Brazil environment minister’s dismissal of slain Amazon defender stirs outrage

Brazilian environmental groups have blasted Jair Bolsonaro’s environment minister after he dismissed the murdered Amazon rain forest defender Chico Mendes as “irrelevant”.

“I don’t know Chico Mendes,” the president’s environment minister, Ricardo Salles, told journalists on an interview show late Monday night, when asked about the famous Brazilian rubber tapper, union leader and environmentalist who was murdered in 1988.

Salles oversees the Instituto Chico Mendes, which is named after the environmental advocate and oversees Brazil’s protected conservation areas.

Bolsonaro downplayed environmental concerns during his 2018 far-right presidential campaign, threatening to pull Brazil out of the Paris agreement on climate change and advocating more mining and economic development in the Amazon rainforest.

“It is irrelevant. What difference does it make who Chico Mendes is at the moment?” Salles said.

His comments fueled criticism of the administration’s stance, which environmentalists say is excessively pro-business and farm interests.

Marina Silva, a former environment minister who organized alongside Mendes as a teenager in the state of Acre, said Salles was “misinformed” about the activist.

“Despite the ignorance of Salles, Chico’s struggle lives on!” she wrote on Twitter.

Salles also confirmed that he would travel to the Amazon for the first time on Tuesday.

His press office could not immediately clarify whether it was his first visit as minister or his first-ever trip to the region.

Salles also acknowledged that regulatory “shortcomings” may have led to the rupture of a dam for mining waste owned by Vale SA, which released a wave of mud killing at least 165 people and devastating the Paraobepa river.

Vale, the world’s largest iron ore miner, knew last year that the dam had a heightened risk of rupturing, according to an internal document seen by Reuters on Monday.

In 2015, a similar failure of a nearby tailings dam at a mine co-owned by Vale, also in the state of Minas Gerais, killed 19 people and damaged the Rio Doce river.

The minister said the government had been wasting technical and financial resources on licensing and oversight for all types of projects, and pledged to introduce policy changes to address the problem.

He defended a system whereby environmental licenses for less complex projects are issued faster, saying he believed this would free up resources to oversee projects of higher complexity, including tailings dams.

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