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Bolsonaro can bully on deforestation, but he can’t hide from satellites (commentary)

Google Earth satellite image showing a deforestation, legal forest reserves, and agriculture in Rondonia, Brazil.

Google Earth satellite image showing a deforestation, legal forest reserves, and agriculture in Rondonia, Brazil.

  • In response to rising international criticism over a surge in forest clearing since the beginning of the year, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and officials in his administration have recently stepped up attacks on scientists at the country’s National Space Research Institute (INPE) for continuing to report transparently on deforestation in the Amazon.
  • The expectation among civil society groups is that the Bolsonaro administration will soon stop releasing or start manipulating INPE’s deforestation data. But if Bolsonaro thinks that approach will pacify critics, he is gravely misleading himself: Bolsonaro will not be able to hide what’s happening in the Amazon from the rest of the world.
  • From Planet’s constellation of satellites to NASA’s Landsat to the European Space Agency (ESA)’s Sentinel-1, today there are many eyes in the sky looking down at the Amazon.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

In response to rising international criticism over a surge in forest clearing since the beginning of the year, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and officials in his administration have recently stepped up attacks on scientists at the country’s National Space Research Institute (INPE) for continuing to report transparently on deforestation in the Amazon. On Friday, the administration sacked Ricardo Galvão, the head of INPE, and demanded the right to review deforestation data before it is released to the public. The administration has pointedly claimed, without evidence, that INPE is overstating the extent of destruction in the Amazon.

The expectation among civil society groups is that the Bolsonaro administration will soon stop releasing or start manipulating INPE’s deforestation data. But if Bolsonaro thinks that approach will pacify critics, he is gravely misleading himself: Bolsonaro will not be able to hide what’s happening in the Amazon from the rest of the world.

While INPE’s forest monitoring system is considered world-class and provides a 30-year baseline for tracking deforestation trends in the Amazon, it is not the only option when it comes to monitoring the Amazon. For example, the Brazilian NGO Imazon has long provided its own Amazon deforestation tracking system that offers a second set of numbers that serve as a check on official data. MapaBiomas, a multi-institutional initiative, analyzes data from multiple sources to shed light on the Amazon, while Global Forest Watch, a platform run by World Resources Institute, aggregates data from a range of institutions to track forest cover trends in the Brazilian Amazon and beyond. From Planet’s constellation of satellites to NASA’s Landsat to the European Space Agency (ESA)’s Sentinel-1, today there are many eyes in the sky looking down at the Amazon.

The administration’s actions will therefore not blind the world to the environmental catastrophe currently underway in Earth’s largest rainforest. Instead, it will likely catalyze greater international condemnation of its policies and Brazilian companies. There are already signs of backlash: the European Union is reportedly reconsidering a landmark trade deal over rising deforestation. Bolsonaro’s sidelining of some of Brazil’s best scientists may thus ultimately undercut Brazilian business.

Google Earth satellite image showing a forest fragment in a deforested landscape in Rondonia, Brazil.

But beyond the immediate implications for Brazil’s reputation, if deforestation continues to accelerate in the Amazon, it could undermine the very ecosystem services that sustain Brazilian farmers and city dwellers alike. Scientists warn that should deforestation reach a critical threshold, the Amazon rainforest could tip toward a drier savanna ecosystem. That could shift the moisture conveyor belt that currently drives rainfall across southern South America northward, depriving metropolises like Sao Paulo and Rio, as well as the continent’s agricultural bread-basket, of the water on which they depend and leaving Brazil as the mercy of devastating droughts. That scenario can’t be good for the Brazilian economy in the long-run.

Head image: Google Earth satellite image showing a deforestation, legal forest reserves, and agriculture in Rondonia, Brazil.