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Brazil moves toward transfer of deforestation and fire monitoring to military

  • In a recent announcement, Brazilian Vice President Hamilton Mourão defended the creation of a new agency that would have full authority over Amazon deforestation and fire monitoring satellite alerts. For three decades, INPE, Brazil’s civilian space agency, has held that role, making data publicly available.
  • The VP claims INPE satellite monitoring is outdated and doesn’t see through clouds. Critics of the government note that the space institute’s Prodes and Deter systems continue to provide excellent data on Amazon fires and deforestation, usable for enforcement, while clouds matter little in the dry season when most fires occur.
  • Critics contend that multiple moves by the government to disempower INPE are likely ways of denying transparency, ending INPE’s civil authority, and placing deforestation and fire monitoring satellites under secretive military control.
  • So far, an effort to fund new military satellites has failed. Meanwhile, Norway has partnered with the companies Planet and Airbus to offer free satellite images for monitoring tropical forests including the Amazon. Such publicly available images from Planet, NASA and other sources could thwart Bolsonaro’s possible attempt at secrecy.

If there ever was any doubt — after key firings this year and last year — as to whether the Jair Bolsonaro government aims to disempower and disassemble the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), there is now little uncertainty remaining. Recent actions show the administration’s firm intent to decouple the agency from its mission monitoring deforestation and fires in Brazil, carried out successfully for more than three decades.

Since Bolsonaro took office almost two years ago, the internationally renowned institute has suffered dismissals, high level defamations, unfounded criticisms, and interventions in its organizational structure (in violation of INPE’s own body of rules). In addition, the government has demonstrated its determination to transfer responsibility for deforestation and fire monitoring to Brazil’s military.

Last week, the government made its objective even clearer. In a live broadcast by the Institute for the Reform of the State and Corporate Relations (IREE), Brazilian Vice President Hamilton Mourão — who also heads Bolsonaro’s newly founded Amazon Council — defended the creation of a new agency that concentrates authority for Amazon monitoring systems and satellite alerts.

“Prodes and Deter [INPE’s deforestation monitoring satellite systems] are good systems, but they still have flaws,” explained General Mourão. But “We need to move towards an agency that has that capacity more consistently, and that gives us alerts… similar to the NRO [the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office]… which integrates all of those [satellite] systems and therefore with a lower cost and being more efficient.”

Linked to the U.S. Defense Department, the NRO is one of the largest military intelligence agencies in the United States; it operates the nation’s highly classified reconnaissance satellite network. Environmental monitoring in the U.S. is carried out by civil agencies.

Brazil’s shift in responsibility for deforestation and fire monitoring from a civil authority, where it has always rested, to the military would mark a seismic shift in the Latin American nation’s environmental regulation policies.

A fire hotspot in the Amazon rainforest in Mato Grosso state Brazil, July 2020. © Christian Braga / Greenpeace.

A shift from civil to military oversight

Mourão’s announcement mirrors moves by the Bolsonaro government disempowering IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental agency, which has had its authority for investigating environmental crimes transferred to Mourão’s Amazon Council. Last May, IBAMA also was banned from using INPE deforestation and fire data as a way of targeting Amazon locales for enforcement. That duty now belongs to CENSIPAM, the Defense Ministry’s Management and Operational Center for the Amazon Protection System. In June, the President, for the second year running, largely replaced IBAMA firefighters by ordering Army units into the biome to combat fires — a mission for which critics say the military is poorly suited.

The Amazon has already seen more forest fires this year than in all of 2019, according to satellite data made available in August 2020 by NASA. Over 1,000 major fires were already detected this year by mid-September across the biome, impacting the rainforest and Indigenous and traditional communities. The number of fires burning in standing Amazon rainforest also spiked in recent weeks. Of all major fires detected in the Amazon this year, 43% were in standing forests, as of Sept 21, (up from only 13% in August) according to the non-profit MAAP. The rainforest burned is estimated at roughly 4.6 million acres (1.8 million hectares) — an area about three-fifths the size of Belgium.

General Hamilton Mourão, Brazil’s Vice President (left), and President Jair Bolsonaro, during the signing ceremony creating the Amazon Council. Image by Valter Campanato / Agência Brasil.

Mourão, however, disregarded this horrendous fire record obtained from independent monitoring sources, which correlates well with INPE’s figures indicating 16,949 fire hot spots registered in the Pantanal wetland biome, and 69,527 hot spots found in the Amazon between January 1, 2020 and September 27.

Instead, Mourão declared erroneously that the space agency contradicts itself in its deforestation numbers, claiming that “someone inside INPE who opposes the government only discloses negative data about the fires [to the press].” In fact, Mourão was comparing two different data sets, one from INPE showing a reduction in fires between January 1 and August 31 as compared to 2019, and another updated set of figures published in the media showing an increase in fires between the first of the year and September 9.

