Sacked INPE chief tells Earthsight he thinks an ‘internal fight’ over agribusiness expansion will soon engulf Brazil’s congress and calls on consumer countries to block imports linked to deforestation
Ricardo Galvão was dismissed by
Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro in August after the government agency he led,
the National Institute for Space Research (Inpe), published data showing a
significant increase in Amazon deforestation over the summer.
Bolsonaro said he was “convinced
that the data was a lie” and suggested Galvão was “at the service of some NGO.”
Galvão dismissed the president’s reaction as “cowardice”.
The Inpe data for July confirmed
a trend of rising deforestation under Bolsonaro’s presidency after May recorded
the highest monthly
levels of forest loss since the current monitoring method began, and June
showed an almost 90 per cent increase compared
to the same month in 2018.
Inpe is internationally respected
for its forest monitoring work, which helped Brazil reduce levels of Amazon
deforestation by almost 75 per cent between 2004 and 2012.
Following the global backlash against the recent Amazon forest fires, Inpe's work seems to be more relevant than ever. Earthsight talked to Galvão to hear his thoughts on the current political situation in Brazil and the challenges ahead.
Earthsight (ES): What is the importance of Inpe’s
monthly deforestation monitoring?
Ricardo Galvão (RG): Inpe has a long tradition
of monitoring deforestation in the Amazon. It started in 1988. We were one of
the pioneers in the world in the use of Landsat satellite images. The official
figures of deforestation in the Amazon have always been provided by Inpe.
In 2004, during Lula’s
government, there was a peak in deforestation, reaching over 27,000 square
kilometres. The Minister of Environment at the time, Marina Silva, asked Inpe to develop a system, now called DETER, to provide daily deforestation alerts.
That was used quite well by Marina and the other ministers who followed her to
decrease the rate of deforestation from over 27,000 square kilometres to a
little over 4,000 square kilometres in 2012.
But since then the decrease in rates
of deforestation has stopped. Last year we had over 7,500 square kilometres of
So the government was naturally
annoyed that we were providing data showing that the deforestation rate has
been increasing and, during Bolsonaro’s government, almost doubled. If we add
all the figures from January to August this year, the rate almost doubled
compared to last year. The government has been saying “well, it’s increased but
less than the previous average”. But that’s not our goal. Our goal is to
decrease it to below 4,000 square kilometres.
So this data is very, very
important. What annoyed the government is that, according to Brazilian law,
Inpe is obliged to make the data fully and freely available to society. Anyone
can access and see the data.
I think the reason for this
increase in deforestation has been the message that President Bolsonaro has
been giving since the elections. He’s brought people to the government who deny
global warming. For us at INPE that was very, very strange. The Vice-Chair of
the IPCC is a scientist from INPE, Dr Thelma Krug.
So we had all the data, we
provided the data to the government, we knew what the government commitments
were. But obviously President Bolsonaro and a group around him, including the
Minister of Environment, understand that curbing deforestation in the Amazon is
somewhat contrary to economic development, which is a very childish message
By stating his opinions, he gave
green light for illegal deforesters in the Amazon.
ES: What can be done to guarantee
that the scientific monitoring of deforestation be free from political
RG: When the president said
that our data was a lie and that I was working for some foreign NGOs, I thought
very carefully about how to respond to him. It was very clear in my mind that I
had to make a very strong point.
The attention of the whole world
is over the Amazon now. But also, in Brazil the scientific community reacted
very, very strongly. What was very pleasant to me was seeing normal people in
the streets react. A week ago I was stopped at a metro line in São Paulo by an
old lady, and she said “I thank you very much for the position you’ve taken.”
So I think the reaction was very
important, even for normal people. But your point goes deeper. It’s about the
control of the data that Inpe provides. It’s very hard for the government to
put any control on that. Why? Inpe has a tremendous reputation abroad. We are
partners of NASA, of the European Space Agency and we have very strong
collaboration with the University of Maryland, which also monitors
deforestation in the Amazon using different methods. The international
scientific community is paying attention to that.
Two weeks ago there was a paper
published by a German scientist using data from Sentinel satellites of the
European Space Agency, confirming all the data, the alerts that Inpe has
provided. So I think there would be no way for the government to try to curb
ES: What do you think of
government proposals to hire a private company to carry out monthly
deforestation monitoring in Brazil?
