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Brazil: the campaign against science

Environmental scientists, academics, officials targeted

SourceMongabay

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  • Increasingly, Brazilian environmental researchers, academics and officials appear to be coming under fire for their scientific work or views, sometimes from the Jair Bolsonaro government, but also from anonymous Bolsonaro supporters.
  • Researchers and academics have come under attack for their scientific work on agrochemicals, deforestation and other topics, as well as for their socio-environmental views. Attacks have taken the form of anonymous insults and death threats, gag orders, equipment thefts, and even attempted kidnapping.
  • A range of intimidation is being experienced by officials, including firings and threats of retaliation for institutional criticism at IBAMA, Brazil’s environment agency, ICMBio, the Chico Mendes Institute of Biodiversity Conservation overseeing Brazil’s national parks, and FUNAI, the Indigenous affairs agency.
  • “Whose interests benefit from the denial of the data on deforestation… from criminalizing the action of NGOs and environmentalists? What we are witnessing is a coordinated action to make it easier for agribusiness to advance into Indigenous territories and standing forest,” says one critic.

This article was first published by Mongabay on 8 April 2021. You can read the original here.


At the end of March 2021, Larissa Mies Bombardi, a lecturer in geography at Brazil’s University of São Paulo (USP), was forced to seek exile in Belgium, after repeated abuse and threats, many carried out anonymously.

The intimidation began shortly after Bombardi released her report, “Atlas of Agrochemicals and Connections between Brazil and EU,” in May 2019. With ample statistical back up, it shows that “one person dies every two and half days from direct intoxication from agricultural chemicals with alarming incidences among the youngest of the [Brazilian] population,”

At the report’s launch in Berlin, Germany, Bombardi stated: “Our health ministry shows that 343 babies from 0 to 12 months were intoxicated between year 2007 and 2014. What is of even greater concern is that for each reported case there are 50 more that go unreported. This means that in this period about 17,000 babies were probably intoxicated,” by agrochemicals.

Larissa Mies Bombardi. Image courtesy of Terra de Direitos.

In the following months threats against her intensified to the point that in early 2020 both Professor Maria Arminda Arruda, the director of the Faculty of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences at USP; and Vahan Agopyan, the University Chancellor, advised Bombardi to leave the country for a while. The academic planned to leave Brazil in March 2020 but had to postpone her departure due to the pandemic.

The intimidation escalated. In August 2020 thieves entered her house and stole her laptop. “It was old, of very little value, but it had my data,” explained Bombardi. “Luckily, I had a copy.”

Undeterred, she continued her work. In October 2020, she joined other researchers in publishing two papers drawing attention to the “spatial correlation” between increasing numbers of COVID-19 infections and intensive industrial pig farming in Brazil. The papers put forward the hypothesis, as yet unproven, that the current agribusiness model, specifically industrial pig farming, favors the spread of the virus, with the animals functioning as contamination vectors. The papers also warned about the possible risk of untreated pig excrement leaching into waterways. The threats against Bombardi intensified even further after the publication of these papers.

Meanwhile, Bombardi’s work was being noticed in Europe, leading to Scandinavia’s largest organic supermarket boycotting Brazilian products because of their high level of pesticide contamination.

Preparing pesticides in the field. Brazil is the world’s biggest user of chemical pesticide, and agrochemical intoxication is a deepening problem that critics say is underplayed by the government. Photo by prodbdf on flickr.

Cases of researcher intimidation may be rising

Bombardi isn’t alone. Other environmental researchers and academics have been plagued by anonymous attacks since President Jair Bolsonaro took office in January 2019 — though data is lacking on the number and scope of such personal assaults.

“Any voice that attempts to interfere with the vast capital flows from Brazil will be combatted head-on,” William Assis, director of the Amazonian Institute of Family Agriculture at the Federal University of Pará, told Mongabay. He added: “International trade in inputs for the production of commodities is the base of the profits clocked by the global players that control the international supply chains. Bombardi’s work had international repercussions and drew attention to a system for the reproduction of capital that has no regard for life, be it human or not-human.”

Academics working in other areas have also been targeted. On 7 January 2021 two lecturers, from the Federal University of Pelotas in Rio Grande do Sul state in southern Brazil, took part in a live debate to mark the end of Pedro Curi Hallal’s term of office as chancellor of the university.

The two main speakers — Hallal himself and Eraldo dos Santos Pinheiro — were highly critical of the government. Hallal said that Bolsonaro was “the defender of a torturer,” in reference to Bolsonaro’s dedication of his vote to impeach Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff in 2016 to Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, the colonel who headed the feared Doi-Codi torture unit in the 1970s. In his turn, Eraldo Pinheiro called the president “machista, homophobic, a genocide, who praises torturers and militiamen.”

