Forest-loss figures, fires embroil Brazil


Record fires in Brazil have drawn attention to the quickening pace of deforestation in the country’s Amazon region. (Photo courtesy of Greenpeace)

Since Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro questioned the integrity of government deforestation data last month—then two weeks later fired the head of the agency that produces it—land-clearing estimates for the country’s Amazon region have only grown more worrisome. This month, the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), which uses satellite imagery to monitor deforestation, estimated that in the year ending in July, land clearing in the Brazilian Amazon exceeded that of the previous 12-month period by 50%, and that 278% more deforestation occurred there in July of this year than in July of 2018. Meanwhile, a record number of fires nationwide—many in deforested areas of the Amazon—produced plumes of smoke that darkened the skies over Brazilian cities and towns up to 1,000 miles (1,600 kms) away.

Taken together, the land-clearing estimates and fires have stoked intense world concern about the future of rainforest protection under Bolsonaro, who since taking office in January has vowed to curb environmental regulation and spur development in the Amazon. The stakes are enormous, given the giant rainforest’s importance to global climate and biodiversity, and to Brazil’s ability to meet the greenhouse-gas-reduction goals it set for itself under the Paris climate accord. Achieving those goals hinges largely on reducing deforestation rates, and Brazil began addressing that challenge admirably during 2005-12 by cutting the pace of Amazon land clearing fivefold. But with confirmed deforestation rates turning back upwards since, estimates of a massive land-clearing surge under Bolsonaro have fueled fears Brazil will swiftly squander its earlier progress and deal the vast rainforest region a devastating blow.

“Brazilian Amazon deforestation, which has been going up in recent years, has exploded under Bolsonaro,” says Philip Fearnside, a senior researcher at Brazil’s National Institute of Amazonian Research (INPA), a public scientific body headquartered in Manaus. “Because he has three and a half years left in office to push his anti-environmental policies, the impact on the rainforest could last decades, causing land clearing there to spiral… [and] make global efforts to control climate change far more difficult, thus threatening more global warming and biodiversity loss worldwide.”

Political tension over deforestation escalated in July, when INPE produced the first of back-to-back estimates signaling a precipitous rise in the rate of Amazon land clearing. The agency estimated that Amazon deforestation in June had been 88.4% greater than in June of last year. Though INPE’s subsequent estimate for July would be even more alarming, the June figure was disturbing enough. As was the reaction of Bolsonaro, who proceeded to dismiss the agency’s estimates as “lies” and suggest that the INPE president at the time, Ricardo Galvão, was beholden to non-governmental groups. Galvão, a physicist with a Ph.D from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), fired back, calling the accusations “baseless” and rebuking Bolsonaro for “speaking in public as if he were speaking in some bar.” (See "Bolsonaro dismissing deforestation figures as ‘lies’" —EcoAméricas, July 2019.)

The dispute culminated this month in Galvão’s dismissal, his replacement with Darcton Policarpo Damião—an interim appointee drawn from the military—and a government announcement that it would use data from an alternative supplier of satellite imagery. Meanwhile, Environment Minister Ricardo Salles joined the fray, downplaying concern about accelerating forest loss and suggesting that the media stirred up the controversy. “It wasn’t INPE that made this sensationalist interpretation [of Amazon deforestation],” he told lawmakers during a congressional hearing. “It was those in the media who manipulated the data to create factoids.”

Though Salles’ complaint of manipulation is widely considered false, his objection to media reporting of INPE’s figures is not completely off base. That’s because INPE issues two types of annual deforestation figures, both of which cover 12-month periods ending on July 31 of a given year. Its estimates, which are based on near-real-time, low-resolution satellite images, typically are issued shortly after the observation period ends. They are not intended as a definitive measures of deforestation—a fact that domestic and international media outlets routinely ignore. Instead, they are meant mainly for immediate use by Ibama, the enforcement arm of the Environment Ministry, to deter new deforestation. The more accurate yardstick is INPE’s definitive annual deforestation data, which is based on an analysis of high-resolution satellite images that typically takes months. For instance, the most recent such figure, only released this July, covers the 12 months ending in July 2018.

None of which means INPE figures can’t be trusted. Experts point out that while INPE’s definitive numbers often do not match its earlier estimates, the two types of figures almost always coincide on whether the deforestation rate is speeding or slowing. For example, INPE initially estimated that the deforestation-rate increase for the year ending July 31, 2018 had been 13.7%, but last month it set the definitive figure at 8.5% following analysis of high-resolution satellite images. Against that backdrop, scientists argue, INPE’s estimates of far-higher deforestation since July of last year are a legitimate cause for concern.

