Brazil environment minister quits amid inquiry into illegal Amazon logging

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Brazil’s environment minister has quit amid a criminal investigation into whether he obstructed a police inquiry into illegal logging in the Amazon rainforest.

A supreme court justice authorised the investigation of Ricardo Salles after federal police raids targeted the minister and other officials alleged to have allowed illegal wood exports.

“I understand that Brazil throughout this year and next on the international stage and also in the national agenda needs to have a strong union of interests,” Salles told reporters in Brasilia on Wednesday. “So that this can be done in the most serene manner possible, I submitted my resignation.”

The outgoing minister had acted as lead negotiator for Brazil in talks with the US over funding to preserve the Amazon rainforest, where deforestation has surged since rightwing president Jair Bolsonaro took office in 2019.

Those negotiations had stalled, with the last meeting held more than a month ago, according to two sources familiar with the matter, who said it was unclear if the delay was related to Salles.

Salles and president Jair Bolsonaro have been outspoken supporters of development in the Amazon, which critics say has encouraged land grabbing and illegal mining in protected areas.

As some foreign investors began expressing concern about surging deforestation, Bolsonaro’s administration received no rebuke from then US president Donald Trump on his environmental policies.

On the campaign trail last year, US president Joe Biden called on Brazil to curb Amazon deforestation in order to slow climate change, and this year his administration began talks with Salles’ ministry in an attempt to find solutions.

Preliminary data, based on satellite images, has shown year-on-year increases of Amazon deforestation for three straight months, most recently by 41% in May. The data is considered a reliable leading indicator for more complete calculations released at year end.

Brazilian activists said Salles’ departure was overdue.

Adriana Ramos, coordinator of the policy and legal program at the nonprofit Socioenvironmental Institute, said Salles’ tenure will be remembered by the loss of international confidence, an increase in emissions from deforestation and the dismantling of environmental controls.

Marcio Astrini, executive secretary of the Climate Observatory, a network of environmental groups, said Salles’ legacy is “the worst possible”.

“There were two straight years of deforestation in the Amazon, fires in Brazil and invasions of public areas. He paralyzed the collection of environmental fines, persecuted inspectors and followed a path of environmental destruction in the country,” Astrini said.

Talks between the Biden administration and Brazil’s environment ministry are “paralyzed”, senator Katia Abreu, who heads the Brazilian senate’s foreign relations committee, said in a statement on Tuesday.

She said that reflects US dissatisfaction and the need for changes by Brazil in order to reestablish dialogue.

The US said it remains committed to partnering with Brazil to address climate change and that its stance regarding conversations with its government hasn’t changed.

Environment ministry officials including Salles are under investigation for possibly facilitating the export of illegally cut timber. A separate probe is investigating whether Salles obstructed an operation to seize illegal timber. Salles has denied wrongdoing in both cases.

“It isn’t possible for people to criminalize different opinions, points of views. Brazilian society needs that advance,” Salles said Wednesday. “We experience a lot of objections over measures that were taken or planned, an attempt to characterise them as disrespecting laws or the constitution, which isn’t true.”

Reuters and Associated Press contributed to this report.

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