressed with the technical skill of scientists at INPE and applaud them for their trailblazing efforts to provide annual estimates of deforestation,” says Douglas Morton, chief of the Biospheric Sciences Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland in College Park.
INPE got much less support from Brazil’s minister of science and technology, former NASA astronaut and aerospace engineer Marcos Pontes, whose department oversees the institute. In a 22 July statement, Pontes, a member of Bolsonaro’s party, said he holds INPE “in high regard,” but condoned Bolsonaro’s concerns while condemning Galvão’s counterpunch. Pontes said he had requested a “full technical report” from INPE about the past 24 months of deforestation data and said his ministry had invited Galvão for “clarifications and guidance.” He has also said he agrees INPE should not make its data public as soon as they are ready.
“Of course, nobody expected [Pontes] to clash with the president,” says Mercedes Bustamante, an ecologist at the University of Brasília and co-founder of the Coalition for Science and Society, “but the tone of his statement was disappointing.”