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Brazil government faces heat over plan that could underreport forest fires

Aerial image of forest fires in the state of Rondônia in 2020. Image courtesy of Bruno Kelly/Amazônia Real (CC BY 2.0).

  • The Brazilian government faces a new controversy over how it monitors, and ultimately responds to, forest fires, after rolling out a new centralized information system.
  • The National Meteorology System (SNM) will collate date from the Brazilian National Institute of Space Research (INPE), the National Institute of Meteorology (INMET) and the Managing and Operational Center of the System to Protect the Amazon (Censipam).
  • But the government has sent out mixed messages about how the system will work, raising concerns among scientists and environmentalists that the comprehensive and reliable data sets from INPE will be quashed in favor of underreported deforestation and fire information from INMET.
  • The government has sought to allay those fears, saying INPE’s data stream will be maintained, but critics say this isn’t the first time the Bolsonaro administration has tried to undermine INPE for exposing the rising trend in deforestation and fires under the administration.

Amid soaring deforestation and growing criticism due to lack of transparency and persistent attempts to weaken environmental policies, the Brazilian government is now facing a new controversy regarding forest fires, as experts raise questions about the reliability of a new database on the risk of fires.

Last week, the Brazilian government launched a service that will purportedly centralize all information about the country’s weather and forest fire risk assessments, called the National Meteorology System (SNM). It will collate information provided by the Brazilian National Institute of Space Research (INPE), the National Institute of Meteorology (INMET) and the Managing and Operational Center of the System to Protect the Amazon (Censipam).

But environmentalists point to the mixed messages from government officials as showing a failed attempt to end one of the most traditional and reliable data services on forest fire risk in the country, provided by INPE over decades.

The controversy started when INMET’s director, Miguel Ivan Lacerda de Oliveira, said at the broadcast event launching the new service on July 12 that INPE would cease publishing its fire data.

“We already decided this morning that INPE and Censipam will no longer release fire data; it will come from the National Meteorology System. All federal government [fire] reports will pass through this system that is being organized,” Oliveira said. He added the system aims to resolve a nagging 40-year issue regarding “the spraying or dissonance in the dissemination of fire and meteorology data.” Oliveira called the new application “an effective functionality that will help us to reduce [not only]the risk of fire, but also reduce the risk of any meteorological impact in the country.”

His remarks triggered an immediate backlash from scientists and environmentalists, who said the move would constrain the capacity to predict and act on fire prevention, given that INMET’s data are much more limited than INPE’s.

Reproduction of a forest fire risk map from Brazil’s National Institute of Meteorology (INMET) shows the data is punctual but limited to the locations of measurement. Image from the INMET website.

Carlos Souza, a researcher from Imazon, an independent Brazilian NGO, said INPE’s data can generate a map of fire for the whole country, while INMET’s data only account for where its meteorological stations are located. “In practice, [INMET’s data] is not very useful. We need to understand the risk of fire in the complete landscape, not only in the location of the station. In the end, what makes a difference  is how useful each data set is,” he told Mongabay in a phone interview.

In response to the public outcry, the three federal agencies issued two joint notes explaining the changes. The first one, on July 13, said the SNM’s mission was to “eliminate any type of overlapping of activities, thus generating a chain of interconnected and complementary processes, products and data, so the purpose of the SNM is to disseminate products and information to society jointly and no longer separately like this or that institution.”

This note still indicated that individual disclosures of data by the respective institutions would be eliminated, which could mean that INPE would cease to make its data available — the same data used by scientists all over the country.

The growing public outcry and criticism from national and international scientific and environmentalist communities led to a second joint note, published July 14, this time signed by both the director of INPE, Marcos de Nardin, and Oliveira at INMET.

This note stated clearly that speculation about INPE ceasing to publish its numbers is mistaken. “INPE will continue to lead the fire program with the National Meteorology System and all data on fires produced by the institute will continue to be freely available to the general population” through its website.

It added that the SNM is the result of coordination among federal institutions with the goal of strengthening individual deliveries, improving monitoring and forecasting of extreme weather events, and boosting research, development and innovation.

