Last week the Brazilian government fired Ricardo Galvão as director of the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), Brazil’s civilian aerospace research agency. In the weeks leading up to his ouster, INPE had released satellite image data showing the amount of deforestation that took place in the Amazon this past June was 88 percent higher than in the same month last year. The nation’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, reacted by calling INPE’s data “a lie” and accusing Galvão of serving “some NGO [nongovernmental organization].” Galvão defended the institute and told the Brazilian newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo that Bolsonaro had “taken a ... cowardly attitude.”
Bolsonaro, a former army captain, took office on January 1, after running a right-wing populist campaign. His administration has cut funding for research, questioned the work of scientists and attempted to roll back environmental protections.
Bolsonaro said at a press conference on Thursday that INPE’s data was “mauled for the purpose, it seems, to strike at the name of the government and Brazil.” Environmental minister Ricardo Salles said at the same conference that the government would hire a private company to take over Amazon deforestation monitoring from INPE. Galvão promptly met with science and technology minister Marcos Pontes and later announced he had been fired during the meeting. In an e-mail to Scientific American, INPE declined to comment. At the time of publication, the Bolsonaro administration has not responded to repeated requests for a response.
Scientific American spoke with Galvão about the situation.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
What happened in your meeting with Pontes?
Well, that was a good surprise for me. I was afraid I would be pressed to resign. Pontes never did that. He said, “The problem we have with the president has reached a point where you cannot work any further for the government.” However, he was very professional. Over almost an hour, we discussed in detail everything that should be done to provide enough financial resources for INPE to keep carrying out its activities and make the commitment not to curb any of our data, not to try to put any pressure on our public release of data.
Are you in the service of a non-Brazilian NGO?
No, definitely not. That is madness.
Was the data that INPE disclosed on deforestation incorrect?
What INPE does on our site [is] provide alerts every day about deforestation in the Amazon. We attach to each alert an area so that IBAMA (the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources)—which is the [government] organ that is responsible for inspection—can prioritize the areas that are the most important. But we never use only that data to compute the deforested area. To measure the actual area of deforestation, we need images from radar satellites, in addition to optical satellites. One Brazilian newspaper accessed the data that is freely available every day on our page, and the president reacted immediately.
What happened next?
When the president reacted to all the news, he was in an interview with the international press. And he was very rude to us. He said that the data was a lie. He said that I was working for an international organization. He was accusing me of betraying my country. It’s a very serious charge. This was very, very childish, for our president to say that.
In what ways is Amazon deforestation a concern?
Our present government says it is only a concern of Brazil, and that’s not true. The entire climate condition in Brazil and all the way down to Argentina depends on the Amazon forest. Besides that, biodiversity in the Amazon is a very important issue, in that sometimes the government does not take into account that we have not even explored half of what’s available in the Amazon. This is very important for scientific research but also in how to make an exploration of the Amazon that does not affect the biodiversity in the forest. It’s a very important issue for Brazil and the world.
Can you comment about President Bolsonaro’s stated goal of opening the Amazon to mining and farming?
Naturally, we have to explore the Amazon—but very carefully. The way he’s proposing that is very, very naive. The government has never shown its detailed plan regarding how to do that. All that is doing is [giving] a green light for people who want to enter there and explore the Amazon first, without any benefit for the Brazilian society.
What role should the president have in questioning or otherwise commenting on data released by scientific bodies such as INPE?
He should never question that. That’s the first time we had that, in Brazil, from the president. Now, unfortunately, the president is trying to assail our walls of scientific knowledge.
What are the ramifications of populist administrations questioning science?
Usually, when public officials like [U.S. President Donald] Trump and Bolsonaro make those comments, they obviously aren’t aimed at the educated population. They aim at people who either are not properly educated or who have a second objective in exploring those ideas. From a scientific point of view, they’re simply mistaken.
Global warming is not a question anymore. The question is the anthropic effect on global warming, and that, obviously, is still a matter of discussion. That is a matter that can be solved only with scientific studies, and scientific data, and scientific simulations. Politicians should have no role in that, no role at all. They should use only the results of science to establish their strategies, what to do as a country under those situations, how to control that. But do not fight against the findings of science because there simply aren’t results. You can contest it if you have a better model, if you have other data. If you don’t have other data, just forget it. Don’t be silly and attack science.
How should scientists protect themselves, and science, from government interference?
There is no other way but to give a clear message to the public. Sometimes we scientists stay in too parochial environments. We should move further, go into the population and explain more.
How do you think Bolsonaro will approach conflicts with science going forward?
I expect that with my strong reaction, the president is going to think a bit more cleverly about what to do in the future when he attacks Brazilian science.