Conservation news

Brazil’s environment minister faces second probe linked to illegal timber

The largest illegal timber seizure in Brazil’s history saw police recover 226,000 cubic meters (8 million cubic feet) of wood on the border between the states of Amazonas and Pará in March 2021. The head of the Amazonas office of the Federal Police was fired after reporting the environment minister for meddling with the investigation and protecting the suspected loggers. Image courtesy of the Federal Police in Amazonas state.

  • Brazil’s highest court has authorized an investigation into alleged obstruction of justice by Environment Minister Ricardo Salles, who has admitted to siding with suspected illegal loggers targeted in a police operation.
  • Following the country’s biggest ever bust of illegal timber in March, Salles traveled to the site in the Amazon and declared on social media accounts that he had personally checked the origin of a sample of the wood and found it was not of illegal origin, despite the police’s evidence to the contrary.
  • The new investigation into Salles comes two weeks after the Federal Police began a probe into allegations that the minister was involved in exports of illegal timber to the U.S. and Europe.
  • Salles’s term as environment minister has been marked by skyrocketing deforestation rates, a record-high number of rural land conflicts, the gutting of environmental regulators, and an increase in invasions and attacks on Indigenous lands.

Brazil’s controversial environment minister, Ricardo Salles, faces mounting legal problems after the country’s highest court authorized an investigation — the second in two weeks — into allegations that he obstructed a police operation against illegal logging in the Amazon.

The move on June 2 greenlighted by the Supreme Federal Court comes two weeks after the same court authorized investigating Salles in connection with alleged illegal exports of timber from the Amazon.

The latest investigation stems from the largest ever seizure of illegal timber in the country’s history. On March 31 this year, following the seizure of 226,000 cubic meters (8 million cubic feet) of wood — a haul worth approximately $25 million — Salles traveled to the location on the border between the states of Pará and Amazonas, and posted on his official social media accounts that he had personally checked the origin of a sample of the wood and declared that it was not of illegal origin — despite police evidence to the contrary.

The largest illegal timber seizure in Brazil’s history saw police recover 226,000 cubic meters (8 million cubic feet) of wood on the border between the states of Amazonas and Pará in March 2021. Image courtesy of the Federal Police in Amazonas state.

The head of the Federal Police’s office in Amazonas, Alexandre Saraiva, reported the minister to the STF for meddling with his investigation. “Despite being supported by an extensive investigation conducted by the Federal Police, Salles decided to adopt a totally contrary position, that is, to support the targets, including, among them, a company with 20 registered records of environmental violations, whose fines amount to approximately 8.4 million reais [$1.7 million],” Saraiva wrote in his 38-page account, referring to logging company Rondobel Madeiras. (Mongabay was unable to reach Rondobel for comment.) “Salles publicly defended loggers investigated in Operation Handroanthus,” Saraiva added.

Saraiva was fired the next day. “I’m not afraid of dying,” he told a hearing in the National Congress shortly after. “I want to defend the environment in the interest of Brazil.”

A newly hired Federal Police officer with six months of experience, Thiago Leão Bastos, later scrapped the illegal logging investigation and returned the wood to the loggers in May. But this week, the Supreme Federal Court agreed to investigate Salles’s role in the case after Brazil’s deputy prosecutor-general, Humberto Jacques de Medeiros, gave the green light.

Salles has openly admitted to interfering in the police’s case, but says he was acting in the “public spirit.” In a statement submitted June 3 to Prosecutor-General Augusto Aras, an ally of President Jair Bolsonaro, Salles said he intervened to “respond politically to the claims made by the [logging] sector, who made it clear they were feeling prosecuted and unheard due to the manner they believe they were being treated by delegate Saraiva.”

Salles denies any illegality in his actions. “The investigation will show that there is not, nor ever has been, any crime,” the Environment Ministry said in emailed statement. Salles’s lawyer denied Mongabay’s request for comment.

