August 2, 2019 / 3:37 AM / 19 days ago

Brazil space research chief to leave job after Bolsonaro deforestation spat

BRASILIA/SAO PAULO (Reuters) - The head of Brazil’s space research agency INPE, Ricardo Galvao, is set to leave his job following a public dispute with President Jair Bolsonaro over deforestation statistics, a spokesperson for the science ministry said on Friday.

FILE PHOTO: An aerial view of a deforested plot of the Amazon at the Bom Futuro National Forest in Porto Velho, Rondonia State, Brazil, September 3, 2015. REUTERS/Nacho Doce/File Photo/File Photo

Preliminary data produced by INPE showed an 88% jump in deforestation in June in the Amazon rainforest compared to the same month a year ago. Data for July 1 to July 25, the latest available, recorded 1,864 square kilometers of deforestation, more than triple the amount in the month of July last year.

Bolsonaro responded angrily to the numbers, describing them last month as a lie, and personally attacking Galvao, who he said might be “in service to some NGO.”

On Thursday, he said Galvao would be fired if he was found to have breached his confidence.

Galvao did not take the criticism lying down. In an interview on July 20 with national broadcaster Globo, he dismissed Bolsonaro’s criticism as “bar talk” and “a joke of a 14-year-old boy that is not suitable for a president of Brazil.” At the time, Galvao said he would not resign.

However, on Friday, Galvao told reporters as he left a meeting with the science minister that his position was no longer tenable, according to a recording broadcast on CBN.

“I will be dismissed,” he said.

A science ministry spokesperson said it was unclear if Galvao had resigned or been fired. A representative for INPE declined to comment.

Bolsonaro’s office and Galvao did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The opposition leader in the lower house of Congress, Alessandro Molon, said Galvao’s departure was a sign of an increasingly authoritarian president.

“He doesn’t accept being contradicted, even when there are scientific facts to prove he is wrong, as in the case of the INPE space agency and Amazon deforestation data,” he said.

On Thursday, Environment Minister Ricardo Salles told reporters during a briefing alongside Bolsonaro that the preliminary data produced by the system, known as DETER, contained errors. Some of the deforestation picked up in June had actually occurred earlier, and certain areas had been counted twice, he said.

The 88% increase reported was a distortion of the data, he said, but offered no alternative figures.

INPE released a statement on the same day, saying it was confident in the quality of DETER data.

Reporting by Jake Spring and Stephen Eisenhammer; additional reporting by Anthony Boadle; editing by Susan Thomas and Bernadette Baum

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