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As Amazon deforestation rises, sensational headlines play into Bolsonaro’s agenda (commentary)

Google Earth image showing deforestation around Arara in the state of Para, in the Brazilian Amazon.

Google Earth image showing deforestation around Arara in the state of Para, in the Brazilian Amazon.

  • Deforestation appears to be on the rise in the Brazilian Amazon, but sensational headlines are playing into the Bolsonaro administration’s campaign to undermine science-based monitoring of the Amazon.
  • For example, administration officials are actively calling into question Brazilian space agency INPE’s data, according to BBC News, which last week quoted General Augusto Heleno Pereira as saying that data on deforestation rates in the Amazon are “manipulated.” Pereira’s claim is completely unsubstantiated, but is nonetheless consistent with a reported push by the Bolsonaro administration to privatize deforestation monitoring.
  • It is critically important that deforestation data is reported accurately by the media. The damage being wrought right now is certainly real and significant. There is no need to embellish or misrepresent the data. Doing so only furnishes the Bolsonaro administration with more ammunition for its war on journalism, science, and the environment.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

In recent weeks, some media outlets have run eye-popping headlines on rising deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon: “Deforestation of Brazilian Amazon surges to record high” read a June 4th headline in The Guardian; “Monthly deforestation up 88.4% compared with a year ago” stated a summary bullet-point The Guardian added to the top of a story syndicated from Reuters on July 3rd; and “Brazilian deforestation spiked 88 percent under Bolsonaro“, said a July 4th piece in The Hill. These sensational headlines, which aren’t an accurate interpretation of the numbers, are playing into the Bolsonaro administration’s campaign to undermine science-based monitoring of the Amazon.

While deforestation does indeed appear to be climbing in the Brazilian Amazon, the data from the two leading sources that track deforestation in the region — Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) and Brazilian NGO Imazon — do not put it anywhere near all-time records, as implied by the headline The Guardian, or nearly twice the rate of last year, as claimed in the other two stories. The mistake these headlines make is they fail to account for the high variability of deforestation during the rainy season and early dry season in the Amazon, when cloud cover can reduce the accuracy of short-term, alert-based satellite monitoring systems. An article Mongabay published in 2015 explains:

So when a headline makes a claim that deforestation is “up 88%” over the prior year based on one month of data, it’s providing only part of the picture. An analysis should at least look at multiple months’ worth of data, especially when the time period in question is outside the peak deforestation season from June-September. For example, the accumulated deforestation according to INPE and Imazon’s alert systems for the 12 months ended May 31, 2019 is 4,633 square kilometers and 4,916 square kilometers respectively, representing an increase of 1 percent and 43 percent over the prior year. The trend was actually looking worse at the beginning of 2019, when the moving average was over 5,000 square kilometers according to each system. This doesn’t mean of course that deforestation won’t continue its upward trajectory.

Why this matters

Misconstruing the numbers is a problem because it plays into the narrative the Bolsonaro administration is using to undercut the credibility of journalists, civil society groups, and scientists that track and report on deforestation. For example, administration officials are actively calling into question INPE’s data, according to BBC News, which last week quoted General Augusto Heleno Pereira as saying that data on deforestation rates in the Amazon are “manipulated.”

“If you add up the percentages that have already been announced to date of deforestation in the Amazon, the Amazon would already be a desert,” he said.

Pereira’s sentiments were echoed by Agriculture Minister Tereza Cristina, who said in an interview with Globo’s CBN newspaper last week that “there are many distortions of information” regarding deforestation in Brazil. She added that Brazil needs to have “a single” and “correct” source of data.

While neither the general’s remarks nor the minister’s statements indicate much depth of knowledge on Brazil’s own deforestation-tracking technologies or how deforestation is measured, they are consistent with a reported push by the Bolsonaro administration to privatize deforestation monitoring. Critics fear that effort could divert resources away from INPE’s system and foster uncertainty about the results it produces.

More broadly, the comments square with the administration’s ongoing attack on science, scientific institutions, and environmental protection, including cutting funding for scientific research programs, education, and environmental law enforcement as well as policy moves like shifting the indigenous affairs bureau FUNAI under the control of the agriculture ministry.

For these reasons, it is critically important that deforestation data is reported accurately by the media. The damage being wrought right now in the Amazon is certainly real and significant. There is no need to embellish or misrepresent the data. Doing so only furnishes the Bolsonaro administration with more ammunition for its war on journalism, science, and the environment.

Header image: Google Earth image showing deforestation around Arara in the state of Pará.