In Brazil, Environmental Crimes Can Be Traced to the Top

Photograph Source: Anna & Michal – CC BY 2.0

Brazil’s Environment Minister Ricardo Salles is under two criminal investigations that could lead to his removal and a possible prison sentence for obstruction of justice. His case illustrates how corruption and resource exploitation go hand-in-hand in Brazil.

In the past couple of months, the United States has intensified talks with the minister. In fact, Salles attended President Joe Biden’s Leaders’ Summit on Climate in April where he insisted that Brazil would need $10 billion annually in foreign aid to stop deforestation of the Amazon rainforest.

Now, the U.S. may need to reevaluate its relationship and possible aid to the country. That’s because in the past month, Brazil’s Supreme Court (STF) has authorized two unrelated probes into Salles’ alleged involvement with the illegal logging industry.

The latest inquiry, authorized on June 2, alleges that Salles obstructed the police investigation of Operation Handroanthus – the largest seizure of illegal timber in the country’s history. Other charges include administrative misconduct and interference of environmental oversight of the operation.

In December 2020, the Brazilian Federal Police (PF) conducted the Operation Handroanthus that intercepted ferries on River Mamuru carrying some 200 thousand cubic meters of cut wood – about 65,000 thousand trees—worth approximately $25 million. Following the action, the PF announced that those responsible for the cargo could present legal documentation issued by Brazil’s environmental protection agency’s (IBAMA) that proved the origin of the wood. However, no one showed up.

Then, on March 31, Salles visited the region for inspection and told loggers that if they brought legal records, he would release the seized timber. Back in January a federal judge had determined that the PF didn’t have jurisdiction nor subpoena power to impound the wood and therefore should release it. The PF didn’t comply with the judge’s decision and the agents involved on the seizure are now fighting a $39,000/day fine in court. Another federal judge determined on May 4 that the restitution a portion of the seized wood to a grass-roots timber association that runs a sustainable forest management plan. The PF can still appeal this decision.

Following Salles visit in March, Alexandre Saraiva, the PF Chief in the state of Amazonas in charge of the operation, said that this was the first time that an environment minister had been in opposition to an action to protect the Amazon rainforest. In fact, Salles’ favorable attitude towards the loggers, “[represents] the equivalent of a labor minister to be opposed to the eradication of slavery,” he said.

Then, on April 7, returning to the region, Salles met with loggers again. This time, representatives of the federal police, IBAMA, ICMBio (another environmental agency), local environmental departments and the press were present. At the meeting, a group of loggers handed over 2 boxes of documentation to the police.

“This is not a common attitude of a criminal group,” Salles told reporters at the meeting. He added, “this will be perhaps the first time in history that a group shows up [to claim their goods] and is called a criminal organization,” and concluded that, “to demonize the logging sector would only contribute to an increase of deforestation.”

Confused by Salles’ remarks, Juliana de Paula Batista, a staff attorney with Instituto Socioambiental (ISA) – an organization working on social-environmental issues and indigenous communities’ rights in Brazil, told me in a recent phone interview that his conduct was contradictory to his post.

“Picture this, the President [Jair Bolsonaro] has a secretary of state, chosen by him, who knows there has been deforestation, and what does he do? Instead of taking drastic measures to combat that crime, he travels to the location to show his support for the loggers,” she said.

After praising the loggers and saying there were problems with the police investigation, Salles pledged to quickly release the logs if the documents were authenticated. A forest engineer present at the meeting signed a declaration attesting to the papers’ veracity.

However, after PF agents analyzed the box contents, Saraiva said they found irrefutable proof that the documents were forged, and that the timber seized was illegal. Among the irregularities found: the species of the trees impounded didn’t correspond with the description on the documents; the registration of the timber didn’t match the place of origin; 70% of owners didn’t show up to claim the cargo; and the itinerary on paper didn’t match the path taken by the ferries. Saraiva then decided to send a criminal charge to the STF, which has jurisdiction in cases involving a minister of state.

On April 15, however, the Federal Police Director Paulo Maiurino, who had been in this role for only 10 days, removed Saraiva from his post. Saraiva only found out that he was being replaced via media reports.

The change in leadership sent shockwaves through Congress with the left-leaning party PSOL announcing it would ask Brazil’s top prosecutor (PGR) to investigate Maiurino’s decision. The party believes this was a retaliatory action against Saraiva who had openly criticized Salles. In addition, eight opposition leaders in Congress sent the PGR a request to investigate Saraiva’s dismissal.

Also in disbelief about Saraiva’s removal was Sonia Guajajara, executive coordinator of the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), who tweeted, “This is an absurd! The new director general of the [federal police], Paulo Maiurino, replaced the head of the police in Amazonas, Alexandre Saraiva, who asked the STF to investigate Ricardo Salles’ environmental crimes.” She continued, “…this gang will pay for the crimes they are committing!”

Guajajara’s words were prescient. On May 31, the PGR asked the STF to authorize a criminal investigation of Salles and others public-service employees, and on June 2, STF’s Justice Cármen Lúcia sanctioned it. Salles is also being scrutinized on another case involving export of illegal timber.

