Ricardo Salles, former minister of Environment of Brazil, resigned on 24 June, one month after the Supreme Court raided his offices in Sao Paulo and Brasília as part of an investigation into the illegal export of timber from the Amazon.
Salles – dubbed the ‘anti-environment minister’ by environmentalists, was forced to resign when the former federal police chief of the Amazonas state, Alexandre Saraiva, filed a lawsuit against him for disrupting the investigation. The former minister had been one of President Jair Bolsonaro’s staunchest supporters, but had a history of prioritising multinational business interests over environmental measures. For example, a month after taking office in 2019, he was convicted for altering environmental maps to benefit mining companies when he served as Secretary for the Environment of the State of Sao Paulo in 2016.
An international relations professor in Sao Paulo commented, “Ricardo Salles has had a short but intense political career. His mission has always been to prioritise business interests over the environment. This may be unpopular in the US and EU but many senior political figures in Brazil, both left- and right-wing, and agribusiness leaders are supportive of Salles’ discourse.”
It is understandable, therefore, that environmentalists in Brazil were celebrating Salles’ resignation, the CEO of a local NGO commented, “This is an important sign that Brazil is starting to care more about the environment and is working to reduce deforestation.”
“This is an important sign that Brazil is starting to care more about the environment and is working to reduce deforestation.”
CEO, environmental NGO, Brazil
An environmental lawyer in Brazil thought the country’s environmental problems went deeper than Salles, “Brazil is experiencing a structural deficiency that manifested itself before the current administration. The rate of investigations in the fight against environmental crimes has been reducing due to a lack of resource being allocated to the relevant agencies. This was flagged to the environment agency, IBAMA, but no action was taken.”
“The rate of investigations in the fight against environmental crimes has been reducing due to a lack of resource being allocated to the relevant agencies.”
Environmental lawyer, Brazil
Salles’ successor, Joaquim Alvaro Pereira Leite, was one of the main agribusiness lobbyists in Brazil, as director of the Brazil Rural Society. At the time of his appointment, he served as Secretary for the Amazon and environmental services at the Ministry of Environment. Pereira Leite has a history of supporting Salles’ initiatives at the helm of the ministry and this practically rules out any change to Bolsonaro’s environmental strategy. Nevertheless, Salles’ departure should unblock Brazil’s environmental talks with US as the origin of Salle’s investigation was a request from the US to Brazilian authorities.
With COP26 less than 5 months away, you would be forgiven for thinking that Brazil may try to clean up its act, but our sources believe that few people in government care, “You have to understand, foreign policy has never been high on the agenda for Brazil,” the environmental lawyer explained, “national policies are always inward-looking, there is no relevant external agenda.”
While our sources may appear unconvinced that Brazil will change its way, we are seeing a growing trend of environmental activists and NGO’s getting what they want in Latin America. Something to watch.