Brazil's Deforestation "Sheriff" Has Been Fired

There's been a major shakeup in the Brazilian government's anti-deforestation department

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. Photo credit: Mongabay / Rhett A Butler

There's been a major shakeup in the Brazilian government's anti-deforestation department.

A little more than a year after being named Brazil's deforestation "sheriff," Thelma Krug has reportedly been fired after a dispute over how trends in forest destruction are monitored in the country.

Climate Home's Claudio Angelo reports from Brasilia that government officials told members of the press that Krug had "expressed her interest in leaving" in order to "dedicate more time to her attributions at IPCC." But Angelo writes: "Sources say, however, that the removal happened after a row with vice-minister Marcelo Cruz, who questioned the deforestation data produced by the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), where Krug is a senior scientist."

Krug is also a well-respected climate scientist who serves as a vice chair of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and will apparently be staying on in her other role at INPE.

The firing comes as the deforestation rate in Brazil is on the rise once again after a decade of sharp declines. Last year, numbers released by INPE revealed that deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest had jumped 29 percent over the previous year, making 2015-2016 the year with the highest level of Amazon destruction since 2008. The rate of primary forest loss in the Brazilian Amazon last year was 75 percent higher than it was in 2012, when deforestation was at the lowest level measured since annual record-keeping began in 1988.

Weakened environmental regulations, dry conditions, and Brazil's ongoing economic slump are considered some of the chief factors contributing to the rising rate of deforestation in the country.

Even as the rate of forest loss has risen in the Brazilian Amazon, the country's official monitoring system has been subject to increasing criticism for failing to measure new drivers of forest destruction. An October 2016 study, for instance, found that Brazil's Monitoring Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon by Satellite Project, commonly referred to as PRODES, did not detect nearly 9,000 square kilometers (about 3,475 square miles) of rainforest that were cleared between 2008 and 2012 – a deforested area roughly the size of Puerto Rico.

PRODES is only able to detect deforested areas larger than 6.25 hectares (close to 15.5 acres) that occur in primary forest areas, meaning conversion of secondary forests, clearing by smallholders, and forests degraded by logging are excluded from the annual tally.

According to Christian Poirier, Program Director for Oakland, California-based non-profit Amazon Watch, "The dismissal of Thelma Krug reflects a growing wariness that the Brazilian government's tools for monitoring deforestation are not keeping pace with the diverse and sophisticated methods used by loggers to avoid detection."

The spike in Amazon deforestation shows that perpetrators of illegal deforestation in the rainforest are quite capable of circumventing the PRODES monitoring system, Poirier added. "These shortcomings call for a more comprehensive and aggressive approach to both measuring illegal deforestation and punishing its culprits."

Brazil has already named Krug's replacement: Jair Schmitt, a biologist with the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), Brazil's equivalent of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, where he oversees the agency's environmental inspections.

Schmitt is known as a "hardliner" who is credited with levying a $16-million fine against Spanish bank Santander last year over its financing of illegal deforestation, according to Climate Home.

While Poirier sees no reason to celebrate the firing of Krug, he does say that Schmitt being named as her replacement is a hopeful sign. "The hiring of Jair Schmitt is encouraging, given his assertive leadership on environmental monitoring and enforcement," he said.

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