Temer Seeks to Privatise Brazil's Deforestation Remote Sensing Programme

In a surprise move, the environment ministry asked for bids to privatise federal deforestation satellite monitoring. Protests by experts stalled the measure for now.

In a sudden surprise move, the Ministry of the Environment asked for bids to privatise federal deforestation satellite monitoring. Protests by experts stalled the measure for now.

Sunset over the Amazon. Credit: Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay

In the midst of the intense political turmoil unfolding in Brasilia, a government move has been largely ignored by the mainstream press that – if eventually carried forward – could seriously impact accurate satellite monitoring of Amazon deforestation.

The scheme, some critics charge, was likely prompted by the bancada ruralista, the nation’s agribusiness lobby, which may be eager to end the independent analysis of remote sensing data that has shown a dramatic uptick in deforestation in recent years — an increase largely propelled by land thieves and cattle ranchers in the Amazon, and the soy industry in the Cerrado.

On 20 April, Brazil’s Ministry of the Environment published an invitation to private companies to bid for some of the deforestation remote sensing services that have up until now been carried out by INPE (the government’s National Institute for Space Research). The invitation gave a very short period – eight days – for the companies to submit bids.

At a cost of R$78 million ($24 million), the company winning the contract would monitor deforestation in the Amazon and in other regions, including the Cerrado and on indigenous reserves. The Cerrado currently has the highest rate of deforestation in Brazil, while indigenous reserves and Indian land rights are under assault by the Temer administration.

Importantly, the selected private company would play a key role in assessing whether or not Brazil was achieving its carbon reduction commitments made at the Paris Climate summit in December 2015.

Deforestation in the world’s largest rainforest in 2016 jumped 29% over the previous year’s tally, representing a sharp increase over the historically low deforestation rate seen just five years ago, and the highest level recorded in the region since 2008. Data provided by INPE. Credit: Mongabay

Deforestation by Brazilian state, 2010-2016. Researchers worry that privatisation of remote sensing would cause a disruption in the long-term continuity of data gathering, potentially making future data less compatible with the past record and less valid for analysis. Data for chart provided by INPE. Credit: Mongabay

The ministry’s move took almost everyone by surprise. Ricardo Magnus Osório Galvão, the director of INPE, only heard of what had happened through a journalist. Not even the Ministry of Science, Technology, Innovations and Communication (MCTIC), to which INPE is attached, was consulted.

Luiz Davidovich, the president of the Brazilian Academy of Science (ABC), and Helena Nadar, the president of the Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science (SBPC), jointly sent a letter to President Temer in which they expressed “surprise” and “indignation” at the high-handed way in which the decision was taken: “This unilateral position adopted by the Ministry of the Environment creates a fissure in its history of harmonious coexistence with the MCTIC.”

But it wasn’t the abrupt way in which the new measure was announced that attracted most criticism from deforestation experts, but the content of the invitation to bid. Specialists in the field weighed in, expressing shock at the proposed changes.

In an interview with Mongabay, Arnaldo Carneiro, a senior researcher at the National Institute of Amazonia Research (INPA) and an expert in geo-information science, said: “The way in which it [the notice to bid] was drawn up demonstrates total incompetence in the subject, for it mixes services, equipment and monitoring. They [the people drawing up the notice] showed such incompetence that they weren’t even able to assess the quality of the service given by INPE.”

Ricardo Magnus Osório Galvão, the director of INPE, only heard of the plan to privatise much of the deforestation remote sensing work of his agency from a journalist. The drive to privatise comes at a time of immense political conflict in Brazil, and critics say that this conflict may be being used by the agribusiness lobby as a smokescreen to press its anti-environmental agenda. Credit:INPE

Other experts told the direto da ciencia website that the new deal would allow the Ministry of the Environment to assess the work done by the firm it contracted, ending the present set-up by which appraisals are carried out by an independent research body. “This will generate a conflict of interests,” the experts said.

A petition to the environmental minister, José Sarney Filho, was quickly organised, and has received support from more than 6,500 responders. That document made three criticisms of the proposed privatisation, noting that 41% of the work to be carried out by the private company winning the bid is already done by existing organisations, mainly INPE; that contracting a new company, with a different system, would make historical comparisons very difficult; and that the term of eight days to prepare a bid was vastly inadequate.

