Aerial view of a deforested section of the Amazon in Porto Velho, Brazil. Photo: Nacho Doce / Reuters

The director of the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) was fired amid controversy over satellite data showing an increase in Amazon deforestation, which far-right president Jair Bolsonaro called "lies."

Ricardo Galvao, who defended the institute and criticized the Bolsonaro attack, was fired on Friday following a meeting with Science and Technology Minister Marcos Pontes.

"The way I expressed myself about the president caused an unsustainable embarrassment," Galvão said on Friday morning, according to the Folha de S. Paulo website.

"Dismissing the director of INPE is just an act of revenge against someone who has shown the truth," Greenpeace Brazil public policy coordinator Márcio Astrini said in a statement.

Built on 2004, the Deter satellite system makes public monthly and daily data available on a regularly updated government website. Its data for recent months have shown an alarming increase in deforestation in recent months: it has risen by 88% in June compared with the previous year. The first half of July was 68% in July of 2018.

Bolsonaro and ministers have called its launch irresponsible and an attempt to tarnish Brazil's image abroad. Last month, he called INPE "lies" and hinted that Galvão was "at the service" of a non-profit foreign group. The next day, Galvão said the president behaved “as if he were in a bar” and defended the institute's data.

The most accurate data on deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is collected by the Prodes satellite system and released annually. The Deter satellite system has a lower resolution and is mainly used for deforestation alerts, said Tasso Azevedo, former head of Brazil's forestry service. But in the last 12 years, whenever Deter's annual data showed an increase in deforestation, Prodes confirmed the trend and calculated an even higher rate. Publicly available Prodes data goes back to 1988.

Azevedo is the coordinator of MapBiomas, an initiative of NGOs, universities and technology companies that monitors changes in land use. He said that from January to July, Deter's cumulative figures showed an 62% increase in deforestation compared to the same period last year, and that three other international satellite monitoring systems also showed an increase in deforestation. “Everyone has a different methodology, so the data is different, but everyone points to an increase in deforestation,” he said.

On Thursday, Bolsonaro and Environment Minister Ricardo Salles criticized the data as irresponsible and sensational. "The numbers were debated, it seems to me, with the aim of attacking the name of Brazil and the government," said Bolsonaro.

In a presentation, Salles said his team found hundreds of areas of deforestation included in the July numbers of previous months or years. He did not explain the methodology used. INPE defended their numbers in a statement and said it had not received prior access to Salles's study.

The government fears that alarming data could undermine a major trade agreement between the South American trade bloc, Mercosur and the EU. Environmentalists said the damage had already been done.

"Brazil's image is already hopelessly compromised by this crusade against the facts," said Carlos Rittl, executive secretary of the Climate Observatory.

Source: Folha de S. Paulo | Guardian

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