Yet the Bolsonaro administration is pushing the view that the satellite data Brazil uses is faulty. On Aug. 21, Ibama issued what it described as “a public offer for companies specialized in providing continuous monitoring services using high-resolution [satellite] images that provide daily alerts about deforestation.” Earlier in the month, Salles was reported to be considering the purchase of data from Planet Labs, a private, U.S.-based earth-imaging company.

Many experts who work with satellite images of deforestation say that changing systems makes little sense. They point out that the U.S. space agency NASA, the European Union, China and India already provide INPE a sufficiently wide range of high-resolution satellite images to allow it to measure Brazilian Amazon deforestation accurately. “INPE has enough data to measure Brazilian Amazon deforestation within a 95% degree of accuracy using high-resolution satellite images,” says Carlos Nobre, a retired senior INPE researcher in climate change and Amazon deforestation. “Buying even higher-resolution images from a private company requires training hundreds of specialists to analyze this complex data. The government’s money would be much better spent on increasing enforcement.”

Douglas Morton, head of the Biospheric Sciences Laboratory, a satellite-data processing and analysis unit at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, agrees. “INPE’s data, drawn from a wide variety of foreign satellite sources, is incredibly reliable and also transparent because anyone can download it, apply its methodology and confirm its results,” Morton says. “A private company like Planet Labs might be able to supply INPE with a larger number of more detailed images of the Brazilian Amazon, provided the institute has the manpower to process it, a complicated endeavor. But different data won’t change the fundamental trend in the rate of Amazon deforestation, now being calculated by INPE. And because a private company’s data is private, it won’t be transparent, like INPE’s data is now.”

Says Mikaela Weisse, manager of the Global Forest Watch program at the World Resources Institute, a U.S.-based environmental group: “Brazil has the world’s best national deforestation-monitoring program because it has been doing this since 1988, has maintained consistency while also advancing its methodology, and uses a wide range of satellite images. And given that most land clearing in the Brazilian Amazon is large-scale, it doesn’t require higher resolution satellite images to more accurately measure forest loss.”

Salles’ plan to seek a new source also puzzles Thelma Krug, a senior researcher at INPE who deals with deforestation and climate change issues and formerly headed the Environment Ministry department that oversees policies to counter illegal land clearing. “Environment Minister Salles said he wanted Brazil to contract a whole new system of satellites to monitor Amazon deforestation without explaining why INPE’s current system, which gets data from an enormous range of satellites, is not providing reliable data to do so,” Krug says. “Nor did he explain that Ibama doesn’t use 5% of the deforestation data it gets from INPE and lacks the money or manpower to crack down on illegal land clearing.”

Indeed, the Bolsonaro administration cut Ibama’s 2019 discretionary budget—its authorized outlays excluding salaries—by 24%, and the agency conducted only 36 enforcement operations in the first four months of 2019, less than half of the 86 operations it carried out in the corresponding period in 2018. Meanwhile, Salles has been slow to replace 21 heads of ministry state offices whom he fired in February. Only eight of the agency’s state offices, which number 26 in all, currently have a head—including just one of the nine state offices in the Amazon region. These budget and manpower cutbacks reflect the pledges of President Bolsonaro, who ran on a platform hostile to environmental regulation. As a candidate he vowed to end what he called Ibama’s “Shiite-type enforcement,” and “the [environmental] fining industry.”

“Brazilian Amazon deforestation isn’t going up because INPE satellite data isn’t good enough,” says Carlos Rittl, executive secretary of the Climate Observatory, a nonprofit network that tracks Brazil’s carbon emissions. “It’s going up because Ibama has greatly curbed enforcement efforts and Bolsonaro has sent clear signals that environmental crimes won’t be prosecuted, impunity that fuels illegal deforestation.”

For his part, INPE interim President Policarpo Damião, the Air Force Reserve colonel Bolsonaro chose to replace Galvão, has suggested deforestation data will be subject to government review before being released. Critics assert that if such reviews take place, Policarpo Damião is not the right person to preside over them. “INPE needs a top-level scientist as its president, be it temporary or permanent, and Policarpo Damião doesn’t have a career in science or any published scientific research,” says Nobre. “He has mainly worked in Air Force management positions, something that doesn’t qualify him to head INPE. The government needs to form a search committee to quickly pick a far more qualified, permanent replacement.”

Rittl of the Climate Observatory points out that when Policarpo Damião was asked in a BBC interview whether human activities cause global warming, the new INPE interim president responded: “I haven’t studied this issue. So my opinion about this is of no value.” Says Rittl: “Policarpo Damião’s having no opinion about the cause of global warming, which shows some level of denial, is concerning because INPE does considerable research into this phenomenon and its president needs to defend the science it produces.”

Others contend that Policarpo Damião has the needed expertise, citing his master’s degree work at INPE on processing and analyzing satellite images and his Ph.D research involving projections of future Amazon deforestation. “I expect Policarpo Damião to get better acquainted with INPE’s research on climate change,” says Krug, who served on the university committee that approved Policarpo Damião’s Ph.D thesis. “But he is very qualified to be the interim head of the institute based on his background in processing and analyzing satellite images. And I expect him to help others in the government to better understand INPE data.”

