By Lise Alves, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Brazil’s Environment Minister, Ricardo Salles, is once again in the hot seat after calling one of the country’s top environmental leaders, Chico Mendes, ‘irrelevant’ and stating that ‘he was not all that they said he was’.
The interview was almost over on Monday night at TV Cultura, when a journalist asked Salles what he thought of Chico Mendes, the Amazon icon who was killed in 1988 by farmers who were against his pro-forest activism.
“Look, I do not know Chico Mendes. I usually don’t comment on things I do not know about,” said the official.
The response would have been well received if he did not add: “I hear stories from everywhere.
The people who are from the agro (business), who are from the region, say that Chico Mendes was not all that he has been portrayed as being,” Salles told a group of astonished journalists.
The comments were furthered fueled by what environmentalists are calling a disrespectful comment towards the murdered activist. “The fact is that it (he) is irrelevant. What difference does it make who Chico Mendes was at this moment?” said the minister.
Within hours both government officials and opposition leaders were weighing in on Salles comments.
Brazil’s Vice President, Hamilton Mourão, defended on Tuesday the historical importance of Mendes. “Chico Mendes is part of Brazil’s defense of the environment. It is history. Just as other figures have passed through our history,” Mourão told journalists trying to difuse the controversy.
According to former presidential candidate and former environmental minister during the Lula Administration, Marina Silva, the fact that Salles does not know who Chico Mendes is should come as no surprise.
“He does not know the relevance of Chico Mendes for obvious reasons: he is not an environmentalist and is uninformed,” Silva said through her social network.
This is not the first time Salles has been criticized by organizations which monitor Brazil’s environment. In January the minister said he was suspending all government contracts with environmental NGOs until until officials could review expenditures with the partners. The decision was later revoked.
Ironically, as Environment Minister, Salles administers the Chico Mendes Institute, which is in charge of monitoring the country’s protected forested areas, especially those in the Amazon.
Chico Mendes was murdered in his home in December of 1988, by a local farmer. He was 44 years old.