190802 cutting
Cutting down trees at the current rate in the Amazon could lead to runaway deforestation, environmentalists say Image Credit: NYT

The list of constituencies slighted by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has just grown longer. His latest target: The National Institute for Space Research, known as INPE, which recently warned that forest destruction in the Amazon basin had spiked. Bolsonaro cast doubt on satellite images pointing to a 68 per cent increase in rainforest felling in the first two weeks of July compared to the same period a year ago, essentially dismissing the numbers as fake science. Over the last three decades, Brazil has become the benchmark for monitoring land-use change. Culling images captured by international satellites, teams of analysts at INPE produce daily alerts of hot spots (flagging real-time slash-and-burn farming, for example) in the rainforest. A separate program plots change in forest cover by comparing snapshots every 15 to 20 days, the time it takes for the orbiting satellite to return to the same position.

That data is uploaded to the internet and sent to federal and regional environmental authorities, who cross check with rural property maps. In this way, officials can see who is cutting down forests, determine if the felling is illegal and dispatch inspectors or environmental police to trouble spots. Anyone can access the database and so hold authorities to account. Some 95 per cent of the system’s early warnings flag actual forest destruction, former national forest service director Tasso Azevedo told me.

One of the ironies of the Bolsonaro imbroglio is that INPE helped boot up a new generation of earth-monitoring tools, enhanced by cheaper and more powerful satellites, by which scientists and citizens can easily cross-check their findings and eliminate false positives.

Contrary to the partisan cant in Brasilia, this arrangement was not the work of tree-huggers or academics. Rather, it dates to the days when the ruling generals saw occupying the Amazon basin and its trove of gold, iron ore, timber and arable soils as a keystone to Brazilian manifest destiny. So as farmers, ranchers, miners and road-builders pushed deeper into the South American tropical frontier, scientists were close on their heel and tracking their progress through images captured from orbiting satellites.

Better policing

The forest watch grew more urgent in the late 1980s and 1990s, as the rush to the Amazon frontier brought havoc and lawlessness and collided with the rising global green agenda. Even as some Brazilians trampled the rainforest, the scientists refined their watch. Crunching INPE’s numbers, rainforest watchdogs can now pinpoint destruction on patches no larger than half a football pitch.

Such precision helped the authorities flag and catch violators. And better policing, along with protecting indigenous lands, expanding nature preserves and binding soy farmers to promises not to clear cut forest to sow their fields, contributed to Brazil’s sharp reduction in deforestation from 2004 to 2012.

The historic decline allowed Brazil to briefly shed its reputation by beating its international commitment to reduce carbon emissions by 2020. Yet suddenly, under Bolsonaro, to whom such safeguards and science are speed bumps to progress, those gains are now in jeopardy.

More on the topic

The problem is not just obscurantism, but the self-harm that science denial can inflict on Brazil and beyond. “Studies show that the Amazon forest stores more carbon than the world’s reserves of fossil fuels,” Imazon senior researcher Adalberto Verissimo told me. “If we drop our guard and allow the rainforest carbon to empty into the atmosphere, the whole planet pays the price, including Brazil.”

There’s still time for Brazil to swerve from danger. Professionals in Brasilia convinced Bolsonaro to drop his campaign cant against China, so preserving relations with the country’s largest trade partner, and dissuaded foreign policy ideologues from ditching Brazil’s commitments to global governance. Reformers in congress salvaged pension reform from government dithering. So, too, cooler heads can still prevail in the Amazon by promoting good environmental stewardship.

“Brazil has shown it can produce soybeans, iron ore and sugar cane for ethanol and still control deforestation and keep carbon emissions low,” Verissimo said. “Markets want goods that don’t trash the environment.” Look no further than the newly inked agreement between the South American common market Mercosur and the European Union, which commits Brazil to containing deforestation.

Brazil needs science to show how to conserve the environment, not to look the other way.

— Bloomberg

Mac Margolis is columnist covering Latin and South America. He is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.