The Federal Police began a separate investigation in January 2021 after the Food and Wildlife Service authorities filed a complaint alleging the company Tradelink Timber exported illegal timber from Brazil to the U.S. and Europe without IBAMA’s authorization. The FWS claimed there was, “misconduct of Brazilian public servants in [the] wood export process.”

These allegations were the starting point for a second probe that the PF began on May 19.

After looking into the matter, the PF sent the STF its findings of suspicious activities linked to the minister. The charges include assistance in forging technical notes, the improper issuance of licenses and inspection, and how fines were assessed. In the document filed the police claimed that there was a “…serious scheme to facilitate the smuggling of forest products which would require the authority involvement of the Minister of Environment, Ricardo de Aquino Salles,” IBAMA, and several of its employees.

The document also pinpointed that the involved entities facilitated the “legalization of thousands of shipments of forest products exported in disagreement with current environmental standards between 2019 and 2020.” That occurred, in part, because in February 2020 IBAMA sent out a memo authorizing the export of forest products without issuing more strict authorization showing the origin of the timber. The memo came 20 days after IBAMA’s agents met with two timber industry trade groups – the Association of Wood Exporting Industries (Aimex) and the Brazilian Association of Forest Concessionaire Companies (Confloresta). The two organizations had sent IBAMA a letter arguing that the authorization process to export forest products had created “redundancies” and should be eliminated. IBAMA agreed and revoked the requirements that aimed to guarantee that the exported timber had a legal origin.

Following IBAMA’s memo ISA, Greenpeace and the Brazilian Association of Members of the Public Ministry for the Environment (Abrampa), sent the STF a complaint claiming the IBAMA’s decision ended up facilitating the export of illegally harvested timber because the change affected “the only formality that guaranteed close and effective control by IBAMA of exported wood.” Upon hearing these new allegations, the PF also said the parties involved “created serious oversight obstacles in dealing with environmental issues.”

In fact, a 2021 report by the Brazilian environmental group Climate Observatory called “Pushing the Whole Lot Through: The Second Year of Environmental Havoc under Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro,” found that Bolsonaro’s administration gutted environmental agencies by cutting almost 40% of firefighting and environmental monitoring budgets during the first 2-years of his tenure.

“Pushing the Whole Lot Through,” or ‘Passando a Boiada’ became popular term to refer to any deregulatory process in Brazil. It was used during a cabinet meeting on April 22, 2020, when Salles defended changes to as many environmental and agricultural directives as quickly as possible, while the media was distracted with the pandemic crisis. On a video leaked to the media Salles said that these efforts would prevent criticism and legal action and would also bypass Congressional approval.

According to the PF’s allegations the STF then sanctioned the probe on May 19 looking into evidence that Salles and other IBAMA employees committed corruption, aided loggers who sold illegal timber, among other administrative crimes.

Also, STF’s Justice Alexandre de Moraes suspended IBAMA’s 2020 memo saying that Salles’ defense to “push the ‘whole lot through’ to change regulations” was simply an excuse on the agency’s part to revoke legal requirements that prevent the illegal export of forest products.

Moraes further determined that the court would not inform the attorney general, who has oversight powers over the three governmental branches, until after search and seizure warrants and subpoenas are served. That’s because, last October the PGR asked the STF to archive another allegation against Salles that included malfeasance, administrative misconduct, and liability that Congressmembers had filed after Salles’ cabinet meeting where he suggests using the pandemic as a distraction to deregulate environmental norms.

Simultaneously, the STF also determined the removal of Eduardo Bim from his post as the President of IBAMA as well as 10 of the agency’s employees.

The high court finally authorized 35 search and seizure warrants as well as subpoenas of Salles’ confidential bank accounts along with that of IBAMA’s president and several of its employees.

Salles’ bank accounts revealed on May 31 that his assets had an equity jump of $1.4 million over six years. More information is still needed from the other parties involved to determine that a crime has been committed, however. Salles said, in a press conference, the federal police operation was “exaggerated and unnecessary.”

However, on June 4, the STF asked the PGR to ready itself for the possibility of removal and imprisonment of Salles for obstruction of justice. A lawyer involved in the case sent the STF an affidavit explaining that Salles had changed his cell phone number so that it wouldn’t be part of the PF’s subpoena regarding his alleged involvement with illegal loggers. On April 7, Salles turned in his cell phone to the police, but the PGR still has 5 more days to respond to the STF’s request.

In the meantime, Salles has denied both accusations and has asked to testify to the PGR. The STF agreed, as long as he makes himself available to the PF “to the extent necessary to elucidate the facts investigated,” the high court ruled.

While Salles claims that these inquiries “will demonstrate that there is and has never been any crime,” many people have called for his resignation, including Brazil’s first indigenous Congresswoman Joênia Wapichana who tweeted, “[it] is unacceptable for Ricardo Salles to remain at the head of the Ministry of the Environment. It has been proven that his agenda is not to defend the environment, but to destroy it.” She concluded her tweet saying #ForaSalles which translates to #OutSalles.

Anna Buss is a 2018-2019 fellow journalist with the New Economy Coalition’s Reporting Project, focusing on stories about climate change from a solutions perspective. She’s also the Assistant Producer of the daily news and political radio and TV show ‘Rising Up With Sonali,’ on the Pacifica Radio Network and Free Speech TV.