Sign up for our newsletter ⟩
News |

Sale of Finnish microsatellite to Brazil raises criticism

A Brazilian researcher said the tech would be used for greenwashing and a Finnish expert called the deal 'unethical.'

ICEYE:n asiantuntijoita testaamassa ICEYE SAR -satelliittia.
ICEYE workers testing ICEYE SAR microsatellite. Image: ICEYE

Finnish satellite tech firm ICEYE has sold a microsatellite to Brazil, but the deal has received criticism from experts in the South American country and Finland.

Brazil's Air Force plans to use the microsatellite to monitor and prevent deforestation across the Amazon rainforest.

However, some Brazilian researchers have claimed the acquisition was merely a form of greenwashing and that the government's real intent is to hide the actual deforestation taking place.

At the end of December, the Brazilian Air Force signed a confidential agreement with the Finnish company ICEYE to acquire a microsatellite in a deal valued at around 30 million euros.

The Brazilian government posted a notice about the transaction on the country's official website, which made a reference to "national security" in the brief description of the acquisition.

ICEYE co-founder and chief strategy officer, Pekka Laurila, confirmed news of the deal to Svenska Yle news.

"Of course I am very proud about our team and technology, and also that ICEYE was chosen as the most suitable among all of the [available] international alternatives," he said.

The transaction has received heavy criticism from researchers at Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (INPE).

Researcher: 'Greenwashing' tactic

Researcher Gilberto Câmara said the Brazilian government's plans surrounding the use of the satellite is to distort data on how much of the Amazon rainforest is being cleared. He said the satellite would become a tool for so-called greenwashing, a method of conveying misleading information to make situations appear better for the environment than they actually are.

"The government's plan is to keep the information about deforestation confidential and jeopardise the transparency that INPE is responsible for," said Câmara, who led the Brazilian space research institute during 2005-2012.

Câmara said the microsatellite in question was inefficient and not suitable for its planned use, saying that the device works well in Finland to distinguish between ice and ships in the water but was not the right tool to monitor Brazil's rainforest.

The space research institute has monitored the country's deforestation since 1988, and publishes daily reports on the topic for research purposes. The programme has enjoyed a high level of international recognition for its transparency.

"Compared to the satellites already used by INPE, the ICEYE satellite would not add anything, its power is limited," Câmara said, adding that due to this he suspects that the Brazilian government is fully aware that the satellite was not suitable for its intended purpose.

"The military wants to measure deforestation levels in order to be able to ignore INPE's data [on the topic]. The deforestation data that INPE provides has not been appreciated by the government," Câmara said.

The INPE has sent a letter of warning about the deal to the Brazilian government.

Câmara said that the deal reflects similar events that have been taking place in Brazil for a long time. The country's right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro has become known for ignoring environmental issues and has vowed to open up the country's rainforests to further exploitation.

Bolsonaro has also criticised INPE's statistics, calling them misleading and damaging to the country's reputation.

Satellite firm: No comment

ICEYE's co-founder Laurila said he did not wish to comment on INPE's criticism about the deal.

"Unfortunately, I cannot comment very much at this stage. We can confirm that there is a contract, as seen in public documents. But due to a confidentiality agreement, we cannot make separate statements on our own behalf," Laurila told Svenska Yle by email.

In order to sell the satellite to another country, ICEYE needed an export permit, as such devices are classified as dual use items because they can also be used for military purposes.

The Finnish foreign affairs ministry confirmed that ICEYE received advance approval for the transaction, a move which will expedite the export permit processing time.

The ministry's export control unit director, Teemu Sepponen, said decisions on export permits are based on the information provided by companies, along with independent investigation by the unit.

"I cannot comment more on it at this stage," Sepponen said.

Researcher: Not ethical

Associate professor of global development studies at University of Helsinki, Markus Kröger, said he strongly questioned the satellite's sale to the Bolsonaro government.

"It is not possible to sell satellite monitoring technology to such a government. It is not ethical," he said.

The researcher, who studies Brazil in particular, said that under its current leadership, the South American country is inevitably headed towards a dictatorship, adding that he thinks accusations that Bolsonaro would use the technology for his own benefit were credible.

"The Brazilian government is ignoring or sacking experts who do not support Bolsonaro's policies," Kröger said, referring to the Brazilian president's past conflicts with INPE experts

Kröger noted that a key point in this situation is that the satellite deal was explicitly made with Brazil's defence ministry and Air Force.

"The aim seems to be to move satellite surveillance from civilian entities to the military, and for purposes other than protecting the Amazon," the researcher said.

Finnish companies have not yet understood how risky doing business with Bolsonaro can be for their corporate reputations, according to Kröger, who said he thinks that by approving the satellite deal, Finland has interfered in Brazil's domestic policy.

Latest in: News


Our picks