Chamber of disinformation? Brazilian deforestation according to Bolsonaro
Illustration: Carvall

Last week the Brazilian government established a group of bureaucrats whose mission is to survey the numbers regarding deforestation and burn-offs undertaken by INPE (Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais), the National Institute of Spatial Studies. This Thematic Consultative Chamber is going to “review the data” and determine which areas were deforested legally and illegally, according to a resolution that was published on Thursday, June 2 in the Official Diary of the Union.

The new chamber will have representatives from five ministries: Environment, Agriculture, Defense, Economy, and Justice. The Ministry of Science, which is linked to INPE, was not involved. In effect, the measure excluded the institute, responsible since the 1980s for calculating the official rate of Amazon deforestation, from the process which is going to determine the data regarding illegal deforestation that the government considers valid. This environmental legislation foresees cases in which a landowner can deforest his lands. In rural properties situated in the Amazon, producers are obliged by law to leave 80% of the forest standing (in practice, the majority of the properties are framed in exceptions to this rule, according to a survey commissioned by piauí).

The possibility of legal deforestation is sometimes used as a smoke screen to relativize the very negative indicators obtained in Jair Bolsonaro’s government. The rate of deforestation was already growing under the governance of Dilma Rousseff and Michel Temer, but under Bolsonaro it attained a level not seen since 2006—last year 13.2 million square kilometers (approximately 5.97 million square miles) of tropical rainforest were cut and/or burned to the ground.

But legal deforestation constitutes only a very small fraction of the razed area, as a survey made by MapBiomas, a network of civil society organizations, universities, and technology businesses, made clear. This initiative cross checks the data of legally authorized deforestation and the registries of fines and discloses the results on the internet. Forestation engineer Tasso Azevedo, the coordinator of MapBiomas, said that only 1% to 2% of the clearcut area in the Amazon has been legally authorized.

“Brazil has a sophisticated monitoring system, under INPE, and technology that can differentiate legal from illegal activities when it comes to deforestation,” according to Suely Araújo, past president of IBAMA [Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources], who acts as a senior public policy consultant for the Atmospheric Observatory. Along with MapBiomas, she cited Sinaflor, a system that has been operated by IBAMA since 2018. “The Bolsonaro government needs to respect the country’s existing technical knowledge and let the environmental institutions do their work.”

The creation of a chamber (of disinformation) to revise the deforestation numbers raised environmentalists’ suspicions that it can be used to make up data about deforestation that the government considers negative. This is not the government’s first attempt against INPE. In 2019, Bolsonaro said that the deforestation numbers were lies and that the institute was acting “in service to some NGO,” in an episode that ended with his demanding of his Science and Technology Minister, Marcos Pontes, the head of physicist Ricardo Galvão, former INPE director. The president made it clear that he would like to see the numbers before they were published. “I don’t want to be caught with my pants down,” he said.

Fire consumes land recently deforested near Novo Progresso, Para state, Brazil on Aug. 23, 2020. | Andre Penner / AP

The computer scientist Gilberto Câmara, ex-director of INPE, says he is worried about the creation of the new chamber but he believes that the technical nature of INPE’s work will shield it from the government’s attacks. “To manipulate the data necessitates a minimum of competence,” the scientist declared. “State organs whose action depends on technological competence are more resilient to the interventions of a populist government than those whose action does not depend so much on the teams’ qualifications.”

The group that is going to review the deforestation data is really the reformulation of a chamber instituted in the resolution of December 2021. Its objective and its composition were altered: the Economic and Justice ministries entered, and INPE and the Chico Mendes Institute for Conservation of Biodiversity (ICMBio), the two independent authorities responsible for environmental control, departed. “The focal points of the fight against environmental crime were removed from the discussion,” said lawyer Fábio Ishisaki, juridical coordinator of Interior Policy, an initiative that monitors public environmental policies. “It doesn’t make sense to say that you’re going to reassess the data about deforestation and exclude the environmental bodies from the commission,” Tasso Azevedo added.

Piauí questioned the Ministry of the Environment (MMA) about what “review of the data about deforestation and burn-offs” meant. We also asked why INPES, IBAMA, and ICMBio are not represented in the recently constituted chamber. The minister responded with a note that failed to clarify either of these questions and did not answer our request for more information. Here is the entirety of the MMA’s note:

“The Ministry of the Environment clarifies that Resolution #11 of the 25th of March 2022 takes into account the review of data already furnished and published by the INPE, therefore, the Consultative Chamber is composed of organs that possess other databases: CENSIPAM (Defense Ministry), Federal Police (Ministry of Justice and Public Security), INCRA and SFB (Ministry of Agriculture, Cattle and Supply) and the Secretariat of Digital Control (Ministry of the Economy). It needs to be clear that the composition of the Thematic Consultative Chamber was approved by a collective body established by Decree #10,142 on the 28th of November of 2019.”

Translated by Peter Lownds for People’s World. The original publication in Piauí, published June 7, 2022, can be viewed here.


Bernardo Esteves
Bernardo Esteves

Reporter Bernardo Esteves is the author of Domingo É Dia da Ciência (Sunday Is Science Day). Journalist at @revistapiaui, presenter at @aterrapodcast, teacher at @amerek_ufmg.