Brazilian Environment Minister Ricardo Salles Steps Down Amid Illegal Logging Probe

Brazilian Environment Minister Ricardo Salles Steps Down Amid Illegal Logging Probe

Move comes weeks after he was targeted by federal police in an investigation into alleged illegal logging in the Amazon rainforest

Brazilian Environment Minister Ricardo Salles resigned Wednesday, weeks after he was targeted by federal police as part of an investigation into alleged illegal logging in the Amazon rainforest.

Mr. Salles, widely criticized by environmental activists over rising deforestation under his watch, will be replaced by Joaquim Alvaro Pereira Leite. An Environment Ministry official previously in charge of monitoring the Amazon, Mr. Leite has past ties with Brazil’s powerful farming lobby.

The departing minister had led Brazil’s recent efforts to try to persuade the U.S. to pay the South American country $1 billion to finance sustainable development in the region in exchange for sharply reducing deforestation.

Those plans were thrown into disarray last month when federal police raided properties linked to Mr. Salles as part of a wide-ranging probe into alleged illegal chopping of trees for export. The Supreme Court earlier this month gave authorities approval to open a criminal investigation into the then-minister. Mr. Salles has publicly said the accusations against him are unfounded.

“Not a moment too soon!” Marina Silva, a former presidential candidate and environmental activist, said of Mr. Salles’s resignation. “The exit of Ricardo Salles is a victory for society,” she said on her Twitter account. She also called for Mr. Salles to face punishment for what she considers his mishandling of the Amazon under President Jair Bolsonaro.

About 224 square miles of trees in the world’s biggest rainforest were lost in April, the highest level for that month since Brazil’s space research agency, Inpe, created the Terra Brasilis platform in 2015 to track the data.

However, environmental activists raised concerns that the appointment of Mr. Leite would do little to change the direction of Mr. Bolsonaro’s government, a steadfast ally of agricultural interests. Ranchers and soybean farmers operating illegally are blamed for much of the deforestation of the Amazon.

Before joining the ministry as secretary of the Amazon and Environmental Service, Mr. Leite was known as one of the longest-serving advisers to the Brazilian Rural Society, a century-old group that advocates for farmers.

Since Mr. Bolsonaro took office in January 2019, his government has been criticized by European governments and activists because of his vocal support for development in the Amazon and policies that trimmed funds for environmental protection.

As the government’s face for the environment, Mr. Salles was a lightning rod for such criticism. Mr. Salles told reporters Wednesday that he had handed in his resignation to Mr. Bolsonaro so that the country could carry out environmental negotiations on the international stage in “the most serene way possible.”

About 160 police officers were deployed across Brasília, São Paulo and the Amazonian state of Pará last month to carry out 35 search warrants. The Supreme Court authorized the operation after receiving information about a “serious scheme to facilitate the smuggling of forest products.”

Pará state’s environmental agency said it had found seven shipments of wood—five to the U.S., one to Denmark and one to Belgium—lacking proper authorization from the state.

On Tuesday, Mr. Bolsonaro reiterated his support for Mr. Salles, one of his closest ideological allies. The president congratulated him for his perseverance, speaking during a ceremony to announce financial support for farmers.

“Your job is not easy,” Mr. Bolsonaro said. “The marriage between agriculture and the environment was almost a perfect one.”

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