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This post is part of a profile series on members of the Bolsonaro government. You can read our previous profile on Eduardo Araújo here. If you like our content about Brazil, please consider subscribing to our weekly newsletter Tracking Brazil.

In the last month, the Amazon’s devastating fire season has drawn global concern. But as, Bolsonaro’s “anti-minister of the Environment”, brushed aside millions of euros in aid and rejected calls for international support, we have decided to take a closer look at Ricardo Aquilo de Salles, the man under investigation for environmental fraud and illegal enrichment, and now, responsible for protecting the Amazon. 

Salles, started his political career in 2013 under the wing of Geraldo Alckmin, the man who’s been Sao Paulo’s governor for 14 of the last 20 years. Previous to this, he studied Law and Business Administration in Brazil and Portugal, and falsely claimed to have studied at Yale. He kept up this claim for seven years, until Yale confirmed that he had never studied there. He accused Yale of lying. Salles worked closely with Alckmin as a personal secretary between 2013 and 2014, and was later appointed Environment Secretary, a role that he held between 2016 and 2017. During this time, Salles was accused of environmental fraud to benefit local business interests. While this probe remains ongoing, it seemed not to worry Bolsonaro who appointed him as Minister of the Environment earlier this year. 

REUTERS/Amanda Perobelli

A CONTROVERSIAL MAN

Soon after assuming the role of Sao Paulo’s Environment Secretary, Salles was involved in a scandal that continues to attract media attention. 

In January 2017, the state council was about to approve the management plans of a protected area along the Tietê River. These management plans are critical elements of Brazil’s conservation regime, and  involve technical studies and broad public engagement.

Although the local council voted and approved the plan, the Public Prosecutor’s Office noticed that the  maps from the plan had been surreptitiously altered to lessen the restrictions on mining and industrial activities. The technician who altered the maps said he had been coerced by the Environmental secretariat to introduce those changes, and presented a string of e-mails to support his accusation. An investigation was launched and in December 2018 Salles was convicted of environmental fraud. Salles later appealed, and this appeal is ongoing. 

He is also being investigated for “illicit enrichment” as his personal assets have risen considerably over the past few years while in public service. In 2012, Salles declared $335 thousand in assets, 10% of an apartment, a car and a motorcycle. In 2018, he declared $2.1 million, two apartments of $718 thousand each, $551 thousand in financial assets and a $120 thousand boat. During at least half of that period, Salles’ salary as a public officer would have ranged between $2,400 and $4,800. The case is still under investigation.

AGAINST “IDEOLOGY”

Despite having been Environment Secretary and now Minister of the Environment, it’s very rare to hear Salles say something nice about the environment. He never studied environmental science, never visited the Amazon before joining Bolsonaro’s government, and is definitely more comfortable with the business sector than with scientists, environmentalists or indigenous peoples.

In fact, Salles considers many of the institutions created to protect the environment have become too “ideological”. Instead, he argues that public policies should be based on “technical criteria” and strive for “efficiency”. 

His only proxy of success is economic growth. Whenever environmental protection clashes with so-called ‘productive activities’, Salles has consistently sided with the big business.

Environmentalists have reverted to mocking Salles because he’d never visited the Amazon before becoming Minister of the Environment. When he finally went in February, he visited and praised one of the few indigenous communities interested in large-scale agriculture. Members of the community had were fined last year by his own ministry for illegally renting their lands to white farmers.

More recently, Salles returned to the Amazon to meet with a group of loggers that were illegally extracting timber from indigenous lands. 

Days before, these people had set fire to a fuel tanker from Ibama, one of the public agencies responsible for fighting environmental crimes. The tanker was full of helicopter fuel that was being used during a raid operation against illegal logging in indigenous lands. Without fuel, the operation had to be aborted. 

One would think that the Minister of Environment might want to sway those suspected of environmental crimes and of having destroyed a government vehicle full of expensive gasoline. 

But Salles was quite happy to meet what he described as the “good working people of this country”:

“What happens today in Brazil, unfortunately, is the result of years and years of a public policy that has created laws and regulations that are not always connected to the real world. What we’re doing now is approximating the legal part with the real world of the country, from north to south”.

SOME CRIMES ARE BETTER THAN OTHERS

Salles is also in favor of legalizing mining in the Amazon. He says that we must acknowledge that these irregular activities exist, and that rather than punish the people who practice them, the government should regulate them. 

This tolerance toward environmental crimes is somewhat surprising for a man that ran in the 2018 elections with the slogan “Tolerância zero” – “Zero tolerance”. 

During the campaign, he suggested that people living in the country should shoot wild pigs, bandits, thieves of farming material, people from the left (sic) and members of the MST – landless workers movement, an iconic organization that promotes land repatriations to distribute them among poor farmers, and has been a cornerstone of Brazilian activism since the 90’s.

Many environmentalists consider that Ricardo Salles role in the Minister of the Environment is to dismantle it. They call him the “anti-minister of the environment” and the “office boy of agribusiness”. 

Anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro summed up this feeling in a recent interview, when he said:

“It’s a situation like in [George] Orwell’s 1984, you put the worst enemy of the environment as minister of the environment, the worst enemy of indigenous rights as responsible for the Funai [the Indigenous National 

Foundation]. The whole government is built on this principle; who’s the worst possible person for that role?”

As many environmentalists and policymakers look ahead now to the UN Secretary General’s Summit and climate talks later this year in Chile, few may remember that Brazil was originally supposed to host this year’s summit. Had they, the government would be forced to respond to the alarming Amazonian deforestation, as well as a global community uncertain of their former climate ally’s current stance.

Had Brazil not decided to take the unprecedented move to pull out of hosting the summit, Ricardo Salles would most likely have been its “President”. He would have been responsible for managing the UN talks for the 2 weeks in Brazil, and 12 months transition. Had he taken this role, statements arguing that global warming is a topic to be discussed by scientists and academics, not by the public administration, might have come under the international spotlight. 

It may be that the international community is fortunate this didn’t happen, as Salles himself believes that instead of worrying about the climate crisis we need to discuss the Brazil of tomorrow, not the world in 500 years”.

Ignacio Amigo

About Ignacio Amigo