Brasilia, May 19 (EFE).- Brazil’s Federal Police launched an operation Wednesday to determine whether Environment Minister Ricardo Salles and other authorities facilitated illegal timber exports to Europe and the United States.
“The (alleged) participation of public officials and business leaders in the timber sector is being investigated over timber export process irregularities,” the Federal Police said of its Operation Akuanduba in this capital, the southeastern state of Sao Paulo and the northwestern states of Para and Amazonas.
A total of 160 federal agents are carrying out 35 court-ordered search warrants as part of the operation, named after the deity of the Araras indigenous group.
The Supreme Federal Court (STF) also ordered the “immediate suspension” of 10 officials at the Environment Ministry and the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama), the government’s environmental protection office.
Ibama President Eduardo Bim was one of the 10 officials suspended by order of STF Justice Alexandre de Moraes.
That high court judge also ordered the lifting of Salles’ and Bim’s bank and tax secrecy privileges, according to local media reports.
In addition, De Moraes suspended – effective immediately – a decree handed down by Ibama in February that authorized forest product exports without the need for prior authorization by that environmental regulator.
Critics say the decree was issued due to pressure from groups in the timber sector; according to the Federal Police, it is estimated to have regularized “more than 8,000 timber shipments that were illegally exported between 2019 and 2020.”
In April, the Federal Police in Amazonas state asked the Supreme Court to investigate Salles for allegedly interfering with efforts to monitor illegal logging activity in that region.
The then-regional Federal Police superintendent, Alexandre Saraiva, urged a probe into the conduct of Salles and other authorities within the scope of an operation that seized a record 200,000 cubic meters of wood (nearly 65,000 felled trees).
Saraiva was fired after filing that complaint.
Salles has been the main champion of the controversial environmental policies of his boss, rightist President Jair Bolsonaro, who has urged the development of natural resources in the Amazon region, including on indigenous lands.
Salles also has introduced a series of measures that ease controls on illegal mining and the irregular timber trade, actions that have earned him the wrath of environmental organizations.
Those same groups have harshly criticized his efforts to combat forest fires and slow the pace of deforestation – a problem that has soared to record levels during his tenure.
Salles on Wednesday called the Federal Police operation “exaggerated” and “unnecessary” and said Environment Ministry officials have been available at all times for questioning.
He added that at no time did Ibama and his ministry carry out a coordinated effort to facilitate alleged illegal timber exports.
“I explained to the president (Bolsonaro) what this is all about. I explained that, in my opinion, there’s no substance to the accusations … I think this is a matter that’s going to be cleared up or can be cleared up very quickly,” the minister told reporters.
But the Climate Observatory, a network comprising 50 non-governmental organizations, said in a statement that Salles had set up a “veritable environmental crime office” at the Environment Ministry.
“We’ll see now what crimes will be discovered,” it added. EFE