Record fires
Criticism of government indifference and denial amid evidence of rising deforestation grew louder in Brazil and abroad amid reports this month that the number of fires occurring in Brazil from Jan. 1 to Aug. 24 totaled 79,513, over half of them in the Amazon region. That’s higher than in the same period of every year since Brazil began tracking fire totals in 2013, the next highest being the 74,317 recorded for Jan. 1 to Aug. 24 of 2016. Experts say that most of the fires—particularly those in the Amazon—were set deliberately on previously cleared property at the outset of the dry season to rid pasture and cropland of underbrush, and to prepare sugarcane fields for harvesting. The annual practice of burning cane fields is meant to make harvesting easier by getting rid of leaves and straw before stalks are cut. It is particularly widespread in the western Amazon state of Mato Grosso, the site of over 15,000 of the fires counted so far this year.

But scientists add that some of the fires in the Amazon region were set to clear newly deforested land not yet in agricultural use, and that others broke out spontaneously in areas of degraded forest. And some fires spread to adjacent primary forest, an increasingly serious problem. Scientists point out that because ongoing deforestation in the Amazon has begun drying out the rainforest, fires—whatever their cause—can now move readily into virgin woodlands that, on account of their moisture, might have acted in the past as firebreaks.

Bolsonaro has authorized use of the military to fight wildfires, and on Aug. 28 issued a 60-day ban on the setting of fires, a move intended to reduce the risk of controlled burns spawning wildfires in the dry season. Otherwise, his response has largely been limited to criticizing those raising concern about fires. On Aug. 21, he insinuated non-governmental groups might have set them, telling reporters: “We suspended money going to these NGOs, and they are feeling the lack of it. So it could be, although I’m not affirming this, that they undertook criminal actions against me and the Brazilian government, a war we have to confront.”

The president’s suggestion was widely dismissed as absurd, but it appeared to reflect frustration on his part over the sharp criticism he is receiving from Brazilian and international non-governmental groups. Likely more distressing for him, however, are signs of pushback from foreign governments. Brazilian deforestation has emerged as a potential stumbling block for a recently negotiated trade agreement between the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc comprising Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. Meanwhile, Norway and Germany this month announced a halt in the flow of Amazon-protection funding they send to Brazil. On Aug. 15, Norway’s Climate and Environment Ministry suspended 300 million krone (US$31.2 million) in such payments that it was slated to make this year.

Funding suspended
Five days earlier, Germany’s Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety had put a hold on 35 million euros (US$38.8 million) in 2019 funds it had earmarked for Amazon conservation, according to a ministry statement sent to EcoAméricas. “The Brazilian government’s policy in the Amazon raises doubts about whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued,” Svenja Schulze, the head of the ministry, said in the statement. “Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued.”

Norway cited the Bolsonaro administration’s abolition in June of two multi-stakeholder committees that have helped oversee Brazil’s biggest source of rainforest-protection support—the Amazon Fund. The US$1.3 billion fund, administered by Brazil’s National Development Bank, consists almost exclusively of donations from Norway and Germany, with payments based on Brazil’s verified progress in reducing Amazon deforestation. When Bolsonaro was asked by journalists on Aug. 15 about Norway’s suspension of rainforest-conservation payments, he responded: “Norway—isn’t that the country that kills whales in the North Pole and drills for oil? It sets no example for us. It should take the suspended money and help [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel reforest Germany.”

- Michael Kepp

Index photo: Landsat 8 satellite image shows deforested areas near the Jamari River in the Amazon state of Rondônia (INPE)

Paulo Barreto
Senior Researcher
Institute of Man and the Amazon Environment (Imazon)
Belém, Pará state, Brazil
Tel: +(55 91) 3182-4008
Philip Fearnside
Senior Researcher in Amazon Ecology
National Institute of Amazon Research (INPA)
Manaus, Amazonas, Brazil
Tel: +(55 92) 3643-1822
Thelma Krug
Senior Researcher
National Institute for Space Research (INPE)
São José dos Campos, São Paulo, Brazil
Tel: +(55 12) 3208-6442
Douglas Morton
Chief of Biospheric Sciences Laboratory
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
Greenbelt, MD, United States
Tel: (301) 614-6688
Carlos Nobre
Senior Researcher
Institute for Advanced Studies
University of São Paulo
São Paulo, Brazil
Tel: +(55 12) 3322-8626
Carlos Rittl
Executive Secretary
The Climate Observatory
São Paulo, Brazil
Mikaela Weisse
Global Forest Watch program
World Resources Institute
Washington, D.C., United States
Tel: (202) 729-7618