Brazil president threatens officers over deforestation data

MAURICIO SAVARESE
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Brazil Environment

Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro, front, and his Environment Minister Ricardo Salles prepare to give a press conference on deforestation in the Amazon at the Planalto presidential palace in Brasilia, Brazil, Thursday, Aug. 1, 2019. Bolsonaro is threatening to dismiss officers at the agency that monitors deforestation in the Amazon over its publication of data he disagrees with. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)

SAO PAULO (AP) — President Jair Bolsonaro threatened on Thursday to dismiss officers at the Brazilian agency that monitors deforestation in the Amazon over its publication of data he disagrees with.

Bolsonaro repeated his charge that members of the INPE federal agency might have manipulated deforestation figures to make his administration look bad, adding that he will fire immediately any officer that provided figures he deems as "doubtful."

The agency reported recently that 920 square kilometers (370 square miles) of Amazon forest was lost in June, a spike of 88% from the amount of deforestation the same month last year.

"I don't want to infer, start talking about possible links to this or that, personal matters. But (the figures) are very odd," Bolsonaro said.

The head of INPE, Ricardo Galvão, is an open critic of the far-right president's environmental policies, but can't be fired from a term that runs through 2020.

Environment Minister Ricardo Salles also called INPE's figures sensationalist and inaccurate, but did not offer another estimate.

Salles said the current figures are often late to detect deforested areas, which could produce a mistaken impression of a spike like the one detected in June.

"Our concern is not to work to come up with a figure. It is to say that the figure that was presented is not correct," the minister said.

Salles has clashed with environmentalists since he took office in January and often sides with agribusiness leaders in their criticism of Brazil's environmental governance.

INPE said in response that it has used the same methodology to measure deforestation since 2004.

"Our work has always been driven by the principals of excellence, transparency and scientific honesty," it said in a statement.

Observatório do Clima, a network of 43 environmental nonprofit groups in Brazil, called Bolsonaro's criticism of INPE's deforestation figures "an intellectual fraud."

"If minister Salles fought crime with half of the energy he spends fighting science and facts, the deforestation crisis would not have taken the proportion it has," the coalition said in a statement.

Greenpeace Brasil's coordinator, Márcio Astrini, blamed Brazil's president's pro-agribusiness policies for the rise in deforestation.

"Deforestation figures are bad in themselves. Lying will only increase the harm to the country," Astrini said.