Brazil’s supreme court on Wednesday granted federal police access to the home and bank records of environment minister Ricardo Salles as part of an investigation into alleged collusion with illegal loggers in the Amazon.
The top court also removed from office Eduardo Bim, the head of environmental protection agency Ibama, and several other high-level environmental officials as part of the probe into wood smuggling.
“About 160 federal police officers served 35 search and seizure warrants in [Brasília] and in the states of São Paulo and Pará,” said the federal police, adding that the investigation began in January “based on information obtained from foreign authorities reporting a possible misconduct by Brazilian public servants in the timber export process.”
Local media reported that police on Wednesday morning raided the home of Salles, a confidant of far-right president Jair Bolsonaro. The minister said there was “no substance to the accusations” and the issue would be resolved quickly, adding that he had informed Bolsonaro of the situation.
The moves are likely to undermine the government’s recent attempts to improve its image on environmental issues.
Ahead of a summit hosted by US president Joe Biden last month, Brazilian diplomats claimed the Bolsonaro administration had “changed position” and was ready to get serious about tackling the destruction of the world’s largest rainforest, 70 per cent of which is located in Brazil.
The envoys pointed to a commitment by Bolsonaro to eliminate illegal deforestation by 2030 as a signal that the nation was ready to embrace a more “positive” role.
Few, however, were convinced, and the police operations on Wednesday are now likely to fuel calls for Salles’ removal as environment minister.
“Salles represents destruction, at a time when the world is moving in the opposite direction,” said Tabata Amaral, a federal lawmaker, calling for the minister to be fired.
Alessandro Molon, a federal lawmaker from Rio de Janeiro, demanded a congressional investigation into Salles, saying the minister was the “target of a federal police operation that investigates corruption and timber smuggling.”
At present, Salles is legally protected by immunity granted to him owing to his ministerial status. He can, however, be tried by the supreme court.
Like Bolsonaro, Salles has long been seen as close to the legions of loggers, gold miners and cattle ranchers who permeate the rainforest.
Last month, the minister called for western nations to give billions of dollars in financial aid to Brazil, which he said would be used to create economic opportunities in order to “reduce the risk of these people going back to illegal activities.”
The Amazon rainforest is considered a vital buffer against climate change. But deforestation there last year surged to the highest level in more than a decade, with 11,000 sq km of forest razed.
The alleged involvement of Ibama’s Bim in the case is also likely to be galling for the agency’s frontline environmental enforcers, who are frequently attacked by loggers and miners in the Amazon.
“The fact is that Salles set up a crime office at the Ministry of the Environment and one day he will have to answer for that,” said Marcio Astrini, executive secretary of the Climate Observatory, a non-governmental organisation. “Today, however, anyone who wants to know about environmental issues in Brazil only needs to open the police reports.”
Additional reporting by Carolina Pulice