By Molly Taft
If you’ve never heard of Ricardo Salles, it’s helpful to think of him as another version of Scott Pruitt. There’s a lot the Brazilian environmental minister has in common with the former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator, who rolled back countless environmental protections while meeting with fossil fuel industry insiders.
Like Pruitt, Salles seems poised to serve industry interests under Brazil’s new far-right leader, President Jair Bolsonaro. Salles has targeted the country’s environmental protection agency, IBAMA, firing administrators and key officials, stripping it of its power to police environmental crimes, and looking into ways to streamline environmental licensing to favor the agribusiness sector.
And, like Pruitt, Salles has had his share of past scandals. Salles was found guilty in December of altering maps for mining companies’ and other industries’ benefit while he was secretary of the environment of São Paulo between 2016 and 2017.
Unfortunately, unlike the round of investigative journalism that ultimately ousted Pruitt, it just got much harder to look into Salles’ activity. Last week, IBAMA’s communications chief was forced out after reportedly continuing to speak with journalists counter to orders from Bolsonaro’s administration. Salles’ office now controls all press requests sent to the agency.
Another key similarity between Salles and Pruitt: their bosses. Bolsonaro, who took office in January after riding to victory on a wave of populist rhetoric, has earned the nickname “tropical Trump.” In his first visit to the United States as president this week, Bolsonaro reportedly met with former Trump adviser Steve Bannon on Monday evening. On Tuesday, he delivered a joint press conference with President Donald Trump, during which the two praised each other for their similar policies.
Like Trump, Bolsonaro has shown disdain for international climate diplomacy. He has openly considered pulling out of the Paris climate agreement and walked back Brazil’s promise to host this year’s U.N. climate change conference. And while Trump’s white nationalism has certainly manifested in policies carried out by the EPA and the Department of Interior, Bolsonaro’s favors to businesses interested in rolling back environmental protections directly reflects his own racist rhetoric against Brazil’s 900,000 indigenous people, who hold about 13 percent of Brazil’s lands, mostly in the Amazon.
“The Indians do not speak our language, they do not have money, they do not have culture,” Bolsonaro told a newspaper before his campaign. “They are native peoples. How did they manage to get 13 percent of the national territory?”
While serving in Congress in 2016, Bolsonaro vowed to “rip up” an indigenous territory in northern Brazil, promising to “give all the ranchers guns.”
On the campaign trail, Bolsonaro pledged to open the Amazon to economic exploitation and promised to greatly expand energy production, abolish Brazil’s environmental ministry, relax environmental licensing and regulation and open indigenous reserves to mining. While much of his 60-day tenure has been rocked by scandal and ineffective policies, when it comes to how his administration is dismantling environmental protections, “if you’re not following the news in Portuguese on a regular basis, you’re missing [key news] because it’s moving very, very swiftly,” said Christian Poirier, the Brazil program director at Amazon Watch. “The pace of devastating rollbacks is mind-boggling.”
Bolsonaro’s priorities were on full display during the first week of his administration. In one of his first acts in office, Bolsonaro transferred responsibilities for creating and regulating indigenous land reserves from Brazil’s indigenous affairs agency to the Agriculture Ministry. Bolsonaro’s choice for agricultural minister was part of the agribusiness caucus in the lower house and has slammed critiques of the industry, while the secretary overseeing land reform is an “extreme, hardline, right-wing, violent rancher,” according to Poirier.
Brazil’s indigenous people refer to the agribusiness industry as their “historic enemy,” Poirier said. As industries like mining and large-scale farming and ranching seek to expand further into the Amazon, they have partnered with a conservative political bloc, known as the ruralistas, to strip indigenous land protections.
“The agribusiness sector in Brazil has very much connected the dots between indigenous rights and forest protections, because they want to remove forest protection,” Poirier explains. “These protected areas are essentially off the market… [Agribusinesses] want to create the precedent to open up the protected areas to industrial activity. They know the Achilles’ heel is indigenous rights. They’re attacking them as kind of the spearhead of an overall environmental assault.”
While Bolsonaro’s government carries out policy attacks, literal attacks are also occurring in indigenous territories. At least 14 territories have been systematically invaded over the past three months by organized and armed “mafias,” who intend to scout logging, farming, and mining areas. In January, Brazilian advocacy group CIMI told Reuters that land invasions had increased 150 percent since Bolsonaro’s election. (In January, Bolsonaro tweeted out a video link interview where one of his ministers claimed that indigenous territories were “established using fraudulent documents,” according to The Intercept.)
Indigenous communities and other land rights activists “are resisting at their own peril,” Poirier said. “There’s very, very little sign that brutality and murder against them will be fully met with justice. Quite the opposite. It’s the sign that there will be generalized impunity and lawlessness.”
Protecting the Amazon, the world’s largest carbon sink, is crucial to the future of the climate. The forest stores an estimated one-sixth of the world’s plant-based carbon. A recent study found that granting tribal land protections in the Peruvian Amazon led to an overwhelming reduction in tree clearing.
And unlike many Americans, Brazilians have consistently said that they care about what happens to the Amazon and how it will impact human existence. A 2015 Pew survey showed Brazil was one of the top countries with more than 70 percent of the population saying they’re “very concerned” that climate change will harm them personally.
But like Trump’s own attacks of “fake news” on climate, Bolsonaro’s regime is making it difficult for this message to spread, Poirier said.
“That’s very much the work of the [indigenous rights] movement in Brazil, to say, look, our rights and your future are inherently entwined because the destruction of our forests, our homes, means the end of your climate,” he explained. “But I don’t feel like it’s far along enough, especially now under Bolsonaro and all the misinformation that is reaching people.”
Given the public backlash against Pruitt’s denial, Bolsonaro and Salles might want to pay attention to one of the signs held up by student protesters in Sao Paolo last week: “Hey, Ricardo Salles: Climate change is not fake news.”
Molly Taft writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture. You can follow her at @mollytaft.