Brazil senators and NGOs attempt to oust environment minister for failing to protect Amazon


Opposition politicians submit impeachment request to the Supreme Federal Court, while 50 civil society groups call for investigation into Ricardo Salles for improper conduct and ‘paralysing’ environmental action

The Brazilian Institute of Environmental Protection and 50 NGOs filed a request with the Attorney General to investigate environment minister Ricardo Salles Photo: Creative Commons

Revelations that forest fires in the Amazon have topped 70,000 since the start of the year – a staggering 84% increase on the same period in 2018 – were met with global outrage.

The statistics produced by Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (Inpe) are the latest in a series of alarming figures to expose mounting environmental destruction in the country. Far-right president Jair Bolsonaro reacted to the news by saying he was ‘under the impression’ that local NGOs might have been responsible for the fires as they wanted to embarrass the government.

On the same day as the Amazon fire data emerged, the Brazilian Institute of Environmental Protection (Proam) and 50 NGOs filed a request with the Attorney General and Federal Attorney for Civil Rights to investigate Bolsonaro’s environment minister Ricardo Salles for improper conduct.

The complaint was filed in response to the “increased devastation of the Amazon rainforest and the omission of the ministry due to the seriousness of the situation.”

Two days later, two opposition senators and a member of congress submitted an impeachment request against Salles with the Supreme Federal Court.

Senator Randolfe Rodrigues wrote on Twitter: “In our view, Salles has committed a crime of liability. In addition, it is worth mentioning the omission in relation to the increased deforestation in the Amazon and the forest fires that are affecting the region. We ask for the impeachment of Salles.”

Civil society groups have heavily criticised Bolsonaro’s government for pursuing a damaging anti-environment agenda and accuse Salles of ‘paralysing’ environmental protections in the country.

The report outlines a myriad of criticisms against Salles, including his rejection of ‘sensationalist’ deforestation figures from Inpe which indicated that more than 2000 square kilometres of the Amazon were destroyed in July – a 278% increase on the same month last year.

It alleges that Salles has overseen a hollowing out of environmental departments and is limiting the impact of conservation workers.

“Without leadership, there is no medium- and long-term planning, and enforcement actions are fading,” the 20 August document stated. “The strategy has created a legion of public sector employees forced to do nothing or prevented from acting as they should. In plain Portuguese: to implement the agenda that Bolsonaro demands, Salles is paying highly qualified employees not to work.”

Ibama, Brazil’s environment agency, and ICMbio, a federal conservation unit, have been gutted since Bolsonaro’s government came to power. In February, Salles sacked 21 of Ibama’s 27 state superintendents in a single day.

“Measures such as inspections, environmental licensing and land registration are without command,” the document added.

The report goes on to explain that under Salles’ watch prosecutions for environmental crimes have shrunk dramatically. In 2018, 25,000 cubic metres of illegal timber were seized, whereas in the first four months of 2019 only 40 cubic metres – the equivalent of ten large tree trunks – were confiscated.

“We never thought that we would witness such a malevolent and destructive effort [to dismantle] what has taken Brazil a long time to build,” Rubens Ricupero, Brazil’s environment minister between 1993 and 1994, said in the report.

State prosecutors in São Paulo opened a separate investigation against Salles in August for suspected illegal enrichment between 2012 and 2017, a period when he went from being a lawyer to the state’s environment secretary and his assets reportedly increased 335%.

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