Brazil’s environment minister resigns cornered by investigation into illegal timber smuggling

The Federal Police accused him of having hindered the investigations into the largest seizure of timber in history, tons of tropical timber that was to be exported illegally to the United States and Europe.

Jair Bolsonaro (i) and Ricardo Salles (r), in an image from February.EVARISTO SAAFP

The hitherto Minister of the Environment of Brazil, Ricardo Salles, He resigned this Wednesday. His departure from the Government of Jair Bolsonaro It had been expected for a long time, not only for his much criticized management, but also for his own those with the Justice. The most serious of these, an investigation into illegal smuggling of wood from the Amazon.

The Federal Police accused him of having obstacles to investigations on the largest timber seizure in history, tons of tropical timber that was to be illegally exported to the US and Europe. The police saw “strong indications” that the minister himself was part of the illegal smuggling scheme.

Salles denies any wrongdoing, but It took 19 days to deliver his cell phone to the agents. The investigation is ongoing and now that it has stopped being measured, it is very likely that in the medium or long term he will end up in jail.

The minister, one of Bolsonaro’s favorites, he was always surrounded by controversy. During his tenure, the organs of the ministry in charge of prosecuting environmental crimes, such as the Brazilian Environment Institute (Ibama) were practically dismantled, and now offenders are hardly fined.

Salles too questioned the veracity of deforestation data for the Amazon prepared by the Ministry of Science and Technology with images captured via satellite (and that leave no doubt that the destruction of the Brazilian jungle is breaking records) and faced foreign ambassadors and diplomats who demanded that Brazil take the agenda seriously environmental.

Norway and Germany, main funders of the state ‘Amazon Fund’ to preserve the jungle, stopped making contributions due to the lack of credibility of the minister and Bolsonaro’s continuous denialist proclamations. The minister wanted the money to be used to finance rural producers.

Last year, in a council of ministers, without knowing that it was being recorded, he said that it was necessary to take advantage of the fact that the media attention was on the covid-19 pandemic to “pass the tractor” over environmental legislation. Salles was always in favor of opening up protected indigenous lands, for example, to mining and other activities now prohibited.


The new Minister of the Environment will be Joaquim Alvaro Pereira Leite, a subordinate of Salles in the ministry and a former member of the Brazilian Rural Society (SRB). Without a specific curriculum in the environmental area, environmental organizations fear that it is, again, a representative of the interests of the agricultural and livestock lobby.

Greenpeace Brazil, for example, highlighted in a statement that the society receives “with relief” the resignation of Salles, because he was someone who acted “intentionally and deliberately” against the ministry itself, but added that changing the minister does not guarantee the alteration of the Government’s “nefarious anti-environmental project”.

There is not much hope that something will change with the departure of Salles. The former minister Marina Silva, who managed to reduce deforestation in the Amazon to historical lows, recalled on his social networks that Salles was nothing more than the executor of Bolsonaro’s policies.

Furthermore, the dangers to the environment in Brazil are not only in the executive branch. In the Chamber of Deputies, which has an ally of Bolsonaro as president (Arthur Lira) several environmental deregulation projects are advancing. One of them is PL / 490, which if it goes ahead will make the demarcation of indigenous lands extremely difficult.

This Tuesday, hundreds of indigenous people demonstrated in Brasilia against the proposal. The protest ended with a strong confrontation between indigenous and police and with several wounded, including three agents who received arrows.

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