Brazilian police target environment minister in wood smuggling probe

by Reuters
Wednesday, 19 May 2021 14:25 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Logs that were illegally cut from Amazon rainforest are transported on a barge on the Tapajos river, near the city of Santarem, Para state April 18, 2013. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

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Ricardo Salles has been a key figure in U.S.-Brazil talks to push for international funding to protect the Amazon jungle

By Ricardo Brito and Lisandra Paraguassu

BRASILIA, May 19 (Reuters) - Brazilian police on Wednesday targeted Environment Minister Ricardo Salles and other officials in a probe of an alleged wood smuggling ring, according to court documents, throwing a harsh spotlight on a key figure in U.S.-Brazil environmental talks.

Salles has been leading negotiations with President Joe Biden's administration in a push to get international funding of Brazilian efforts to protect the Amazon jungle, the world's largest tropical rainforest.

However, as minister, Salles has presided over a surge in Amazon deforestation to a 12-year high in 2020 as the government rolls back environmental enforcement.

Supreme Court Justice Alexandre Moraes authorized search warrants and access to the minister's bank and tax records as part of the police investigation into alleged corruption and contraband, according to a ruling seen by Reuters.

Federal police said they were executing 35 search and seizure warrants in the capital Brasilia and the states of Para and Sao Paulo, but did not name the targets due to police policy.

Four people with direct knowledge of the police operation told Reuters that Salles was among those targeted.

Brazil's Supreme Court also ordered that several officials at the Environment Ministry and environmental agency Ibama be suspended from their roles, police said.

Ibama chief Eduardo Bim was among those suspended, according to a court document seen by Reuters, but Salles was not.

The Environment Ministry and Ibama declined to comment immediately.

Bim and Salles did not respond to requests for comment.

Police said that the searches were carried out "based on information obtained from foreign authorities on the possible misconduct of Brazilian public officials in the wood export process." Their statement did not name the foreign authorities.

The court ruling said the probe was related to shipments of wood sent to the United States and Europe.

In a separate incident, Salles this year visited the site of the country's largest-ever apprehension of allegedly illegal timber and went on television saying that the logging was legal.

A growing chorus of environmental advocates and sustainability-focused investors have demanded that Salles be removed as minister for his efforts to roll back environmental protections in the country.

Last year, a video of a cabinet meeting showed Salles saying that the government should loosen environmental regulations while the public was distracted by COVID-19.

(Reporting by Ricardo Brito and Lisandra Paraguassu in Brasilia, Rodrigo Viga Gaier and Pedro Fonseca in Rio de Janeiro Writing by Jake Spring and Carolina Mandl Editing by Brad Haynes, Paul Simao, Alexandra Hudson)