Brazil scientist 'sacked' after deforestation row with president

Ricardo Galvao leaves post after right-wing Jair Bolsonaro criticised data showing accelerated Amazon deforestation.

    Brazil's President Bolsonaro and Environment Minister Salles have criticised data from a government research agency that showed Amazon deforestation is accelerating [File: Eraldo Peres/Associated Press]
    Brazil's President Bolsonaro and Environment Minister Salles have criticised data from a government research agency that showed Amazon deforestation is accelerating [File: Eraldo Peres/Associated Press]

    The head of Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (INPE) has left his position following a public dispute with President Jair Bolsonaro over the agency's data, which showed an accelerated rate of deforestation in the Amazon.

    After meeting Marcos Pontes, Brazil's science and technology minister, on Friday, Ricardo Galvao said he would be leaving due to an "unsustainable" situation.

    "I will be dismissed," Galvao told reporters as he left the meeting.

    Pontes confirmed Galvao's departure on Twitter. A ministry spokesperson told Reuters news agency it was unclear if Galvao had resigned or had been fired.

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    Galvao had previously accused Bolsonaro of "cowardice" for publicly questioning satellite-generated data released by INPE that showed Amazon rainforest deforestation had increased 88 percent in June of this year, compared with the same month last year.

    The INPE data showed that 920 square-kilometres of Amazon forest were destroyed in June.

    Between July 1 and July 25, the latest available dates, INPE recorded 1,864 square-km of deforestation, a number triple what was recorded in the entire month of July last year. 

    Bolsonaro, whose term started at the beginning of 2019 after he rose to power on a right-wing populist platform, has repeatedly voiced scepticism over the rate of deforestation in the Amazon.

    He has also suggested opening the world's largest tropical rainforest to mining, farming and dam building.

    Last month, Bolsonaro described the INPE figures as a lie and said Galvao might be working "in service to some NGO".

    Galvao dismissed Bolsonaro's comments in a July interview with national broadcaster Globo, describing the comments as "bar talk" and "a joke of a 14-year-old boy that is not suitable for a president of Brazil".

    Bolsonaro continued his criticism on Thursday, saying that he suspected that INPE officials had manipulated figures to tarnish his administration's image. He threatened to dismiss those who provided data he deemed "doubtful".

    "A report like this one that does not match the truth can cause a great damage to the image of Brazil," Bolsonaro told reporters. "It seems that there are people interested in that [damaging the image of Brazil], not the press, because the data came out from INPE, from our own departments."

    Ricardo Salles, the environment minister, questioned the methodology of INPE's findings, describing the figures as sensationalist and inaccurate.

    The INPE, which has used the same methodology to measure deforestation since 2004, said it was confident about its data.

    Aerial Photo Amazon
    INPE's data showed that deforestation had increased by 88 percent in June 2018 compared with June 2018 [File: Cristobal Bouroncle/Reuters]

    The accelerated deforestation rate has caused increased concern over a pending European Union free-trade deal with the South American bloc Mercosur, which includes Brazil.

    European farmers fear competition from Brazil's farm sector, which they argue is subject to less stringent environmental requirements than those in Europe.

    Italy's farm minister and Ireland's parliament in July called for the deal to be blocked.

    Support for Galvao

    Opposition members, former government officials and environmental groups have defended the MIT-educated Galvao and the agency's findings.

    Alessandro Molon, an opposition leader in the lower house of congress, said Galvao's departure indicated an increasingly authoritarian president.

    "He doesn't accept being contradicted, even when there are scientific facts to prove he is wrong, as in the case of the INPE space agency and Amazon deforestation data," he told Reuters.

    Marina Silva, Brazil's environment minister from 2003 to 2008, told the Associated Press news agency that Galvao had been "fired for his competence, confidence, and for running an institution that did not cower in the face of ... groundless threats".

    The World Wide Fund for Nature said it supported Galvao and his defence of "the apolitical and public disclosure of deforestation data".

    SOURCE: News agencies