Brazil's Supreme Court ordered an investigation of Environment Minister Ricardo Salles as police raided ministry offices Wednesday, targeting a timber trafficking scheme allegedly involving him and other top officials in far-right President Jair Bolsonaro's government.
The ruling by Justice Alexandre de Moraes said federal police had evidence that Salles and other environmental officials were involved in an "extremely serious scheme to facilitate the trafficking of rainforest products."
It suspended 10 officials from their posts, including Eduardo Bim, head of Brazilian environmental protection agency IBAMA, and granted police access to Salles's bank accounts to look for evidence of illicit income.
Salles, one of the most controversial figures in Bolsonaro's government, has presided over a surge of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, and activists accuse him of dismantling Brazil's environmental protection programs.
Brazilian media reported police had searched Salles's home in Sao Paulo as part of the operation.
Some 160 officers also raided environment ministry offices in Brasilia, Sao Paulo and the northern state of Para, police said.
Under the alleged scheme, IBAMA waived requirements for timber exporters, and granted retroactive authorization to thousands of wood shipments exported in violation of environmental regulations in 2019 and 2020.
Some of the shipments had been seized by US and European authorities.
IBAMA allegedly instituted the policy over the objections of its own staff shortly after Salles and Bim met with representatives of three companies whose shipments had been seized.
Moraes's ruling revoked the IBAMA policy with immediate effect.
Salles, 45, denied wrongdoing.
"These alleged acts never happened," he told journalists.
- Surge in deforestation -
The news was the latest blow to Brazil's environmental track record under Bolsonaro.
The destruction of the Amazon, a vital resource for curbing climate change, has accelerated in Brazil since the former army captain took office in 2019.
Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon surged by 85 percent in his first year in office, destroying an area bigger than Puerto Rico, according to government data. It has continued at a high rate since, last month setting a new record for April at 581 square kilometers (224 square miles).
Facing international pressure, Bolsonaro vowed at a world climate summit hosted by the United States last month to eliminate illegal deforestation by 2030. But he has repeatedly pushed to open protected lands to farming, cattle ranching and industry.
Activists and experts say Salles has facilitated environmental destruction rather than fighting it.
In April 2020, the minister was recorded telling a cabinet meeting the government should use the coronavirus pandemic to relax environmental rules.
"Now that the media's only talking about Covid, we need to use this moment of calm to 'bring the whole herd of cattle through' and change all the regulations," he said.
He later denied that he wanted to gut environmental protections, saying he meant only that the government should try to reduce red tape.
- Trees 'sing for joy' -
Salles came under fresh scrutiny last month when the federal police chief for the state of Amazonas, Alexandre Saraiva, was replaced after going to the Supreme Court to accuse the environment minister of helping illegal loggers.
Saraiva celebrated the latest news as vindication of his accusations, though the two cases are not directly related.
"Let all the trees of the forest sing for joy," Saraiva wrote on Twitter, quoting a Bible verse.
The suspended officials included IBAMA's head of environmental protection, as well as a special advisor and an assistant secretary for biodiversity in Salles's ministry.
Environmental group Greenpeace called for Salles himself to be added to the list.
"In the battle between protecting our forests and benefiting criminals, Brazil's current government has made clear which side it's on -- and Ricardo Salles is a central figure in the effort to undermine environmental authorities' ability to do their jobs," it said in a statement.
The Climate Observatory, a coalition of Brazilian environmental groups, said Salles had "acted against the environment from the day he set foot in his ministry."
"The fact is that Salles set up an all-out environmental crime office right in the environment ministry. And one day, he'll have to pay the price," said executive secretary Marcio Astrini.