Brazil's environmental chief resigns after Bolsonaro criticism

Head of agency in charge of protecting the Amazon rainforest quits after Brazilian president questions spending.

    The Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources is tasked with policing the Amazon rainforest [File: Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters]
    The Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources is tasked with policing the Amazon rainforest [File: Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters]

    The head of Brazil's environmental protection agency has resigned following criticism from the country's newly inaugurated far-right President Jair Bolsonaro.

    A spokesperson for the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama) confirmed on Monday that Suely de Araujo stepped down after Bolsonaro suggested there were irregularities in Ibama's budget, Reuters news agency reported. Araujo had led the agency since 2016.

    The Environment Ministry, which oversees Ibama, told Reuters in an emailed statement that it had been planning to replace Araujo and that a new head of the agency would be named within days.

    Bolsonaro, a former army captain who swept to power in a tumultuous October election, has routinely attacked Ibama, which is tasked with policing the Amazon rainforest to stop deforestation and illegal mining.

    On Sunday, the 63-year-old retweeted a Tweet published by Brazil's environment minister, Ricardo Salles, highlighting an alleged 28.7 million reais ($7.73m) budget allocation by the agency for rental vehicles.

    "We've had a system created mainly to financially violate Brazilians without the slightest care," Bolsonaro, who has toyed with yanking Brazil out of the Paris climate accord, said.

    Araujo released a written statement on Sunday saying Bolsonaro and Salles, who has previously called climate change a "secondary issue" and alleged many environmental fines are "ideological", had made "baseless accusations."

    She said the cost was for the rental of 393 four-wheel drive trucks used by Ibama's armed agents across Brazil, and that the contract's amount also included all fuel costs and maintenance.

    'An absurd factoid'

    A high-ranking Ibama official told Reuters on Monday that the pressure from Bolsonaro and Salles was simply an attempt "to get rid of our ability to halt policing for those committing environmental crimes."

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    "It's an absurd factoid created to weaken Ibama," the person said on condition of anonymity. "This contract was approved by government regulators, and it is 10 percent less than the previous contract and for more vehicles."

    The official added that the contract remained valid, but that the agency is concerned there will be attempts to cancel it, possibly leading to a crippling of its ability to patrol the Amazon and other regions.

    Analysts, meanwhile, said Bolsonaro's actions demonstrated his presidency could pose a genuine "threat to the Amazon".

    "The protection of the Amazon always relies on strong laws and rules," Thiago de Aragao, a director at the Brasilia-based political consultancy Arko Advice, told Al Jazeera.

    "So definitely he [Bolsonaro] could be a threat in the sense that he could create a trend that the mindset of protecting the Amazon might not be the number one priority among certain individuals within the government," de Aragao added.

    Fears for the Amazon

    The rhetoric of Bolsonaro's administration has left many environmentalists deeply concerned for the preservation of the Amazon under his government.

    Within 24 hours of taking office on January 1, the Brazilian leader signed an executive order making Brazil's Ministry of Agriculture responsible for the regulation and creation of new indigenous reserves, in a move widely seen as a boost for the country's powerful agribusiness lobby. 

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    About 13 percent of Brazil's national territory is demarcated as indigenous land - defined as an area inhabited and exclusively possessed by indigenous people. 

    Approximately 98 percent of such areas are located in the Amazon, an ecosystem considered by environmental scientists as a crucial buffer against the impacts of climate change.

    The temporary decreewhich will expire unless it is ratified within 120 days by Congress, also moved the Brazilian Forestry Service, which promotes the sustainable use of forests and is currently linked to the Ministry of the Environment, under the control of the Ministry of Agriculture, according to Reuters. 

    Additionally, the order stated that the Ministry of Agriculture will be in charge of the management of public forests.

    A close ally of the agribusiness lobby, Bolsonaro pledged during his election campaign to "end all activism" in Brazil.

    On Monday, he announced that funding of all nongovernmental organisations working in the country will be rigidly controlled, reflecting increased oversight by his new administration over such groups.

    Additional reporting by David Child@DavidChild90

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies