Brazil minister blasted for calling Amazon defender 'irrelevant'

Ricardo Salles questions the role of famous Amazon forest defender as he 'advanced his own interests'.

    Environmentalists fight to prevent Amazon's deforestation which President Bolsonaro is willing to open for mining, farming and dam building [File: AP/Andre Penner]
    Environmentalists fight to prevent Amazon's deforestation which President Bolsonaro is willing to open for mining, farming and dam building [File: AP/Andre Penner]

    Brazilian environmental groups have blasted President Jair Bolsonaro's environment minister after he dismissed the murdered Amazon rain forest defender Chico Mendes as "irrelevant".

    "I don't know Chico Mendes," environment minister Ricardo Salles told reporters on Monday when asked about the famous Brazilian rubber tapper, union leader and environmentalist who was murdered in 1988.

    Salles added he heard contradictory accounts about Mendes' life, saying environmentalists praise his work while local farmers claim he "used the rubber tappers to advance his own interests".

    "It is irrelevant. What difference does it make who Chico Mendes is at the moment?" said Salles.

    As environment minister, Salles oversees the Instituto Chico Mendes, which is named after the environmental advocate and manages Brazil's protected conservation areas.

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    Bolsonaro downplayed environmental concerns during his 2018 far-right presidential campaign, threatening to pull Brazil out of the Paris Agreement on climate change and advocating more mining and economic development in the Amazon rainforest.

    Salles' comments heightened criticism of the administration's stance, which environmentalists say is excessively pro-business and farm interests.

    Brazilian Vice President Hamilton Mourao also sought to downplay Salles' comments.

    "Chico Mendes is part of Brazil's history in the defence of the environment," said Mourao. "It's history, just like other figures that there have been in our history."

    Marina Silva, a former environment minister, said Salles is "misinformed" about the activist.

    "Despite the ignorance of Salles, Chico's struggle lives on!" she wrote on Twitter.

    Salles also confirmed that he would travel to the Amazon for the first time on Tuesday. 

    He also acknowledged that regulatory "shortcomings" may have led to the rupture of a dam for mining waste owned by Vale SA, which released a wave of mud, killing at least 165 people and devastating the Paraobepa river.

    Vale, the world's largest iron ore miner, knew last year that the dam had a heightened risk of rupturing, according to an internal document seen by Reuters news agency on Monday.

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    In 2015, a similar failure of a nearby tailings dam at a mine co-owned by Vale, also in the state of Minas Gerais, killed 19 people and damaged the Rio Doce river.

    SOURCE: Reuters news agency