Epidemiologist Pedro Curi Hallal at the Federal University of Pelotas in Rio Grande do Sul state Image courtesy of ACADEMIA BRASILEIRA DE LETRAS.

Repercussions quickly followed. Later in January, Hallal, who is an epidemiologist and COVID-19 specialist, was asked to appear on a local radio station, Rádio Guaiba. The presenter asked him how he had caught COVID-19. Before he could reply, his microphone was cut off and federal deputy Bibo Nunes, a fervent Bolsonaro supporter, replied instead, He scoffed: “If he [Hallal] didn’t manage to save himself, how is going to save others?” On 14 January Bolsonaro posted an edited version of the interview on his social media account. “Just watch this, the Chancellor of Pelotas University,” scoffed Bolsonaro, as Hallal looked on helplessly as Nunes taunted him.

Hallal was undeterred. At the end of January, he was quoted in an article in the scientific journal, The Lancet, as saying: “It is frustrating and disappointing to have a president undermine science, but much more than that, people are dying because of it.”

On 2 March the Office of the Comptroller General (CGU), which audits government contracts, charged the lecturers for publicly criticizing the government’s handling of the pandemic. To halt judicial proceedings, the two signed an “undertaking” agreement (TAC) to abstain from “expressions of disrespect” for two years. In other words, they agreed to a gag order. But the affair may not be over. Hallal said at the time: “It won’t work because I’m going to carry on giving my scientific opinion on issues I understand.”

Growing illegal deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, a concern about which the Bolsonaro administration is increasingly sensitive. Image © by Fábio Nascimento for Mongabay.

Persistent targeting

Another recent example of aggression against a Brazilian environmental scientist: In March 2021, a kidnapping attempt was made against Lucas Ferrante, a young researcher doing a doctorate at the public research institution, INPA (the National Institute of Amazon Research) in Manaus.

In an interview with The Intercept Brasil, Ferrante revealed that, since the beginning of the Bolsonaro government, he had been monitoring the dismantling of the country’s environmental policies and had co-authored, with his Ph.D. supervisor, Philip Fearnside, the world’s “most quoted article” on this issue. Ferrante has also written on other important environmental issues, such as the government’s plan (later discarded) to authorize sugarcane production in Amazonia, and the adverse impacts of federal roads on Indigenous reserves and protected areas. Since the publication of these articles, Ferrante has been persistently targeted, mainly with numerous insults, sent on social media by Bolsonaro supporters who were fed contact info and tidbits of information by far-right groups. On occasion, Ferrante has also received anonymous death threats.

Lucas Ferrante. Image found on Facebook.

COPOG, the INPA body coordinating post-graduate studies, has done nothing to protect the academic researcher. On the contrary, it issued a note, which Ferrante has since shared with the press. The note states that he is a doctoral student, not an INPA employee, and that his views “did not represent the position of the institution.”

INPA’s response has been greeted with dismay by some academics. Fearnside, who works at INPA, told Mongabay that some of the articles he co-authored with Ferrante, such as their criticism of the proposed paving of the BR-319 highway, that links Manaus in Amazonas state to Porto Velho in Rondonia, had displeased INPA’s management, because they went against powerful economic and political interests.

However, Fearnside continued, “It was only in August 2020, when Ferrante was the lead author of a letter published in Nature Medicine criticizing the Brazilian government’s response to COVID-19 that the [intimidation] problem became very serious.”

INPA’s note, widely quoted in the Brazilian press and on social media, has left Ferrante vulnerable to further attacks. Abuse has continued on social media and in March Ferrante was briefly kidnapped, though he managed to escape. Mongabay contacted COPOG for a fuller explanation of its position but received no reply.

Several other academics have informed Mongabay of receiving threats and other forms of intimidation but have refused to go on record for fear of reprisals.

Scientists Lucas Ferrante (right), and INPA’s Philip M. Fearnside (middle), at a public meeting where they criticized Jair Bolsonaro’s “death agenda,” which, they said, threatened “the environment, the traditional people of Amazonia and the global climate.” Image courtesy of amazonasatual.com.br.

A pattern of government coercion

Although there is no evidence that these personal attacks were organized by the government, they fit into a pattern of antagonism displayed by the Bolsonaro administration apparently aimed at discouraging personnel working for administrative bodies or publicly funded institutions from criticizing federal policies. This perceived offensive has targeted above all environmentalists, academics working with Indigenous people, and human rights defenders.

One of the first federal agencies to be targeted was INPE (the National Institute for Space Research), which angered Bolsonaro by making public the rising trend in Amazon deforestation recorded by satellites under his administration. When INPE reported that Amazon deforestation in June 2019 was 88% higher than in June 2018, Bolsonaro reacted by calling the data “lies,” and accusing INPE director, Ricardo Galvão, of secretly working for an NGO. In August, Bolsonaro sacked Galvāo, triggering an international outcry.

