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 deforestation.
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 they give.
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 interference?
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 our data.
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 Amazon.
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.