BRASILIA – The head of Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research said on Friday he would be sacked following a row with President Jair Bolsonaro over deforestation in the Amazon rainforest.
Ricardo Galvao had accused far-right Bolsonaro of “cowardice” for publicly questioning satellite data produced by the institute, known by its initials INPE, that showed Amazon rainforest deforestation had increased 88 percent year-on-year in June.
“My words about the president have caused annoyance, so I’m going to be fired,” said Galvao.
Two weeks ago, Bolsonaro had told reporters: “With all the devastation that you are accusing us of doing … the Amazon region would already have been extinguished.”
Bolsonaro, a climate change skeptic, also called on Galvao “to come to Brasilia to explain the data that was released to the press.”
The president has previously floated the idea of opening up protected rainforest areas to agriculture, a highly controversial move given the existing level of deforestation.
In his row with Galvao, Bolsonaro suggested the INPE president is “in the service of some NGOs.”
A day later, Galvao hit back, blasting Bolsonaro for making “undue accusations against people of the highest level of Brazilian science” and comparing the president’s suspicions to “a joke by a 14-year-old boy.”
Bolsonaro upped the ante on Thursday, claiming the INPE figures “don’t correspond to the truth” and were damaging to the institute and the country.
Galvao previously insisted he wouldn’t resign, but speaking on Friday he admitted he had discussed the possibility he might be fired with Minister for Science and Technology Marcos Pontes.
Galvao told the press that his dismissal wouldn’t affect INPE, an institution of international repute.
The latest data released by INPE shows that deforestation has increased 40 percent in the last two months compared to the same period a year ago.
For many years, NGOs defending the environment and the territorial rights of indigenous people have criticized the agriculture industry and major land owners for constantly trying to expand into virgin lands, including those protected by law.
Bolsonaro, though, was helped in his election last year by support from the powerful agriculture lobby.
In Europe, other organizations have used the INPE figures to question the recent free trade agreement signed between the European Union and Mercosur, the trade bloc made up of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.
“The deforestation data reveals what we all know: that it’s advancing at a rapid rate. And that creates a problem for the government because there’s huge national and international pressure,” former deputy environment minister Joao-Paulo Capobianco told AFP.
“There’s a massive offensive from sectors that profit greatly from the occupation of the Amazon, and the president of the republic has already shown before his election that he is completely ignorant about this issue. He doesn’t consider it relevant,” Capobianco said.
Bolsonaro suffered a blow on Thursday when the Supreme Court canceled a decree transferring the right to demarcate indigenous lands from the National Indian Foundation to the Ministry of Agriculture, a bulwark of the agriculture industry’s interests.