Brazil Sacks Official After Soaring June Deforestation Data

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) -- Brazil's government on Monday fired an official at the national space agency Inpe whose department is responsible for satellite monitoring of the Amazon rainforest, just three days after the release of June deforestation data reflected a continued increase in degradation.

Lubia Vinhas was the general-coordinator of Brazilian space agency Inpe's Earth Observation Institute, which is an umbrella for divisions that monitor the Amazon and panels to debate climate change with civil society organizations.

It's unclear whether the removal of Vinhas from her position was connected to the data. Her subordinate who heads the division directly overseeing satellite monitoring of Amazon deforestation remains employed. Inpe said in a statement posted to its website Monday night that the change was part of a shake-up at the agency to improve synergies.

Still, the timing of the dismissal -- coming on the heels of June data -- drew an outcry from environmentalists who claim it may be an echo of a high-profile firing at the same agency last year. President Jair Bolsonaro is a critic of environmentalists and defends fostering more economic development in the Amazon, which many adversaries see as a nod to illegal miners and loggers.

Vinhas was picked in 2018 for a four-year but Science and Technology Minister Marcos Pontes decided to remove her after 2 years and 3 months on the job. Inpe said in its statement that Vinhas' former department will be merged with others, and she will oversee implementation of a new georeferencing database.

Inpe figures published on Friday showed 400 square miles (1,034 square kilometers) of deforestation in the Amazon in June, a new record the month since data started being gathered in 2015.

Total deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon from January to June was 1,890 square miles (3,069 square kilometers), up 25% from the same six-month period last year.

Outside observers are keeping close tabs on Brazil's environmental stewardship just ahead of the so-called burning season, during which landholders use fire to clear brush and forest. That includes asset managers who say they are assessing whether to divest from Brazil and last week spoke with the environment minister and Vice President Gen. Hamilton Mourão, .

Bolsonaro also put the Army in charge of efforts to curb deforestation in May after last year's fires pushed destruction to the highest level in 11 years. Yet data from Inpe show that it kept climbing.

Marcio Astrini, the executive-secretary of the Brazilian Climate Observatory, a coalition of civil society groups, alleged that the government has previously made clear its desire to intervene in Inpe.

“The removal of Lubia Vinhas could be an indication that the plan was never abandoned. This is happening as deforestation accelerates, when the administration needs to stop threats of divestment,” Astrini said in a statement.

Suely Vaz, former head of environment regulator IBAMA, said before the release of the June data that the army isn't using the technical planning and intelligence required, nor are they trained in such methods to stop deforestation. She added that it costs more than $10 million per month for the army to operate in the Amazon -- more than half what IBAMA spends on oversight in a year.

“Control of deforestation isn't done by sending a lot of inexperienced people to the field,” Vaz said. “They can help, but the operations need to be conducted by environmental authorities.”

In the midst of the international outcry over the Amazon fires in August, Bolsonaro accused the then-head of Brazil's space research institute, Ricardo Galvão, of manipulating satellite deforestation data in order to undermine his administration. Galvão publicly countered the claims, and was fired.