Brazil’s environment minister Salles resigns over illegal logging in Amazon investigation

President Bolsonaro embroiled in a growing corruption scandal involving the purchase of Covid-19 vaccines

 Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro with controversial former environment minister Ricardo Salles who announced his resignation on Wednesday. Photograph: Evaristo Sa/AFP/Getty  Images

Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro with controversial former environment minister Ricardo Salles who announced his resignation on Wednesday. Photograph: Evaristo Sa/AFP/Getty Images

 

Brazil’s environment minister has resigned a month after he became the target of a police investigation into illegal logging in the Amazon rainforest.

Ricardo Salles quit on another turbulent day in the capital Brasília which also saw far-right president Jair Bolsonaro dragged into a growing corruption scandal surrounding the purchase of Covaxin vaccines against coronavirus.

A hate figure for environmentalists at home and abroad, Mr Salles had sought to brave out the police investigation and had received strong backing from Mr Bolsonaro, who saw in the minister as someone closely aligned with his commitment to gut Brazil’s environmental protection regime.

The investigation followed a tip-off from US officials who suspected corrupt Brazilian officials were providing falsified paperwork for illegally felled Amazonian hardwoods being exported to the US.

Deforestation in the Amazon spiked dramatically during Mr Salles’s period in charge. Last year federal prosecutors demanded his removal from office after accusing him of deliberately overseeing the illegal dismantling of the environmental protection system he oversaw.

The minister’s exit was widely seen in Brasília as an attempt to draw attention away from the scandal that has followed allegations of “heavy corruption” in the purchase of Indian-manufactured Covaxin vaccines by Brazil’s health ministry.

Pro-government congressman Luís Miranda said he warned Mr Bolsonaro about the alleged corruption after his brother, an official in the health ministry, told him he was coming under unusual pressure to sign off on the Covaxin contract.

“The president knew there was a crime here,” Mr Miranda said.

Pandemic response

The opposition in congress is now demanding the administration provide evidence Mr Bolsonaro acted on the information provided by Mr Miranda.

Two days after the meeting the politician says he followed up with a presidential adviser, warning: “For the love of God, this is serious.” But the adviser said no action had yet been taken because of demands of the president’s agenda.

Senators on the congressional commission investigating the administration’s pandemic response have already taken up the revelations.

“The focus now is him [Mr Bolsonaro]\. It is clear action was not taken, the contract was signed,” said senator Randolfe Rodrigues, vice-chair of the panel.

Federal prosecutors were already investigating possible criminal activity in the deal to acquire 20 million Covaxin doses by the health ministry.

Documents obtained by the Estado de S. Paulo newspaper indicate the vaccines eventually ordered by the ministry cost 1,000 per cent more than the price quoted by the manufacturer just six months before.

The deal was the only one made by the ministry through an intermediary, rather than directly from the manufacturer. Prosecutors say the contract authorising Brazilian company Precisa to act on behalf of the ministry appeared designed “to take care of interests divorced from the public interest”.

The administration accused Mr Miranda of making a “calumnious denunciation” and ordered a police investigation into him and his brother.

The congressman said “Brazil will learn the truth” when he appears before congress’s pandemic commission on Friday. Just 15 per cent of Brazilians have been fully vaccinated to date , while more than 505,000 have died from Covid-19.