- 25 environmental and indigenous organizations have made an official complaint to the Brazilian Attorney General’s Office requesting an investigation for abuse of power and misconduct in office by Environment Minister Ricardo Salles and Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio) head, Homero Cerqueira.
- It is alleged that Salles and Cerqueira met with convicted criminals including known Amazon land grabbers, and that both officials pledged to end inspections inside the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve (Resex), a protected area in Acre state under heavy pressure from illegal deforesters. ICMBio oversees Brazil’s parks.
- Last week President Jair Bolsonaro established the Amazon Council, putting the nation’s Vice President at its head, and subordinating Salles and the Environment Ministry to the new council. Some analysts speculate that Salles has fallen from favor due to his reckless speech and actions, though others disagree.
- Some speculate the new council is a merely a public relations maneuver meant to show international and national critics that Bolsonaro cares about the Amazon. Few expect the council to zealously press forward with conservation efforts, while others see it as a means of bypassing the Environment Ministry.
Brazilian Environment Minister Ricardo Salles — in close alignment with President Jair Bolsonaro — has over the past year pursued a strategy of dismantling the nation’s Environment Ministry and its policies, while also attacking NGOs and putting pressure on agribusiness entities and companies to abandon any dialogue towards a low carbon economy.
The minister’s words and actions, however, are resulting in a collection of legal actions against him, plus strong criticism at home and abroad, especially after his disastrous public relations snafu at December’s United Nations climate conference in Madrid (COP25), when he ridiculed the international gathering.
Last week 25 organizations — including Greenpeace, 350.org, Climate Observatory, the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), and the environmental law commission of the Brazilian Bar Association of Ceará state (OAB/CE), plus citizens and congressional representative — filed an official request with the Brazilian Attorney General’s Office to investigate possible crimes committed by Minister Salles and the president of the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio), Colonel Homero Cerqueira, accusations based on a news story published in the Folha de S.Paulo.
The newspaper reported a meeting last November in Brasilia between Salles, politicians and ruralists from Acre state — among them five environmental offenders —, who requested the suspension of ICMBio inspections at the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve (Resex), a demand to which the minister promptly agreed. ICMBio oversees Brazil’s national parks and other conservation units.
One of the meeting participants was federal deputy Mara Rocha, author of a bill to reduce the size of Resex and to abolish the Serra do Divisor National Park, one of the most biodiverse protected areas in the Amazon and the world. After the gathering, in Brasília, Rocha posted on her Facebook account: “The ICMBio president promised to suspend, immediately, the aggressive inspections.”
Another participant was land grabber Rodrigo Oliveira Santos, who threatened an ICMBio employee with death in 2013 after Santos was fined for illegal deforestation of 69 hectares (170 acres) inside Resex. “Jail, we go in and out. Not a coffin; there is only entry, no way out,” Santos told the ICMBio staffer in a recorded phone call handed over to federal police.
The Chico Mendes Resex registered a 203 percent increase in deforestation last year, under the Bolsonaro administration, compared to 2018, according to INPE’s Prodes satellite monitoring system. Raids on illegal logging operations and land grabbers conducted by the Environment Ministry have steeply declined during Salles’ watch.
Civil society responds
In response to news of the Salles meeting, João Alfredo Telles Melo, president of the OAB/Ceará environmental law commission, located supporters willing to make a formal complaint against Salles and Cerqueira with the Attorney General’s Office.
“In our understanding, the Minister of Environment and the President of ICMBio committed common, environmental and responsibility crimes. If that is proven, they have to respond administratively and criminally for their actions,” Melo told Mongabay. In Brazil, a “responsibility crime” is equivalent to an abuse of power committed by a politician, also called “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
According to the lawyer, the acts carried out by Salles and Cerqueira are consistent with anti-environmental policies commonly practiced in the Bolsonaro government. “In any civilized country, an Environment Minister who plots with land grabbers, [illegal] loggers and miners would have already fallen and be arrested,” said Telles Melo.