RG: That is a reason why, I
believe, I have been considered persona non grata by the government since
January. Because I have always been, and Inpe and its scientists have always
been, counter-attacking this initiative by the government. One of the reasons
why we have strong credibility worldwide is that Inpe, which is responsible for
monitoring deforestation, belongs to the Ministry of Science and Technology.
Ibama, which is responsible for taking actions to curb deforestation, belongs
to another ministry, the Ministry of Environment.
So there is no conflict of
interest. We have been providing our data completely freely. Always
collaborating, but freely. Brazilian society can see our data and see if Ibama
has taken the right measures. However, if the Ministry of Environment hires a
company to provide the data, that is a conflict of interest. They are going to
provide the data they want to have.
The second important point is
that this is, I believe, a complete waste of money. The data Inpe provides
served quite well to decrease the rate of deforestation from 2004 to 2012. Why
do you need another system?
Aerial view of destruction caused by the Amazon fires in 2019.
ES: How do you see the
government’s efforts to weaken law enforcement and disempower FUNAI (indigenous
protection agency) and its attacks on Ibama and other environmental agencies?
RG: That’s very worrisome.
However, we have a law – law 12187 – that regulates Brazilian actions regarding
climate change. The law stipulates very clear measures that the government has
to adopt to curb deforestation in the Amazon and to promote sustainable
development. Yesterday I was at the Chamber of Deputies [Brazil’s lower house
of Congress] in Brasilia and I have been asked to [appear before] the Senate
next week. So I think that our representatives are very clearly taking measures
to investigate the actions the government is taking. There is going to be a
clash between Bolsonaro and Congress in the future. The only hope we have is
that the government will be forced to follow what the law says.
I have to say that many of these
opinions that Bolsonaro has been expressing since the [electoral] campaign are
not the opinions of everyone in government.
This question of the economy is
very serious. It is true we cannot take measures to curb deforestation without
giving people there some economic solution. They have to survive and that has
to be done in a way that is sustainable.
A well-thought programme for
sustainable development is missing. I think on this, other countries can help.
Some pressure we see in the Amazon regarding timber and other commodities also
come from abroad. I agree that the Amazon belongs to Brazil, it is within
Brazilian sovereignty. But with that comes responsibility towards humanity. So
other countries can help. Instead of saying “no, the Amazon is not yours”, they
should provide constructive proposals to develop a sustainable economy in the
ES: We’ve also seen initiatives
coming from congress to weaken environmental protections. We often hear about
attempts by the bancada ruralista – the rural lobby in Congress – to
undermine environmental protections and indigenous rights. What is your
assessment of these legislative efforts?
RG: In northern Brazil we
have indeed people who only want to deforest as quickly as possible, put cattle
there and sell the land. How strong their power within congress is I don’t
know. There is going to be fight in congress.
When I participated in a debate
on Globo News with Minister Ricardo Salles, Marcello Brito, CEO of Agropalma
[and president of the Brazilian Association of Agribusinesses], was also
present. Salles and Brito are friends. After the debate, Brito went to Salles
and said “Ricardo, you have to change your discourse because this is going to
affect our exports tremendously. We are very worried about that.”
Yesterday I saw on the news that
a strong agribusiness organisation was complaining about the government and
about deforestation in the Amazon. There is going to be a clear, internal fight
in Brazil between Congress, the Executive and even the Judiciary. A week ago I
was invited to the Public Prosecutor’s Office in São Paulo. They asked me
questions about governmental actions regarding deforestation in the Amazon. So
this whole issue is under discussion now in Brazil. I hope society will put
strong pressure [on government] to revert current government actions.
ES: What other roles do you see
for the international community in terms of helping protect forests in Brazil?
RG: One thing is obvious,
it’s economic pressure; not allowing imports from Brazil that come from
deforested areas. But these measures have always been present; countries have
to enforce them more. The other thing the international community could do is
to remember that there are many Amazon countries, not only Brazil. There is a
possibility, from a political point of view, for better coordination among the
presidents of the different Amazon countries to promote a well-consolidated
policy for the entire Amazon.
So I think the international
community could be, from a diplomatic point of view, a bit cleverer than the
French President was. Instead of accusations they should be more creative.