Tree topping

Brazil's Minister of Environment investigated for illegal timber export.

On 18 May 2021, the Brazilian Federal Police raided the office and homes in Sao Paulo and Brasília of the Minister of Environment of Brazil, Ricardo Salles. The raid was part of a Supreme Court judicial investigation into the illegal export of timber from the Amazon. The probe investigated 8,000 shipments of timber harvested in violation of Brazilian environmental laws. 

The investigation came at one of the most delicate moments for President Jair Bolsonaro, as it coincided in time with the COVID-19 parliamentary enquiry and the hearing of former Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello, considered one of the main political officers responsible for the collapse of the healthcare system in the Amazon.

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.”

“Ricardo Salles has had a short but intense political career. His mission has always been to prioritise business interests over the environment.”

Professor, International relations, Brazil

A representative of an international environmental NGO in Sao Paulo had stronger views, “It is a miracle that Salles has managed to keep office. He has the support of Bolsonaro’s sons but it remains to be seen if Congress will force his exit as it did with the former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ernesto Araújo. Regardless of what happens to Salles, this is a sad day for Ibama [Brazil’s environment agency].”

The same source continues, “It was obvious all was not well with all the dismissals and trimming of competent professionals at the agency which were replaced by members of the military and police brought in from Sao Paulo [where Salles served as regional secretary of environment from 2016 and 2017]. All these measures have the fingerprints of timber businessmen on it.”

“It was obvious all was not well with all the dismissals and trimming of competent professionals at the agency which were replaced by members of the military and police.”

Representative, international environmental NGO, Brazil

Timber sector businessmen have kept a low profile after last week’s raids. In this context, their lobbying efforts which included meeting with Eduardo Bim last February resulted in the implementation of laxer regulations in the export of timber which significantly improved their interests. 

Although the presidential elections will only be held in 18 months, Bolsonaro’s popularity is plummeting to unprecedented levels. A poll carried out by Datafolha, an opinion research centre associated to Folha de S.Paulo, on 12 May 2021 showed that Bolsonaro is currently lagging 18 points behind former president and likely candidate Luis Inácio Lula da Silva.

Is this latest scandal likely to be a political attack on Bolsonaro?

The NGO representative doesn’t think so, “The investigation was launched by Alexandre de Moraes, a Supreme Court judge who is against Bolsonaro. However, the origin of the investigation was a request from the US over an irregular shipment of what appears to be illegal timber. This, the size of the investigation and the other bodies involved, such as the Council for Financial Activities Control (“COAF”) linked to the Central Bank of Brazil, show that it is not a political witch hunt.”

As for Salles, his future hangs in the balance, according to the IR professor, “Bolsonaro is unpredictable but, at present, his decisions are made by the poll results, which don’t look good. It is not unprecedented for Bolsonaro to stick with an unpopular minister in the middle of the storm and then axe him when the scandal seems over. It is his way of trying to show that he dominates the political agenda and that he controls the public discourse.”


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