The environment ministry responded to the criticisms. Marcelo Cruz, the executive secretary at the environment ministry, told the Estado de S. Paulo that the ministry’s goal is to broaden their supply of data so they can create what he called “a center of governance.” The objective, he said, was not to replace the Prodes satellite monitoring programme run by INPE, but to provide information in real time to support the work.

The protests against privatisation continued to gain momentum, until the ministry felt it had no option but to backtrack and reconsider its proposal. It decided on May 4 to withdraw the invitation to bid in order to adjust the terms of reference. The ministry said it would be reissuing the offer in the near future. No action has been taken since then.

No one knows whether or not a new offer to bid will, in fact, be issued. Mongabay contacted the Ministry of the Environment to find out but it declined to grant an interview.

Despite its withdrawal for now, the privatisation proposal has left many specialists in the field uneasy. Off the record, researchers told the direto da ciencia website that the technical requirements demanded by the Ministry of the Environment were so complex and the timescale so short that almost no Brazilian institute would be able to compete. They feared that one of the results – and, indeed, perhaps, one of the objectives – was to allow a foreign company to take over.

Ricardo Folhes, a specialist in remote sensing, told Mongabay that he believed that the ministry proposed the change for political reasons: “It is very clear; the ministry wants autonomy to manage the devastation data on its own.” But, he warned, by taking the action it had announced, the ministry risked destroying one of the public sector’s most consistent monitoring systems, and weakening INPE, one of Brazil’s most solid research institutions.

Folhes agrees with others speaking off the record that the bancada ruralista, the nation’s powerful agribusiness lobby, lies behind the initiative, but is confident that they will not succeed: “The government doesn’t have the legitimacy to dismantle a quality public service, like the one run by INPE, and to hand it on a plate to the ruralists, who know very well what they want to do with it.”

There is no doubt that underlying the privatisation debate is deep concern over the alarming increase in Amazon deforestation now underway. Rates fell throughout most of the 2005-2012 period, but grew sharply over the last two years. The 29% leap in 2016, to almost 8,000 square kilometres (3,0809 square miles), has made the country’s climate objective – agreed to in Paris – to reduce felling to 3,900 square kilometers (1,506 square miles) by 2020, a difficult goal to achieve.

Against a backdrop of dark green Amazon rainforest, fires follow highway BR 163 (lower center to top left). Fires are set to clear forest for agriculture, a process that reveals red-brown soils. A long line of new cleared patches snakes east from BR 163 towards the remote valley of the Rio Crepori. Extensive deforested areas in Brazil’s state of Mato Grosso appear as tan areas across the top of the image. Fires show the advance of deforestation into the state of Pará, the area shown in most of this view. Pará is now second after Mato Grosso in terms of deforestation acreage in Brazil. Credit: NASA

One of the main reasons for the increase, argues the environment ministry’s Marcello Cruz, is the lack of real time data, which, he says, will be provided through the new privately contracted arrangement. But Ricardo Folhes sees things very differently: “Forest felling and the increase we are seeing today are not a result of problems in monitoring, but of a set of reactionary, predatory and ethnocide political and private policies.”

The budget given to IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental agency, to monitor deforestation was cut by almost half from 2013 to 2015, reduced from R$ 121 million ($37 million) to R$ 65 million ($20 million), making it nearly impossible for the agency to capture and fine those responsible for illegal deforestation detected by INPE’s satellite imaging.

Deforestation in Rondônia state in western Brazil. After a long decline, deforestation in the Amazon saw a rapid and alarming rise over the last two years, as pressure grows from land thieves and ranchers. In the neighboring Cerrado, deforestation is driven by the soy industry. Credit: NASA

Like others consulted for this story, Folhes believes that the considerable investment the Ministry of the Environment is prepared to make in privatisation would be much better spent in reversing the huge cut in IBAMA’s budget and improving on the current remote sensing programme.

This article originally appeared on Mongabay.

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