SAO PAULO (Reuters) - The head of Brazil’s environmental protection agency Ibama resigned on Monday after far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, in his latest attack on the agency, criticized the amount of money it spends to rent vehicles.
An Ibama spokeswoman said Suely Araujo, who had led the agency since 2016, resigned after Bolsonaro suggested on Twitter there were irregularities in the agency’s budget, which included 28.7 million reais ($7.73 million) for rental vehicles of pick-up trucks used to patrol rough terrains.
The Environment Ministry, which oversees Ibama, said in an emailed statement that it had been planning to replace Araujo and that a new head of Ibama would be named within days.
Bolsonaro, who has strong backing from the country’s powerful agriculture sector, has routinely attacked Ibama, which is tasked with policing the Amazon rainforest to stop deforestation, often caused by loggers, ranchers and farms, along with illegal mining.
Concerns about the Amazon have mounted since Bolsonaro’s election victory in October. The rainforest is considered by many scientists to be the best natural protection against global warming, as it soaks up climate changing gases.
Bolsonaro has toyed with yanking Brazil out of the Paris climate accord, and his strong backing of the agricultural sector has heightened concerns the destruction of the Amazon will increase, even after it hit a decade-high in the past year.
In his presidential campaign, Bolsonaro vowed to slash Ibama’s ability to hand out fines for environmental infractions, which the agency says is one of its best deterrents against the illegal destruction of the Amazon and other sensitive biomes.
On Sunday, Brazil’s new Environment Minister Ricardo Salles pointed out that Ibama was spending “nearly 30 million reais just for the renting of vehicles.”
Bolsonaro retweeted that and commented that “we’ve had a system created mainly to financially violate Brazilians without the slightest care.”
Araujo released a written statement on Sunday saying Bolsonaro and Salles had made “baseless accusations.” She said the cost was for the rental of 393 four-wheel drive trucks used by Ibama’s armed agents across Brazil, and that the contract’s amount also included all fuel costs and maintenance.
A high-ranking Ibama official told Reuters on Monday that the pressure from Bolsonaro and Salles was simply an attempt “to get rid of our ability to halt policing for those committing environmental crimes.”
“It’s an absurd factoid created to weaken Ibama,” the person said on condition of anonymity. “This contract was approved by government regulators, and it is 10 percent less than the previous contract and for more vehicles.”
The official said the contract remained valid, but that Ibama is concerned there will be attempts to cancel it, possibly leading to the crippling of the agency’s ability to patrol the Amazon and other regions.
Reporting by Brad Brooks; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Marguerita Choy