Televised raid on illegal Amazon mining angers Brazil government, leads to sacking

Credit: REUTERS/Adriano Machado

By Jake Spring and Lisandra Paraguassu

BRASILIA, April 14 (Reuters) - Brazil's Environment Minister Ricardo Salles has fired the country's top environmental enforcement officer, according to a government notice published on Tuesday, after a news program broadcast a dramatic raid on illegal mining in the Amazon rainforest.

The move appears to be the latest attempt by the government of right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro to defang the federal environment agency Ibama, which serves on the frontlines of Brazil's fight against deforestation.

Fantastico, a news program on Brazil's largest broadcaster Globo, accompanied a team of agents from Ibama on raids against miners who were illegally working inside indigenous reservations. It aired on Sunday.

The program included an interview with a man who had illegally claimed land in an indigenous reserve, saying he expected the government to later legalize his ownership.

Four people familiar with the matter told Reuters that Salles fired Ibama's head of enforcement, Olivaldi Azevedo, in direct response to the broadcast, which was regarded as critical of the government.

Four other leaders of the enforcement team who reported to Olivaldi are also expected to be fired or resign following his departure, according to one of the sources, who did not wish to give their names as they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Destruction of the Amazon has spiked since Bolsonaro entered office last year, with environmentalists blaming his calls to develop the rainforest for encouraging miners and loggers.

Deforestation in Brazil's Amazon is up 51% in the first three months of the year, compared to the same period a year ago, according to government data.

One of the sources said tensions had been building since last year between Salles and Azevedo, as the minister had been pushing for staffing changes on the enforcement team but Azevedo had refused.

"There had been friction for some time," the person said. "There was pressure to change the enforcement team."

Salles, Azevedo and Ibama did not respond to request for comment. A representative of the Environment Ministry confirmed the firing but did not comment beyond what was contained in the brief notice in the government gazette on Tuesday.

Reuters previously reported the Bolsonaro government's efforts to restrict the resources and enforcement powers of Ibama, including moves to intimidate those who do not comply.

Bolsonaro hand-picked Salles to head the Environment Ministry that oversees Ibama.

The broadcast also included images of agents burning mining equipment. Last year, Bolsonaro denounced such practices, saying agents should not be instructed to destroy machinery.

(Reporting by Jake Spring, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)

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