Amazon deforestation fuelled by disinformation

A field of smoking ground and burnt tree remains in Brazil

Brazil deforestation "on steroids" due to misinformation campaign

Greenpeace media library
Misinformation campaign behind weakening of Amazon protections exposed by scientists.

The time has come to challenge the growing environmental denialism in Brazil that is leading to the rapid destruction of the Amazon.

The deforestation of Brazil has been driven by a deliberate misinformation campaign that has systematically weakened environmental protection laws, according to scientists.

A dozen leading Brazilian scientists have published a new paper in the journal Biological Conservation outlining what they call a “systematic and veiled effort by a small group of contrarians” to misinform Brazilian decision makers and society.

They note that deforestation in Brazil fell by an “unprecedented” 80 percent between 2004 and 2012. However, Brazil’s environmental policies then began to be weakened, and the rate of the Amazon’s destruction soared, reaching 1.1 million hectares between August 2019 and July 2020 – the highest level in a decade – according to data from INPE, Brazil’s space research institute, which monitors forests by satellite.

Dismantle

Rates began to spiral after the 2012 approval by the Brazilian Congress of a revised version of the country’s Forest Code, a suite of laws regulating nature conservation on private land. Strong political signals encouraging deforestation were then provided by the administration of Michel Temer, the country’s president from 2016-2018, when he attempted to downgrade protected areas in the Amazon.

Jair Bolsonaro was elected as president in 2018, indicating that illegal deforestation would go unpunished by promising to end the “industry” of environmental fines. Ricardo Salles, Bolsonaro’s first minister of the environment, scrapped the ministry's climate change secretariat and substantially reduced law enforcement activities.

The paper cites the source of much of the data influencing these law and policy changes at part of the research team from Embrapa Territorial (ET), the branch of the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa), a federal enterprise for agricultural research and development.

The researchers have scrutinised the activities of ET over the past two decades, and in particular, its leader Dr Evaristo de Miranda. Miranda has had close ties with Brazil’s presidents, having acted as advisor on farming and the environment in both right and left-wing governments. He led Bolsonaro’s transition team on environmental matters and was invited to define the Ministry of Environment’s policy guidelines.

The paper claims that Miranda and his team have used various tactics to dismantle environmental protections in Brazil, such as manufacturing uncertainty in relation to consensual science; making claims that appear as scientific facts but that contradict scientific consensus; and making false claims about scientific credentials.

The time has come to challenge the growing environmental denialism in Brazil that is leading to the rapid destruction of the Amazon.

Congressional

Miranda’s claims include that Brazil has the strongest forest protections in the world, that enforcing laws to protect the forest would inhibit the growth of farming, and that its agricultural practices are the most sustainable in the world.

These assertions have been used directly by Bolsonaro, including to speeches at the UN such as that he made to the UN General Assembly in 2019 when he said: “Our Amazon is larger than the whole Western Europe and stands almost untouched. That proves that we are one of the nations that protects the environment the most."

In 2019, when fires in the Amazon dominated worldwide media headlines, Miranda’s claims that the only fires were controlled agricultural burnings were distributed by the Brazilian Embassy in Washington, directly contradicting the scientific consensus – including from Brazil’s own official monitoring systems - that the burning was a deliberate attempt to deforest, the researchers said.

Other Brazilian politicians have also quoted his findings, such as congressional member Lael Varella, who presented him as a “worldwide famous agronomist and ecologist”. However, the scientists questioned Miranda’s scientific credentials.

Peer-review

Brazilian scientists are required to keep an up-to-date CV in a public repository. This platform allows scientists to include a variety of publications, from scientific papers to magazine articles. The researchers analysed the publications listed by Miranda on the platform and found that 66 out of 83 were essays in magazines covering politics or particular economic sectors such as agribusiness.

