The Brazilian Supreme Court has ordered police to investigate whether environment minister Ricardo Salles covered up for criminals cutting down the Amazon.
The court said it had suspicion of the existence of a “serious scheme” to facilitate the export of illegal forest products.
Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro is under pressure to sack his ideological ally as he trails in the polls ahead of next year’s election.
As Brazil’s lead in international climate talks, Salles has been a disruptive presence and, at times, a barrier to progress in negotiations, campaigners and analysts told Climate Home News.
“Bolsonaro behaves like a bulldozer who wants to weaken and destroy laws and forests. And Salles is his best foreman, acting as a chainsaw that cuts down environmental rules and opens the Amazon for destructive activities to take place without proper control,” Carlos Rittl, former director of Brazil-based NGO Climate Observatory, told Climate Home.
According to Brazilian magazine Veja, the events which led to last week’s Supreme Court’s decision began in January 2020, when the US Fishery and Wildlife (FWS) service seized three containers of undocumented Brazilian wood in Savannah, Georgia.
FWS asked their Brazilian counterparts at the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama) to confirm that the shipment was legal.
Ibama’s office in Belém replied saying the exporter was not authorised and that false information had been entered into the official control system.
A month later, FWS received further information from Ibama’s office in Pará contradicting the Belém branch, saying the wood came from a legal source and should be released for sale.
To get to the bottom of it, FWS agent Bryan Landry met with officials from the US embassy in Brasilia and Ibama president Eduardo Bim on February 21, 2020.
Four days after the meeting, Bim decreed that export permits for timber were no longer necessary, reportedly going against the recommendations of his advisers and making it easier for illegal loggers to ship timber out of the country.
According to Veja, US official Landry sent a letter to Brazilian authorities raising “concerns about possible inappropriate actions or corrupt behaviour” by Brazilian public officials or representatives of the US timber import business.
The incident led to a police investigation into the origin of the US seized wood. In November 2020, police raids across the state of Pará seized a record 200,000 cubic metres of illegally logged timber — enough to fill 90 Olympic swimming pools, with a value of 129 million real ($24million).
In a letter to the Supreme Court, Alexandre Saraiva, then superintendent of federal police in the Amazonas region, accused minister Salles of having formed “a partnership” with the timber sector and senator Telmário Mota, from the Amazon state of Roraima, “in an attempt to obstruct the investigation of environmental crimes”.
Saraiva wrote that Salles and Mota had repeatedly defended loggers and worked to discredit police investigations in statements to the press and on social media. He accused Salles of being “biased” and “behaving like a true advocate for the logging cause (a contradiction with the public function he exercises)”.
Saraiva urged the Supreme Court to investigate Salles, Bim and Mota. He was demoted the next day, although the police say the two events are unrelated.
Last week, the Supreme Court authorised the federal police to investigate Salles and other public officials, and ordered Ibama to reimpose export permits for timber.
Police searched Salles’ bank and tax records and discovered “suspicious transactions” including an “extremely atypical movement” of R14m ($2.6m) involving Salles’ law firm, according to local media reports.
However, Salles did not hand over his mobile phone to police, despite a court order compelling him to do so. The probe is ongoing.
Salles has denied any wrongdoing, saying the investigation was “unnecessary” and “exaggerated”.
Salles has shown no intention of resigning his position and ministerial impeachments are rare in Brazil.
Rittl told Climate Home: “Salles will only lose his job if keeping him as minister costs votes to Bolsonaro in next year’s presidential election.” But so far, the Brazilian president has stood by his environment minister, criticising his prosecutors as “environmental Shiites (radicals)”.
— Ricardo Salles MMA (@rsallesmma) May 15, 2021
However, Bolsonaro is trailing in the polls to leftist Lula Inacio da Silva and politics watchers say he may be unwilling to spend political capital on protecting his environment minister.
Izabella Teixeira, Brazil’s former environment minister, told Climate Home that if the investigation “makes clear the government is involved in corruption, Salles will be replaced”.
But his departure is unlikely to usher in a new era for environmental policy in Brazil, said Caio Mota, a spokesperson for the indigenous association APIB. Salles “is acting under the guidance of the government,” he said.
The outcome of the investigation could have wider repercussions on talks between Brazil and the US over funding to protect the Amazon.
In negotiations with his US counterpart, Salles has taken a hard line attempting to squeeze out maximum funding for minimum guarantees of environmental protection.
Environmental campaigners have called on the US government not to negotiate with the Bolsonaro administration — an ask they have repeated in light of the accusations against Salles.
Claudio Angelo, of Climate Observatory, stressed that Salles was accused of helping criminal organisations try to fool US authorities.
“No amount of climate pragmatism by [US climate envoy John] Kerry could ever justify negotiating with someone who could be potentially offending Kerry’s own government,” he told Climate Home.
Asked if negotiations with Brazil would continue, a US state department spokesperson told Climate Home they did not comment on ongoing investigations.
“We have confidence in Brazilian democratic institutions and recognise and respect Brazil’s sovereignty in dealing with environmental challenges,” they said, adding the department “look[s] forward to continuing working together with Brazil”.
Led by Salles, Brazil’s climate negotiation team blocked progress on talks to establish common rules for carbon markets at the last UN climate conference in Madrid, Spain, in 2019, by refusing provisions that would prevent the double counting of emission reductions.
Economics professor Ronaldo Seroa Da Motta, who follows the negotiations closely, told Climate Home the allegations against Salles could lead Cop26 negotiators to seek another interlocutor in the Brazilian team.
The Brazilian position on carbon markets reflects tensions between the environment ministry, which has shown willingness to compromise in return for concessional funding for cutting emissions, and the foreign ministry’s tougher stance opposing rules against double counting, Da Motta said.
The allegations against Salles are a chance for the foreign ministry to regain control of the process, potentially holding back progress on a deal, he added.