In the midst of the intense political turmoil unfolding in Brasília, a government move has been largely ignored by the mainstream press that – if eventually carried forward – could seriously impact accurate satellite monitoring of Amazon deforestation.
The scheme, some critics charge, was likely prompted by the bancada ruralista, the nation’s agribusiness lobby, which may be eager to end the independent analysis of remote sensing data that has shown a dramatic uptick in deforestation in recent years – an increase largely propelled by land thieves and cattle ranchers in the Amazon, and the soy industry in the Cerrado.
Brazil’s Ministry of the Environment published an invitation to private companies to bid for some of the deforestation remote sensing services that have up until now been carried out by INPE (the government’s National Institute for Space Research). The invitation gave a very short period – eight days – for the companies to submit bids.
At a cost of 78 million reais (US$ 24 million), the company winning the contract would monitor deforestation in the Amazon and in other regions, including the Cerrado and on indigenous reserves. The Cerrado currently has the highest rate of deforestation in Brazil, while indigenous reserves and Indian land rights are under assault by the Temer administration.
Importantly, the selected private company would play a key role in assessing whether or not Brazil was achieving its carbon reduction commitments made at the Paris Climate summit in December 2015.
The ministry’s move took almost everyone by surprise. Ricardo Magnus Osório Galvão, the director of INPE, only heard of what had happened through a journalist. Not even the Ministry of Science, Technology, Innovations and Communication (MCTIC), to which INPE is attached, was consulted.
Luiz Davidovich, the president of the Brazilian Academy of Science (ABC), and Helena Nadar, the president of the Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science (SBPC), jointly sent a letter to President Temer in which they expressed “surprise” and “indignation” at the high-handed way in which the decision was taken:
“This unilateral position adopted by the Ministry of the Environment creates a fissure in its history of harmonious coexistence with the MCTIC.”
But it wasn’t the abrupt way in which the new measure was announced that attracted most criticism from deforestation experts, but the content of the invitation to bid. Specialists in the field weighed in, expressing shock at the proposed changes.
In an interview with Mongabay, Arnaldo Carneiro, a senior researcher at the National Institute of Amazonia Research (INPA) and an expert in geo-information science, said:
“The way in which it [the notice to bid] was drawn up demonstrates total incompetence in the subject, for it mixes services, equipment and monitoring. They [the people drawing up the notice] showed such incompetence that they weren’t even able to assess the quality of the service given by INPE.”
Other experts told the direto da ciencia website that the new deal would allow the Ministry of the Environment to assess the work done by the firm it contracted, ending the present set-up by which appraisals are carried out by an independent research body. “This will generate a conflict of interests,” the experts said.
A petition to the environmental minister, José Sarney Filho, was quickly organized, and has received support from more than 6,500 responders.