Brazil’s environment minister resigns amid criticism, probes

AP General
Ricardo Salles

Brazil’s Environment Minister, Ricardo Salles talks to supporters at the end of a caravan of motorcycle enthusiasts, organized to show support for President Jair Bolsonaro, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Saturday, June 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Marcelo Chello)

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Brazilian Environment Minister Ricardo Salles announced his resignation Wednesday, giving up his post amid sharp criticism of his tenure and two investigations into his actions involving allegedly illegal timber operations.

The move comes as talks with the U.S. government aimed at curbing Amazon deforestation have hit obstacles. Salles had insisted Brazil needs external financial supportto take stronger action, while critics cautioned Washington to await concrete results before reaching any agreement with a Brazilian administration that has hobbled enforcement of environmental laws.

“I understand that Brazil this year and next, for its international and national agenda, needs a very strong union of interests and efforts and, so that can be done as smoothly as possible, I tendered my resignation to the president,“ Salles told reporters at the presidential palace.

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 U.S. President Donald Trump on his environmental policies.

On the campaign trail last year, U.S. 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 deforestationfor 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.

Márcio Astrini, executive secretary of the Climate Observatory, a network of environmental groups, told The Associated Press that 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,″ Sen. Katia Abreu, who heads the Brazilian Senate’s foreign relations committee, said in a statement Tuesday provided to AP. She said that reflects U.S. dissatisfaction and the need for changes by Brazil in order to reestablish dialogue.

The spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia, Tobias Bradford, said in a statement that the United States remains committed to partnering with Brazil to address climate change and that its stance regarding conversations with its government hasn’t changed.

Neither Bradford, nor Brazil’s environment and foreign ministries provided information regarding the date of the last meeting.

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 characterize them as disrespecting laws or the constitution, which isn’t true.”

Speaking at an event Tuesday, Bolsonaro congratulated Salles and said his job was no easy task.

Astrini, of the Climate Observatory, and other environmental groups expressed skepticism that Salles’ eventual replacement will usher in a change in policy.

“The true chief of environmental policy in Brazil is Bolsonaro. As we saw in other ministries, he is capable of changing a minister, but who orders policy is the president,″ Astrini said.

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