July 14, 2020 / 12:47 AM / 21 days ago

Brazil reassigns deforestation data manager, raising question of political influence

BRASILIA (Reuters) - Brazil is restructuring the space agency team responsible for monitoring deforestation including reassigning a key manager, a move that enviromentalists said raised concerns of political interference as destruction soars in the Amazon rainforest.

The federal government initially announced on Monday morning in the official gazette that coordinator Lubia Vinhas had been dismissed from her position as head of the earth observation team at space agency Inpe, without offering an explanation.

The announcement came after Inpe data on Friday showed that deforestation had increased for the 14th consecutive month and was up 25% in the first six months of the year, compared to the same period a year ago.

On Monday evening, Inpe released a statement on its website saying Vinhas had been reassigned as part of an existing larger restructuring to improve the agency’s operations. She will lead a special project to launch a “georeferencing” database, and her department will be merged with meterological and other departments, it said.

Vinhas did not respond to emailed requests for comment.

The timing of the firing raises questions about whether it was politically motivated, said Marcio Astrini, head of the Brazilian non-governmental organization Climate Observatory.

“At a minimum, it’s very strange that a manager at Inpe that handles the deforestation data would be dismissed on the next (working) day after the release of deforestation data,” said Astrini.

Astrini cited last year’s high-profile firing of the top official at Inpe, director Ricardo Galvao, by President Jair Bolsonaro, shortly after the release of data showing worsening deforestation that angered the right-wing leader.

“At the least, it creates distrust in the government’s intentions,” Astrini said

Inpe said it has been forced to restructure due to staff shortages caused by budget cuts.

Reporting by Jake Spring; Editing by Cynthia Osterman

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