The United States has reported to Brazil dozens of illegal shipments of wood from the Amazon rainforest to U.S. ports, starting an investigation that resulted in the resignation of Brazilian Environment minister Ricardo Salles. In a tumultuous administration, with acts and declarations of confrontation with environmentalists, Salles left his office on June 23th as a person under investigation, for suspicion of involvement in the illegal export of wood.
It all began in January 2020 at the port of Savannah, Georgia. Inspectors from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) confiscated three containers full of wood from Brazil because they did not have the exit documentation required by Ibama (Instituto Brasileiro do Meio Ambiente e dos Recursos Naturais Renováveis), the Brazilian federal agency responsible for supervision of the environment, the equivalent to the FWS, which is linked to the Ministry of Environment.
A country that imports wood from Brazil may think that it is acquiring a legal product, when, in reality, its origin may be the result of a fraudulent scheme.
However, the Brazilian government has tried to convince people in the United States that there was no illegality because the authorization procedure had changed. For weeks, the FWS received several letters signed by companies and by Ibama office in Pará (a state located in the Amazon region) attempting to guarantee the release of the retained shipments.
According to the inspectors, the agency’s responses proved that the cargoes had not been analyzed by the competent sector, and false information was entered into the official control system to allow wood to be exported without prior authorization from Ibama. In addition, the case violated Brazilian laws, as well as the Lacey Law in the United States, which prohibits the trade in wild products illegally taken, owned, transported, or sold.
One of the suspicious companies was registered on a farm in Pará, which had the authorization to extract wood. But when verified by satellite, the trees on this property had already been cut down years before, although timber exports kept coming from there, according to the investigation.
In other words, the farm was a “laundry” for Ipe trees and other types of Amazon wood, according to the investigation. Ipe trees are the most coveted wood in foreign trade, and last year, were dropped from the international threatened species protection list by Brazilian government determination.
In January 2020, Ibama received demands by loggers to change a rule that had existed since 2011, loosening the export of illegally harvested timber.
The loggers’ request was accepted by Ibama president Eduardo Bim who signed an order to cancel existing rules and laws, saying wood exports do not need export approval, thus retroactively legalizing the illegal cargo confiscated abroad without the respective authorization.
Ibama’s new instruction determined that forest products for export needed only a single certificate valid in Brazilian territory. Created in 2006, the so-called Forest Origin Document, in practice serves merely for the wood to be taken to the Brazilian ports. It is a local transport and storage license, while the previous rules required a specific export authorization.
Faced with this suspicious movement, U.S. inspectors alerted the Brazil Federal Police to possible inappropriate actions or corrupt behavior in the legal and sustainable processes regarding the extraction and export of wood products from the Amazon region. In addition, the FWS opened an investigation into a U.S. company that had a cargo facility in Savannah.
Meanwhile, in Brazil, Salles was targeted by the Federal Police in May in a probe that is investigating the illegal wood export. The Brazilian police suspect financial transactions, including one equivalent to $2 million, involving the law firm owned by the minister of Environment and his mother, during the time he was already in charge of the ministry.
Considered a key piece of the investigation, the minister’s cell phone was handed over to the police and it will be examined in the United States. Salles resigned a few days after the Brazilian police probe began, and Ibama president Eduardo Bim was removed from his position.
That police probe is not the only one to which Ricardo Salles is connected. He led a public fight with Chief Alexandre Saraiva, who was a superintendent of the Federal Police, over an operation that led to the largest seizure of tropical wood in history.
Again attending to requests from loggers, Salles went to the seizure location in Pará and defended the timber operation: more than 220,000 cubic meters with an estimated value of $25 million. Saraiva presented a criminal report accusing Ricardo Salles of creating obstacles to a federal investigation and of defending the private interest of illegal loggers.
“It’s not every day that a superintendent does this, but it is not every day that a minister promotes the defense of environmental assaulters”, he stated days before losing his position as superintendent by Brazil Federal Police decision.
In May 2020, it was possible to see how Salles acted behind the scenes in the government, when a video of a ministerial meeting emerged as part of the investigations into President Jair Bolsonaro’s attempted political interference in Brazil Federal Police actions.
“We need to make an effort while we are in this calm moment in terms of press coverage, because they are only talking about COVID-19, and push through and change all the rules and simplify norms”, said Salles at the meeting.
Hence, we now have an outline of how environmental crime works in Brazil. Before a shipment of wood arrives at a Brazilian port for export, it travels through a chain marked by corruption, which is based on the fake paper industry. Through public agents that act in a criminal manner, documents such as the Forest Origin Document are issued to “legitimize” wood stolen from Indigenous lands and conservation units.
Through Ibama, the Brazilian government has been digitizing this type of information for years by concentrating all documents of wood origin in the country in a single place and, based on that, comparing these papers with the legal inventory. This data system, however, is not yet consolidated nationally, and additionally may be subject to manipulation by managers, because data is being transferred by the Brazilian states without strict control of information.
Therefore, a country that imports wood from Brazil may even think that it is acquiring a 100 percent legal product, when, in reality, its origin may be the result of a fraudulent scheme, which tends to make the market price too low for those few loggers who want to act 100 percent legally.
In office since the beginning of the Bolsonaro government in 2019, Ricardo Salles was one of the ministers most aligned with the Brazilian president, but environmentalists inside and outside the government have frequently accused him of acting against inspection and environmental protection.
Replacing Ricardo Salles is Joaquim Alvaro Pereira Leite, who joined the Ministry of Environment in 2019. He was nominated to the position by Salles and comes from agribusiness, meaning he also is more committed to the interests of agriculture and livestock than to the preservation of the environment.
Before reaching the Bolsonaro government, Leite was, for more than twenty years, a member of the Brazilian Rural Society, one of the organizations that represent the agricultural sector in the country.
Environmentalists expect that there should be no change in the management of Ibama—they anticipate the new minister will maintain the policies of his predecessor, policies defined by President Jair Bolsonaro himself.