Ricardo Salles, Brazil’s environment minister and a staunch ally of President Jair Bolsonaro, says he was defending the interests of loggers who felt they were being unfairly treated by a Federal Police operation. The Supreme Federal Court is now investigating the minister’s actions for alleged obstruction of justice. Image courtesy of Agência Brasil.

Dubbed Brazil’s “anti-environment minister” by critics, Salles is already the subject of a Federal Police probe opened last month into his suspected participation in a scheme to export illegal timber to the United States and Europe. That investigation stems from the “extremely atypical” surge of 7.4 million reais ($1.5 million) in his personal wealth since 2012 and an alert by the U.S. embassy about suspected irregularities in paperwork for timber shipped from the Amazon to the state of Georgia in January last year.

“It’s scandalous. We have a minister who should be defending the environment being investigated for participating in an illegal logging mafia,” Paulo Busse, an environmental lawyer at Greenpeace, told Mongabay. “I have never seen anything so severe in all my years working with environmental law.”

Since Salles took office in 2019 under Bolsonaro, deforestation rates have soared nearly 50%, hitting their highest level since 2008. Forest loss in the Brazilian Amazon reached the highest level in any May since at least 2007, according to data released today by Brazil’s national space research institute INPE. Last year, Salles was recorded suggesting the government take advantage of COVID-19 to silently push through environmental deregulation.

“It’s terrifying, they are destroying everything that was built over the last 40 years,” said Suely Araújo, a former president of IBAMA, the federal environmental protection agency, and senior adviser at the Climate Observatory, a nongovernmental organization. “Salles’s actions reflect a worldview of someone who doesn’t believe in environmental policies,” Araújo told Mongabay. “This has consequences, including legal consequences.”

A Federal Police official, who asked not to be identified due to fear of retaliation, told Mongabay that police are struggling in the Amazon without the expertise and backing of IBAMA and ICMBio, the Environment Ministry’s administrative arm, both of which have been gutted under Bolsonaro’s watch.

Land conflicts in Brazil in 2020 hit the highest number ever recorded, according to a report released this week, while invasions in Indigenous reserves have escalated in recent months. Last week, illegal gold miners in the Yanomami Indigenous Reserve reportedly attacked the ICMBio regional base, holding three Indigenous government agents hostage and stealing recently confiscated materials, according to regional newspaper Amazônia Real. ICMBio told Mongabay by email that a Federal Police investigation is underway, but was unable to confirm details.

An IBAMA agent investigates an illegal gold mine inside the Raposa Serra do Sol Indigenous Reserve in the past. Illicit invasions have increased in the territory since Jair Bolsonaro took office, but with IBAMA’s sharply reduced budget and staffing, law enforcement has been lax. Image courtesy of IBAMA.

On May 19, the Federal Police investigation into Salles’s possible involvement in alleged illegal timber exports caught the minister by surprise when it served him with a search-and-seizure warrant. However, investigators were unable to locate his home address or seize his mobile phone, according to local media reports. The Federal Police did not respond to requests for comment on the matter.

On June 4, a Supreme Federal Court justice requested the Prosecutor-General’s Office to evaluate, within the next five days, the merit of a formal demand for Salles be jailed or discharged for obstructing justice by allegedly hiding his phone from the police.

Under Salles, the Environment Ministry has used executive power to bypass Congress and roll back environmental protections over the past two years, according to a survey carried out by Instituto Talanoa, a civil society think tank.

Marina Silva, Salles’s predecessor, called the Supreme Federal Court’s decision to investigate the minister a step in the right direction for the environment and for Brazil. “It’s important for the country, for the environment and for the republican principle that no one is above the law,” she tweeted.

This is a developing story. Mongabay will report any updates as they become available.

Additional reporting by Isis Fernanda Fischer

Banner image: On March 31 this year, following the seizure of 226,000 cubic meters (8 million cubic feet) of wood — a haul worth approximately $25 million — Environment Minister Ricardo Salles traveled to the location on the border between the states of Pará and Amazonas, and posted on his official social media accounts that he had personally checked the origin of a sample of the wood and declared that it was not of illegal origin — despite police evidence to the contrary. Image courtesy of the Federal Police in Amazonas state.

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