Brazil’s Far-Right Government Seizes On Pandemic To Gut Environmental Protections

Travis Waldron

Brazil’s far-right government should take advantage of the media’s focus on the global coronavirus pandemic to loosen regulations protecting the Amazon rainforest, Environment Minister Ricardo Salles argued to President Jair Bolsonaro in a late-April Cabinet meeting.

“Press attention is focused almost exclusively on [COVID-19],” Salles said in the meeting, according to a transcript published by Brazilian television station Globo News. “Now is time to join forces to simplify regulation on a large scale.”

Brazil’s Supreme Court released a transcript and video of the meeting on Friday as part of its ongoing investigation into Bolsonaro after former Justice Minister Sergio Moro, who resigned in April, accused the president of improper political interference in the country’s federal police force.

Salles, who has spearheaded Bolsonaro’s aggressive efforts to loosen regulations and increase private investment in the Amazon, argued that Brazil’s agricultural, environmental and other ministries could use the pandemic as cover to strip regulations and “run the cattle herd” through the rainforest. (Beef production is among the leading drivers of deforestation in the Amazon.)

“We do not need Congress,” Salles said.  

Witoto Indigenous nursing assistant Vanda Ortega, 32, on a round of health care visits in the Parque das Tribos, an Indigenous community in the suburbs of Manaus, Brazil, on May 3. (RICARDO OLIVEIRA via Getty Images)

Salles’ comments in the closed-door meeting validated concerns that Bolsonaro is using the COVID-19 outbreak to further destroy the environment, especially as his administration’s tepid response to COVID-19 transformed South America’s largest nation into the pandemic’s latest epicenter.

Deforestation has continued to surge since the beginning of the outbreak in Brazil, which now has the second-most confirmed COVID-19 cases in the world. This is partly because self-isolation policies further limited enforcement from the beleaguered regulatory agencies Bolsonaro has targeted since becoming president. 

Bolsonaro’s government opened up 38,000 square miles of Indigenous lands to mining and other economic activities in...

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