The government’s changing stance, experts say, clearly shows a failed attempt to reduce transparency for environmental issues, such as the increase in deforestation and forest fires.

Reproduction of the Brazilian National Institute of Space Research’s (INPE) map of forest fire risk shows that its data are more comprehensive. Image from the INPE website.

Gilberto Câmara, a former director of INPE, took to social media to say that moving the fire data from INPE to INMET would be a setback; he called it an orchestrated move by the government to decrease transparency about the true extent of environmental problems.

“To understand the nastiness [by the government]: INPE’s fire hazard data already combines INMET’s data with weather forecasting models. What INMET will generate is much worse than what INPE does today. [It is] yet another deliberate setback in the generation of environmental information,” Câmara said.

He added he believes the move is aimed directly at weakening INPE. “Why does INMET now want to generate risk data? Simple. By using only data from their stations that do not cover Brazil as a whole, the wildfire risk maps will be underestimated.”

Marina Silva, a former environment minister, also said she believes the attempt to shut INPE’s data stream aims to achieve “zero transparency, emptying the monitoring bodies and signaling that it supports those who carry out criminal actions against forests,” according to her social media accounts.

The Climate Observatory, an independent research network, tweeted that “as certain as death and taxes is the [Jair] Bolsonaro regime’s attempt to intervene in INPE every mid-year, when fire and deforestation begin to explode.”

Soaring deforestation 

The latest numbers from INPE show that deforestation continued to rise in June, up 2% from the year before, and marking a third straight month of increase. Imazon’s data released today shows a forest loss of 4,014 square kilometers (2,494 square miles) from January to June this year, the largest accumulated deforestation rate for the period in a decade, and a 51% rise in the 11 month-period between August 2020 and June 2021. In June alone, the Amazon forest lost an area equivalent to 926 square kilometers (575.4 square miles) of forest.

Brazil has faced mounting criticism due to the lack of enforcement of environmental policies and protections, and an unchecked pace of deforestation and forest fires. An unprecedented study published July 14 in Nature shows that the Brazilian Amazon is now emitting more carbon than it captures, prompting an international outcry; the Financial Times editorial board called on Brazil to pay for not halting deforestation, inciting investor boycotts of the country.

Reproduction of INPE’s satellite images of fires as of July 15 in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso. Image from the INPE website.

Against this backdrop, INPE’s role has grown increasingly important. Imazon’s Souza said the new cycle of deforestation is expected to start in August, and the drier weather of the southern hemisphere winter will usher in the new fire season. Souza hailed INPE’s dogged commitment to documenting these trends, but expressed skepticism about how the government acts on the data.

“Within the next few months it will be possible to see how the government will use the data. Its main utility is to build a strategy to prevent forest fires. Due to INMET’s limited data nature, if it is used as the basis for governmental analysis, there is a chance that the risk of fires will be underestimated, leading to a denial of the real situation. Ideally, the government will use both systems instead of excluding INPE’s. We will have to remain vigilant,” he said.

This isn’t the first time the Bolsonaro administration has tried to undermine INPE. After the institution reported a major increase in the rate of deforestation in 2019, the same year Jair Bolsonaro took office as president, the administration responded angrily by accusing INPE of manipulating data, lying, and conspiring with international NGOs. A few weeks later, Bolsonaro fired INPE director Ricardo Magnus Osório Galvão.

The Amazon Institute of Environmental Research (IPAM) called INPE a national and international source of reference for its monitoring of deforestation and forest fires since 1985. “We hope that INPE will be strengthened by this new institutional arrangement [with the SNM]. Brazil needs to focus on solutions to the problem,” it said. “Returning to being a protagonist in the theme of tropical forest protection will place Brazil in a position of equivalence with the great economic powers in the construction of solutions to the global climate crisis.”

Banner image: Aerial image of forest fires in the state of Rondônia in 2020. Image courtesy of Bruno Kelly/Amazônia Real (CC BY 2.0). 

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