Brazil minister blasted for calling murdered Amazon defender 'irrelevant'

SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Brazilian environmental groups on Tuesday blasted President Jair Bolsonaro’s environment minister after he dismissed the murdered Amazon rain forest defender Chico Mendes as “irrelevant.”

Brazil's Environment Minister Ricardo Salles attends a conference on indigenous rights organized by the prosecutor's office in Brasilia, Brazil January 23, 2019. REUTERS/Adriano Machado

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

As environment minister, Salles oversees the Instituto Chico Mendes, which is named after the environmental advocate and manages 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.

Salles told interviewers on TV show Roda Viva that he hears contradictory accounts about Mendes’ life, saying environmentalists praise his work while local farmers claim he “used the rubber tappers to advance his own interests.”

“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.

Brazilian Vice President Hamilton Mourao sought to downplay Salles’ comments.

“Chico Mendes is part of Brazil’s history in the defense of the environment,” said Mourão. “It’s history, just like other figures that there have been in our history.”

Marina Silva, a former environment minister who organized alongside Mendes as a teenager in the state of Acre, said Salles is “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 if 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 has 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 more quickly, saying he believes this would free up resources to oversee projects of higher complexity, including tailings dams.

Reporting by Ana Mano; Editing by David Gregorio and Dan Grebler