The researchers asked the editorial teams at these magazines about their review process, and found there was none. Of the ten that had been published in scientific journals, Miranda was the lead author in only three – contrary to his claims on the platform that he was first author in eight. All of these were published pre-1994, the researchers noted. On average, he had produced only one scientific paper every 3.8 years since 1982, they said.

Most importantly, they said, none of the articles published in scientific journals provided the methodology behind his controversial work, such as that influencing changes to the Forest Code. These were to be found only inside internal reports, YouTube videos or non peer-reviewed book chapters, they said.

This is not the first time ET has been criticised by scientists for spreading misinformation. In 2018, the journal Environmental Conservation published a paper by Brazilian researchers scrutinising ET’s argument that Brazilian farmers were responsible for the strongest environmental protections in the world. They dismissed this claim, saying it was based on “creative statistics”.

Other researchers from Embrapa have distanced themselves from the researchers from Miranda’s team, the paper notes. In 2019, further changes to the forest code to allow the legal clearing of an extra 162 million ha of native vegetation were justified using non-peer reviewed studies by Miranda’s team. Researchers from 31 other parts of the agency strongly rejected the legislation, stressing the scientific consensus around protecting native vegetation on a proportion of private land.

"Seduced"

The paper was led by Raoni Rajão associate professor and environmental policy analyst at Brazil’s Federal University of Minas Gerais, and co-authored by 11 other scientists from institutions including INPE; the University of Brazilia and the University of São Paulo.

Antonio Donato Nobre, co-author of the report and retired senior earth scientist at INPE, said that they felt the need to speak out since misinformation had had a “surprisingly free and undisputed space to operate”, and had “seduced” many people.  

“While many peer-reviewed scholarly articles over the decades have presented the real picture in a reasoned and critical manner, contrarianism has created a discourse that has unfortunately managed to achieve considerable success in distorting reality for many policymakers.

“Despite the common practice in academia of classifying low-quality communications as pseudo-science, therefore ignoring them, we became convinced that it has become urgent to change this practice.

“Through the application of the scientific method itself to the topic and subsequent submission to peer review, we were able to safely expose the problem in all its scope and vileness.

Power

“As with the tobacco and climate change denialism that have now been debunked, the time has come to challenge the growing environmental denialism in Brazil that is leading to the rapid destruction of earth's richest and most precious biome, the Amazon,” he said.

Nobre said that the misinformation spread by Miranda and his team had been very effective in serving anti-environmental interests, and had consequently won support from a broad sector of those in power.

This helped explain why the country had such a bad record on protecting forests and acting on climate change, despite the fact that public opinion in Brazil was overwhelmingly in favour of both, he said.

“Many key people in the hierarchy of power seem to believe that the Amazon is one of the most conserved and protected places on earth, even though that is not true,” he said.

"Steroids"

Since Bolsonaro came to power, the misinformation had gained even higher prominence, and had become the “central axes” of public policy, he said.

Such policies had put “steroids” on deforestation, fires, forest degradation, encroachment on protected areas, and indigenous lands, he said.

“A huge area of the Amazon rainforest has now crossed the climatic tipping point where deforestation, fire, smoke, and soot have started to push the entire Amazonian System into a new drier state that will not be able to support the great forest.

"The loss of the Amazon is ongoing, and the massive impact of this on earth's climate cannot be understated,” he concluded.

Dr Evaristo de Miranda did not respond to a request for comment on this article.

This Author

Catherine Early is a freelance environmental journalist and chief reporter for The Ecologist. She tweets at @Cat_Early76.

More from this author

Donate

The Ecologist has a formidable reputation built on fifty years of investigative journalism and compelling commentary from writers across the world. Now, as we face the compound crises of climate breakdown, biodiversity collapse and social injustice, the need for rigorous, trusted and ethical journalism has never been greater. This is the moment to consolidate, connect and rise to meet the challenges of our changing world. The Ecologist is owned and published by the Resurgence Trust. Support The Resurgence Trust from as little as £1. Thank you. Donate now.