Amazon Deforestation and Brazilian President Bolsonaro’s Attack on Science

August 19, 2019 | 6:00 am
Photo: Brazilian things/Wikimedia Commons
UCS Blog

Science is always a potential threat to authoritarian rulers, because it uncovers truths that contradict their lies.

Recently we’ve seen a dramatic example of this conflict in Brazil, where the director of the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) has been fired by the country’s new President, Jair Bolsonaro, for releasing data showing a substantial increase in Amazon deforestation.

INPE has been providing the world with measurements of deforestation, based on detailed analysis of satellite photos, for more than 30 years, and has become the standard source for this information. It’s INPE’s data that demonstrated how Brazil dramatically diminished its Amazon deforestation starting in about 2007, reducing it by over 2/3 in half a dozen years and keeping it low for the following decade.

This accomplishment was not only an important contribution to the global fight against climate change as well as a point of pride for all Brazilians. It also had a clear material reward, earning the country over a billion dollars in pay-for-performance rewards for reducing emissions, through Brazil’s climate agreement with Norway.

Yet for President Bolsonaro, INPE’s stellar scientific reputation and contributions to the fight against climate change mean nothing. Case in point: INPE’s most recent data from June and July showed a substantial rise in deforestation, clearly contradicting Bolsonaro’s  assertions about the impacts of his Amazon policies. So he fired physicist Ricardo Galvão, INPE’s director, and put a military crony in his place.

There is no doubt that measuring deforestation from space, and interpreting the results, is a complex task. For the Amazon, there are several approaches used by different institutions, such as INPE, the Brazilian non-profit group IPAM, the World Resources Institute’s Global Forest Watch, and the European Community’s Joint Research Centre.

Because the Amazon forest is so large, some of these organizations use sampling methods and analyses by expert image interpreters, while others rely on computer algorithms and “big-data” approaches. There are monthly data but also annual totals which include corrections for some of the deforestation masked in the monthly photos by wet-season cloud cover.

Interpretation of the reasons for changes in the numbers is complicated, too, because many factors affect deforestation. These include land protection, particular by Indigenous Peoples in their reserves; the strength of enforcement of Brazil’s Forest Code and related laws and regulations; the prices of commodities such as beef and soybeans, which are the main drivers of Amazon deforestation; the cattle and soy agreements with private companies which have made commitments not to buy their products from deforested land; the pay-for-performance agreement with Norway, and more.

But President Bolsonaro’s attack on INPE has nothing to do with any of this complexity. Rather, he has simply claimed that Galvão and his colleagues are lying, perhaps at the behest of an NGO. If scientific data contradict the President’s views, the science must be false.

This attack should not be surprising. Indeed, President Bolsonaro, since taking office less than a year ago, has consistently worked to weaken the forces that produced Brazil’s great success in reducing deforestation.

His racist statements about Brazil’s Indigenous Peoples and attempts to take away their land; his undercutting of the public prosecutors who enforce the Forest Code and the cattle and soy agreements; his praise for the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from the 1960s to the 1980s and promoted large-scale Amazon development; and his alliance with the ruralista bloc of large ranchers and soybean farmers in Congress, all push the Amazon in the same direction: towards more deforestation. Science is just the latest of the obstacles in his way.

For those of us in the U.S., the parallels with our own country are all too obvious. Indeed, Bolsonaro revels in the title that he has been given by the Brazilian media: “the Trump of the Tropics.” The pattern is very familiar to us: a boastful leader attacks successful progressive environmental policies. He doesn’t hesitate to attack those who achieved that success, and the scientific data that shows the success, and the scientists whose work provided that data. Truth itself becomes the enemy.

This fight for the integrity of science is vital to our climate future, but the attack on INPE shows that it matters to us in another critical way. The battle, quite simply, is between truth and lies, and on a scale much broader than just Brazil or the U.S. There should be no doubt which side the world’s scientists are on.


Doug Boucher is a consultant to UCS on global deforestation and reforestation, land use and climate change.  Before his retirement, Dr. Boucher was the director of UCS’s Tropical Forest and Climate Initiative, which worked with governments, businesses, and consumers to reduce tropical deforestation and the global warming pollution associated with land use.

Prior to joining UCS, Dr. Boucher was a biology professor at Hood College, the University of Quebec, and McGill University. As a professor, he conducted research and taught courses in Latin America, where he first traveled as a member of the Peace Corps in 1971. He has written numerous articles and essays on a wide range of biological, ecological, and other science-related topics in English, French and Spanish.

Dr. Boucher earned a B.A. in ecology and history from Yale University (1971) and a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology from the University of Michigan (1979). He has published over 100 articles in scientific journals and books, particularly on ecology, climate and natural resource issues. He continues to be active in research, focusing on climate change, forest succession, land use and agriculture.

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