The day after his statement, General Mourão claimed he did not know that INPE figures are made available to the public. “If that is true, it is very serious that the Vice President is unaware of the transparency policy that regulates [INPE’s] public service,” Acioli de Olivo told Mongabay. The retired INPE researcher and current communication director at the Union of Federal Public Servants in the Area of Science and Technology for the Aerospace Sector (SindCT) then added: “I doubt, however, that he did not know that the data is accessible to everybody. It was [instead] a way of justifying his retreat in the face of [criticism] to his speech.”

Acioli de Olivo, director of the Union of Federal Public Servants in the Area of Science and Technology of the Aerospace Sector (SindCT), pointed out that INPE temporary director Darcton Damião eliminated departments, and took coordinators out of their posts and appointed new ones without prior consultation with the institute’s internal committees. Image by Fernanda Soares/SindCT.

“Not even governments of the military dictatorship [from 1964-1985] questioned scientific data in an unfounded way,” said one of three INPE researchers who spoke to Mongabay on condition of anonymity out of fear of government reprisal. INPE, “an institute, respected worldwide and which will be 60 years old next August, is experiencing an unprecedented crisis,” the researcher added.

“Another falsehood [perpetrated by] General Mourão is that, according to him, we cannot count fire outbreaks, because if we divide the number of fire [hot] spots [currently happening] by the total area of Legal Amazonia, it shows there is less than one fire spot in every 200 square kilometers [77.2 square miles]. The problem with that reasoning is outbreaks are not spread evenly in the region,” said an anonymous INPE researcher.

“The fires are concentrated in areas of interest to the Bolsonaro base: ones with road infrastructure for access to consumer markets and potential economic exploitation [via illegal deforestation]; [and] Indigenous land areas, in order to kill two birds with one stone — exterminate Indigenous people and open mining activities,” said the same INPE researcher.

Satellite image of this year’s Pantanal fires, September 14, 2020. Credit NOAA-20 / VIIRS (borders: OpenStreetMap contributors).

Brazil shops for military satellites

The Ministry of Defense, for its part, has ambitious plans to fully bypass INPE altogether: it is attempting to purchase new radar monitoring satellites at a cost of R $577.9 million (US $105.4 million).

The plan, however, is likely to meet with rejection this week by Brazil’s Budget Execution Board, which advises the federal government in fiscal policy matters, and which has requested a reduction in the defense ministry’s budget. The shift from INPE to a military satellite system would not be a fiscally sound decision: The R $ 577 million wanted by the military is almost five times INPE’s 2020 budget of R $118 million (US $21.1 million).

If eventually approved, the new military deforestation and fire monitoring system will be managed by CENSIPAM. The Defense Ministry, along with General Mourão, justifies the military takeover based on the fact that the optical satellites used by INPE are unable to see the forest when there are clouds, while radar satellites achieve better monitoring.

Contacted by Mongabay, the Ministry of Defense through its communication office stated: “Since 2016, CENSIPAM has developed the SipamSAR project. SAR technology is able to see the terrain, even if it is under clouds… Fulfilling its vocation of producing information, and integrating inter-agencies work, CENSIPAM brought together, since last May, a team with representatives from ten government institutions to carry out data integration in order to optimize the action of field teams during the [Army’s] Guarantee of law and Order (GLO) operation to combat environmental crimes in the Amazon.”

However, when requested to explain the Army’s failure to effectively combat Amazon and Pantanal fires and deforestation in recent months, the Defense Ministry did not respond.

“The comparison that Mourão and the Defense [Ministry] make is not true, it is an erroneous simplification.… The passive sensor, used by the [INPE] optical satellite, is a feature, not a problem,” said an INPE researcher. “The image produced by a radar satellite is much more difficult to interpret, and requires [highly technical] processing and treatment. [But] It does not show [specific types of forest damage] in an area, whether [that be] degradation, burning or logging.”

The same INPE researcher made short work of the government’s argument regarding clouds: “Contrary to what Mourão says, fires occur in the dry season, when there are no clouds. And most of the deforestation in the Amazon also happens in the dry season, because deforestation is expensive [to carry out]. Getting access to the [logging location], transport equipment, fuel and timber. It is not a process for amateurs; it takes time, and the rain makes everything more difficult. Anyway, what is the military doing with the data we are [already] delivering? If there are not inspections, if resources are not being used to generate enforcement actions, why do they want more images?”

