Brazilian environment minister resigns amid illegal logging probe

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Brazilian Environment Minister Ricardo Salles during a news conference in Brasilia on April 22.

Sao Paulo (CNN)Brazil's controversial environment minister, Ricardo Salles, announced Wednesday that he was stepping down from the position amid an investigation into allegations he obstructed a police probe into illegal logging.

Salles' term as minister since 2019 has been marked by high deforestation rates in the Amazon rainforest and a series of investigations into alleged irregularities, which led to mounting public pressure for him to resign.

"I understand that Brazil, throughout this year and the next year, in terms of international insertion and also on the national agenda, needs to have a very strong union of interests, desires and efforts," Salles said in a news conference Wednesday. "And for this to be done as smoothly as possible, I presented my request for resignation to the President, which was granted."

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    This month, Brazil's Supreme Court opened an inquiry into allegations that Salles obstructed an investigation by federal police into illegal logging in the Amazon. The court order came after the former federal police chief in the Amazonas state, Alexandre Saraiva, filed a lawsuit against Salles alleging he disrupted the investigation that led to the largest seizure of illegal timber in Brazil.

      Salles is being investigated for administrative advocacy, hinder of environmental inspection, and hinder of investigation of a criminal offense involving a criminal organization.

      The country's federal police are also investigating Salles over allegations he used his position to weaken inspections on timber exportation by IBAMA, the country's environmental agency.

      Salles denies any wrongdoing.

      Salles and President Jair Bolsonaro have faced fierce criticism for their environmental policies. For a while, Brazil was considered a model for the world in certain environmental indicators, with declining deforestation and carbon emissions in the 2000s and early 2010s. But those trends have reversed under Bolsonaro, with both deforestation and emissions increasing since he took office in 2019.

      Less than a month before Salles began his post in 2019, he was convicted of altering environmental maps to benefit mining companies during his tenure as Sao Paulo's environmental secretary in 2016.

      Since Salles' appointment, the federal government has eliminated several responsibilities under the Ministry of the Environment.

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      And as Covid-19 spread last year, Salles was infamously recorded in April advising Bolsonaro to take advantage of the pandemic to weaken environmental regulations.

      "There is a need to have an effort on our side here, while we are at this moment of tranquility in terms of press coverage, because it only talks about Covid, and let the cattle herd run and change all the rules and simplifying standards," Salles said in the recording.

        In September, the government tried to revoke key regulations protecting the country's tropical mangroves from commercial development -- a move Salles defended, saying the protective legislation "asphyxiates the economic sector completely."

        Following Salles' resignation Wednesday, President Bolsonaro appointed Joaquim Alvaro Pereira Leite as Brazil's new environment minister. Leite was a member of the Brazilian Rural Society, and has worked as the environment ministry's secretary at its Amazon and environmental services secretariat since September 2020.

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