SAO PAULO (AFP) – Brazilian prosecutors alleged on Friday that a military airplane was inappropriately used to fly a group of illegal miners operating in the Amazon rainforest to meet with Environment Minister Ricardo Salles in Brasilia.
The allegation is the latest controversy for far-right President Jair Bolsonaro’s environment minister, whom activists accuse of working to dismantle environmental protections rather than promote them.
Prosecutors in the northern state of Para said the Air Force plane used to transport the group to Brasilia was originally deployed to fight environmental crimes in the Amazon region.
Instead, it “was used to transport criminals,” they said in a statement.
The incident occurred in early August on the Munduruku and Sai Cinza indigenous reservations.
Like many such reservations, they have been overrun by wildcat gold miners, even though mining on indigenous lands is illegal in Brazil.
Activists said illegal mining is a major cause of environmental destruction in the world’s biggest rainforest and a threat to indigenous communities. However, Bolsonaro, a climate-change sceptic, pushed for indigenous reservations to be opened up to mining and agriculture.
According to prosecutors, Salles visited the Munduruku and Sai Cinza region the day before, after which the planned operation against environmental crimes was cancelled.
The Air Force plane instead carried a group of seven people back to the capital to meet with the minister, the statement said.
The Air Force said the seven passengers were indigenous leaders. But members of the Munduruku ethnic group denied that in a letter to prosecutors.
“The seven people transported to Brasilia defend the interests of illegal miners and are involved in illegal mining on the Munduruku reservation,” it said.
Salles drew widespread condemnation from environmental groups in April when a video recording was made public of a Bolsonaro Cabinet meeting at which he said the coronavirus pandemic was an opportunity to roll back regulations “now that the media’s only talking about COVID”.
He denied he meant weakening environmental protections, saying that he simply opposed red tape in general.
He again came under scrutiny on Friday for firing the head of Brazil’s national parks service, known as ICMBio.