Gilberto Câmara, INPE director from 2005 to 2012 and current secretariat director for the Earth Observations Group (GEO), told Mongabay that the Brazilian military’s CENSIPAM lacks any track record regarding information satellites: “What is the verifiable evidence that CENSIPAM knows how to interpret images? Where are the tests? There is none. [INPE’s] Deter has been working since 2005, and the accuracy of its data has been improving continuously. [Even] with the older technology [used in the past], deforestation in the Amazon was [greatly] reduced… between 2005 and 2013.”

According to Câmara, questioning the validity of INPE data is merely a way to divert attention from spreading environmental destruction: “It is Brazil’s most expensive ‘fake news.’ INPE shows exactly where the Amazon burns. The technology that the Defense Ministry wants to buy was designed to map Arctic ice, not to monitor forests. Trying to remove INPE’s attribution, signals the government intention to make data non-transparent.”

Gilberto Câmara, INPE director from 2005 to 2012 and current secretariat director of the Earth Observation Group (GEO), believes that the Bolsonaro government is throwing doubt on INPE’s deforestation and fire data in order to transfer monitoring to a military body. Image courtesy of O Globo.

INPE in trouble

Bolsonaro appointee Darcton Damião has been in charge of INPE since scientist Ricardo Galvão was sacked in August 2019. At the time, the president accused Galvão of “probably be[ing] in the service of an NGO,” a charge unbacked by evidence.

Since then, INPE has been “undergoing a dismantling process. Our research budget will be zero in 2021,” said one of the INPE researchers, referring to the Brazilian Space Agency’s Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovations (MCTI).

“Temporary INPE director Damião, instead of defending INPE’s dwindling resources, has not said a word,” an anonymous researcher told Mongabay. “There are cumulative actions [at INPE] that seem disconnected. At the behest of the MCTI, Damião, an Air Force colonel, changed INPE’s organizational structure, [and] eliminated important departments and consultation committees, claiming that INPE’s management is flawed, but without presenting a clear diagnosis. … [T]he new structure makes control [by the Bolsonaro administration] much easier.”

“Bolsonaro is not interested in Brazil and its problems. He wants to please his [political] base, made up of climate [change] denialists, fundamentalist evangelicals and military men of his generation. It is through [his actions] that we can understand what is happening at INPE,” said another researcher. “With the arrival of Bolsonaro [in 2019] to the presidency, military men trained in the 1960s and 1970s came to power with the vision that the Amazon needs to be explored. They see the [Brazilian] region as a mineral resource to be extracted, rivers to be [dammed to] generate hydroelectricity, forests to become timber, and soil to be transformed into pasture, soy or any other export crop.”

Most deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is driven by the conversion of forests to pasture and cropland — often using fire as a tool to clear the land of trees. This satellite photo shows significant forest fragmentation in the state of Rondônia. Image courtesy of NASA.

According to that same researcher, Bolsonaro believes just as many military leaders do, that the problem is not whether or not the Amazon is burned or deforested, but whether these activities are exposed to the world via satellite monitoring — via data that the president claims is fake. Bolsonaro in his recorded speech before the UN General Assembly last week declared that the wealth of the Amazon is being eyed by shady foreign interests, and that the government is the victim of a “brutal disinformation campaign.”

Bolsonaro continued: “The Amazon is known to be very rich. Brazil is rising as the world’s largest food producer. Therefore, there is much interest in spreading misinformation about our environment.… Our forest is humid and does not allow the spread of fire inside. The fires happen in practically the same places, in the eastern [edges] of the forest, where the caboclo [small family farmers] and Indigenous people burn their areas in order to survive, in areas already deforested.”

Data from a variety of sources, including NASA, throw suspicion on Bolsonaro’s statements. Most major Amazon blazes — including those in protected areas — are thought to be set by land grabbers using fire as a deforestation tool in order to convert forests to cattle pastures and croplands.

In related news, Norway last week signed an agreement with the companies Planet and Airbus to offer free high-definition satellite images for monitoring tropical forests, including the Amazon. Those high resolution images will be available to the public, who will be able to access them from anywhere in the world, with updated monthly information on the deforestation situation in more than 64 countries. The agreement will be valid for 4 years. It seems no matter what Bolsonaro does, Brazil’s forests will be visible from above via multiplying monitoring services.

Banner image: A fire in August 2020 in a deforested area as seen from the BR-230 highway in Apuí, Amazonas state, Brazil. Many large Amazon fires occur near major Brazilian roadways, which give landgrabbers access to the forest. Image by Bruno Kelly/Amazônia Real.

Update: In a new announcement this week, Mourão ruled out the possibility that the agency planned for the coordination of Brazil deforestation and fire monitoring and surveillance systems would solely be a military command. “I’m thinking of an independent agency,” he told Valor. The new agency would coordinate demand from various agencies, including ICMBio, FUNAI, IBAMA, the Federal Police (PF), and the production of data and images from INPE and CENSIPAM, which is part of the Defense Ministry.

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