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‘Tropical Trump’ sparks unprecedented crisis for Brazilian science

A deforested plot of the Amazon.

A dispute over the rate of deforestation in Brazil's Amazon (pictured) is the latest sign of tension between the country's researchers and its president.Credit: Nacho Doce/Reuters

When neuroscientist Sidarta Ribeiro presented a preview of a report on the dire state of research in Brazil at a meeting of a major scientific society on 23 July, several government soldiers entered the room and began filming. Some in the audience took the soldiers’ actions as a show of intimidation.

“Maybe these guys were just soldiers who want to learn about science,” says Ribeiro, a researcher at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte in Natal. He coordinated the analysis on behalf of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC), which hosted the meeting and commissioned the report. But it didn’t look like they were there out of curiosity, Ribeiro says.

The incident is a recent example of the rising tensions between the country's scientists and President Jair Bolsonaro's administration. Since Bolsonaro took office in January, Brazil’s researchers have faced funding cuts and repeated attempts by the administration to roll back protections for the environment and Indigenous populations. Government officials blocked the release of a ministry report on drug use in Brazil. And they have questioned other work by government scientists, including most recently, deforestation reports by a national agency. The head of that agency was dismissed on 2 August.

“We are concerned about democracy itself,” says Sérgio Rezende, a physicist at the Federal University of Pernambuco in Recife, and a member of the commission that wrote the SBPC analysis.

A draft of the SBPC report details a decline in science funding that began with a major recession in 2014. It draws a direct line between the unprecedented crisis in science and the future of Brazil, arguing that the country’s social, economic and environmental prospects are under threat. Without policies that are “grounded in rationality, science and the public interest”, places such as the Amazon rainforest could soon pass the point of no return, according to the draft report.

Crisis of confidence

The commission found that total spending by Brazil’s three main science-funding agencies fell by nearly 47%, to 7 billion reais (US$1.8 billion), last year, compared with 2014. The situation has deteriorated further since Bolsonaro took office: in March, his administration announced a freeze on 42% of the budget for the ministry of science and communications, leaving it with just 2.9 billion reais for the rest of the year. The latest estimates suggest that the ministry could run out of scholarship money for undergraduate- and graduate-students and post-doctoral researchers as early as September if the government doesn't provide more cash.

The funding crisis is just one of the sore points between researchers and Bolsonaro. Concerns over his administration’s policies regarding the environment and Indigenous tribes in the Amazon spiked last month, when Bolsonaro questioned his own government’s data on deforestation in the rainforest.

In early July, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) ― which uses satellite observations of the Amazon to track the destruction of the rainforest ― released data showing that deforestation rates from April through June had increased by 25% compared with the same period last year. The analysis also looked at an 11-month period from August 2018 through June, and found that nearly 4,600 square kilometres of rainforest had disappeared, a 15% increase compared with the same time period a year ago.

On 19 July, Bolsonaro accused INPE of lying about the numbers, then later suggested that his administration should have the right to approve the agency’s data before they are released to the public. INPE director Ricardo Galvão accused the president of cowardice for publicly attacking his institute.

No regrets

The data in question come from a monitoring system designed to provide rapid alerts to law-enforcement officers if it detects a new clearing in the Amazon as small as one hectare. The data aren't Brazil’s official deforestation statistics ― which come from a more detailed analysis of satellite observations ― but often follow larger deforestation trends.

Scientists have defended INPE, saying that it has the most comprehensive deforestation monitoring system in the tropics. The agency’s estimates provide a reliable gauge of deforestation trends and are based on publicly available data, says Ane Alencar, the science director at the Amazon Environmental Research Institute, an advocacy group based in Brasilia.

Galvão met with the minister of science, former astronaut Marcos Pontes, on 2 August to discuss the issue. But Galvão was told during the meeting that he was dismissed. He says that he had a constructive discussion with Pontes, and stressed that there was no indication that INPE’s work on deforestation would be censored moving forward. But Galvão says that it was clear that he would have to leave because of the way he challenged the president.

“I don’t have any regrets,” says Galvão, a physicist formerly at the University of São Paulo who will now return to his academic post. “That was not a proper thing for a president to say.”

Opening up the Amazon

The reported rise in deforestation comes as no surprise to many scientists and environmentalists. Bolsonaro's presidential campaign relied in part on promises to open up the Amazon to agriculture and mining interests.

Since taking office, he has scaled back enforcement of environmental laws and promoted development in Indigenous reserves. Now, his administration is pushing forward with proposals to shrink the size of protected areas in regions including the Amazon.

Bolsonaro has repeatedly derided environmental laws as being a barrier to progress and has criticized enforcement officials, says Maurício Voivodic, who heads the Brazilian branch of the environmental advocacy group WWF, which is in Brasilia. “That’s why we are seeing illegal miners invading Indigenous lands,” he says. “That’s why we are seeing more deforestation.”

Researchers in Brazil expected to see policy changes when Bolsonaro took office, but not so quickly or to such extremes, says Mercedes Bustamante, an ecologist at the University of Brasilia.

Nature 572, 161-162 (2019)


Updates & Corrections

  • Update 02 August 2019: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that Ricardo Galvão, the director of Brazil's National Institute for Space Research, has been dismissed.

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