The complaint submitted to the government by the NGOs notes that Salles is already the target of another investigation request for responsibility crimes, and of an impeachment request that is in the federal Supreme Court. Salles was previously convicted of administrative misconduct while Environment Secretary of São Paulo state, where he altered plans for an environmentally protected area in order to favor business.
Salles’ words and actions regularly seem to demonstrate that he sees no contradiction between his role as protector of Brazil’s environment and his ongoing backing of business. Last December the Federal Prosecutor’s Office authorized an investigation into a post by Salles in which he reproduced and praised an ad by automaker Chevrolet. When questioned by the press about perceptions of a conflict of interest, he answered: “What would be the conflict?”
For political scientist and environment specialist Sérgio Abranches, the actions by Salles as environment minister represent a very pressing criminal matter. “The minister has a constitutional duty to preserve biodiversity and conservation units, but he and President Bolsonaro have been preventing protection agencies from fulfilling their role.”
Bolsonaro — possibly responding to worldwide condemnation for his anti-environmental policies — last week created an Amazon Council and new Environmental Police Force, an idea first put forward by Environment Minister Carlos Minc who served under the Lula administration, but a plan never implemented.
The president’s decision to put Brazilian Vice President Hamilton Mourão in charge of the new Council, and not Minister Salles — the country’s top environmental authority — raised questions with the media and analysts. In a TV interview with Mourão, he assured the public that “Ricardo’s space is very well preserved.” However, the new council will have full oversight of the Environment Ministry.
Journalist Míriam Leitão proposed a different motive. She wrote in her newspaper column: “If the government thought [there was an urgent need for] this new body [the Amazon Council], it is clearly because the administration of Ricardo Salles has not been sufficient.” The selection of Mourão “is the weakening of the minister, the worst [environmental manager] that the [Amazon] sector has ever seen.”
Luiza Lima, Greenpeace’s public policy campaign spokesperson, told Mongabay that “it remains to be seen as to what Mourão’s strategic line will be in relation to Salles, if the vice president will reverse Salles’ [anti-environmental] actions, or if it is only a new [administrative] composition, with a false rhetoric of protection of the Amazon, with the same previous [ruralist agribusiness] interests” rewarded.
Lima questions the motives behind the Council creation: “If the president’s intention is to fight deforestation, why not strengthen IBAMA [Brazil’s environmental agency], which already has this role [as part of the Environment Ministry] and has been doing it until his government? IBAMA will be further depleted and its legitimacy compromised.” IBAMA, which conducts raids against land grabbers and illegal loggers, has had its budget slashed by 25% by Bolsonaro for 2020.
Although skeptical of the Amazon Council mission, Abranches believes it is best that the environment minister was not chosen to lead it. “Salles lies, disguises, creates a fantasy of what the ministry does,” he said.
Bolsonaro’s decision could put Salles authority in question, according to the political scientist: “If the council works, it will be even more visible than Salles, who doesn’t know the Amazon, is doing nothing. This could result in his [eventual] removal, creating a conflict between the president and the vice president.”
In the end, Abranches doubts the Amazon Council will achieve much environmental good. “The announcement is a pure response to [international] Davos pressure; it’s exclusively from economic pressure.” Bolsonaro, he contends, did not form the new council based on “criticisms he received from environmentalists or scientists, he is not susceptible to [such] pressure within the country. I think that after a while he will return to do what he does. The president takes some action just to look like he is retreating — unless the pressure keeps happening and he is forced to change. I always expect the worst of this government. Bolsonaro will always try to carry out his [own] interests in the Amazon.”
Banner image caption: The November meeting between Environment Minister Ricardo Salles (left) and several environmental offenders was organized by Federal Deputy Mara Rocha (far right) and former rancher and current senator Márcio Bittar (center), both from Acre state. In a post on Twitter after the meeting Rocha wrote: “The ICMBio president promised to suspend, immediately, the aggressive inspections” in the Chico Mendes Resex. Image found on Federal Deputy Mara Rocha’s Facebook page.
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