Undeterred by the protests, Bolsonaro continued with attacks against INPE employees. In July 2020, just days after the publication of its report recording an 89% increase in Amazon deforestation in the 12 month period ending in June 2020, compared with the preceding 12 months, he sacked Lubia Vinhas, general coordinator for INPE’s Earth Observation Agency (CGOBT). Vinhas was responsible for overseeing the work of both the DETER and PRODES satellite systems that measure, respectively, the nation’s monthly and annual deforestation rates — both pathfinding systems long hailed as the gold standard for deforestation monitoring.

The government has also moved against employees in two of the nation’s environment institutions, IBAMA, its environment agency, and ICMBio, the Chico Mendes Institute of Biodiversity Conservation which oversees Brazil’s national parks. Both saw their civilian administrators largely replaced by retired military officers under Bolsonaro.

Under Bolsonaro, IBAMA has issued two decrees (portaria 2534/2019 and portaria 560/2020) that permit it to discipline employees who express views on social media seen to be critical of the Institute. The Federal Public Ministry (MPF), a group of independent public litigators, has strongly attacked the decrees.

Public Prosecutor Luis de Camões Boaventura told Mongabay: “Being a civil servant does not mean that a person is not also a thinking, critical, autonomous and participative citizen, be it on social media or in any other way.… The limits to this freedom [of expression] are established in the [1988 Brazilian] Constitution and for this reason censorship [outside the constitutional constraints] cannot occur.”

He added: “There are two reasons for this censorship: to make it difficult for society [to know about and] to influence environmental policies and to demoralize environmental inspectors and other civil servants, leaving the environmental agencies in a desperate situation.” Mongabay contacted IBAMA for a comment on Boaventura’s criticisms but received no response.

More recently, similar controls have been imposed on ICMBio staff. The Institute ruled that, from 1 April 2021 onward retired Lieutenant Colonel Marcos Aurélio Venâncio, the Institute’s Director of Biodiversity Evaluation and Monitoring, must give his approval for any scientific study before publication.

Lieutenant Colonel Marcos Aurélio Venâncio. Image courtesy of Amazonas.org.uk.

Academics reacted angrily. On 10 March the influential Environment Working Group at the Brazilian Society for the Advance of Science (SBPC) issued a strongly worded open letter stating: “The free publication of scientific data and information by government body employees protects the rights of these professionals and of civil society, in that it preserves the principles of freedom of expression and of transparency.… For these reasons the SBPC has decided to publicly express its profound consternation at, and its repudiation of, Decree 151 [the edict curbing free speech].”

One of the letter’s signatories, Luciana Barbosa from Paraíba University, commented: “As well as its impact on ICMBio’s production and its projection at a national and international level, this decision is a dangerous precedent for us all, Brazilian investigators who publish data of public interest.”

ICMBio’s communication department denied any change in policy, stating: “As in the past, publications in which staff represent the institute will continue to be analyzed, except now this task has been delegated by the President of the Institute to the director in the area.”

Staff at FUNAI, the government’s Indigenous agency, have also been cautioned. At the beginning of February the Inspector General (Corregedoria) at the Justice Ministry, issued a note warning FUNAI staff not to criticize the agency in any way, either at work or outside the office. It was important, the note said, “not to affect the reputation of the institution” and employees who failed in their obligation to “show loyalty” to the institution may have to face the consequences.

Bodies representing civil servants are deeply concerned by the escalation in what they see as a form of repression. ARCA (the National Articulation of Public Careers for Sustainable Development), a coalition of bodies representing civil servants, has coined the term “institutional harassment” to describe actions, including dismissal or transferral to another job, taken against critical voices. In March 2021, ARCA said it had recorded 684 cases of such harassment, all gleaned from public sources. Most occurred in 2020.

The most affected public body was IBAMA, followed by INSS (the National Institute of Social Welfare), which pays out social benefits, and INPE. “This harassment is killing these public institutions that were created or strengthened by the 1988 Constitution, ” said José Celso Cardoso Junior, president of AFIPEA (the Association of Civil Servants at the Institute of Applied Economic Research).

Assis, the academic, believes that repressive measures seen under Bolsonaro are not random events but instead reflect an underlying autocratic trend: “Today we have a government that denies reality,” he said. “Since assuming the presidency, President Bolsonaro has waged a fight against science. Discrediting science is part of a plan (which may or may not have been preconceived) to make it easier to ‘get the cattle across’ [that is, to push through controversial anti-socioenvironmental measures], in the words of the minister of the environment, Ricardo Salles. Negating science is a way of concealing reality.”

He concludes: “Whose interests benefit from the denial of the data on deforestation, from minimizing the need to demarcate and protect indigenous territories and traditional communities, and from criminalizing the action of NGOs and environmentalists? What we are witnessing is a coordinated action to make it easier for agribusiness to advance into Indigenous territories and standing forest.”

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