Four countries in the Amazon basin have appointed new environment ministers in the past eight months, a time when the world’s largest continuous rain forest faces huge challenges. Rates of deforestation have increased and threaten the planets largest oxygen reserve.
Here, we profile those tasked making critical decisions on the Amazon.
Brazil: links to agribusiness
Ricardo Salles was the last of the 22 ministers appointed by Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right politician who won Brazilian presidential elections in October. Bolsonaro picked Salles to lead the environment ministry after reneging on his decision to abolish it, a proposal widely publicised during his campaign.
However, Salle does not clash with the president-elect on environment. One of Salle’s first comments on being appointed was: “the discussion whether or not there is global warming is secondary”. The future minister wants to simplify environmental licensing, ease the fiscal burden on rural producers and make the work of the ministry “more efficient”.
He also promises to “defend private property” from social movements and ethnic communities. Indigenous groups will perhaps be the most vulnerable under his watch. Last week, Bolsonaro announced that he wants to allow mining on indigenous communal territories.
His appointment, which was well received by large agricultural producers, caused great concern among environmentalists. His control of the ministry has come at a time when the rate of deforestation in the Amazon is increasing. According to data from the National Institute of Space Research (INPE), between August and October deforestation grew by 48.8%.
Environmental campaigners did, however, welcome the announcement by the future minister that Brazil would not withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change.
Still, a lot can change. Salles stands accused by official bodies of damaging the environment in preparing a management plan for the Várzea do Rio Tietê protected area during his tenure of the Sao Paulo state environment office. A judge condemned him for administrative irregularities in a case that may be problematic for Bolsonaro, who was elected on a promise to fight corruption.
Colombia: deforestation expert
Ricardo Lozano, the Colombian environment minister since August, arrived in office at a crucial time. The second year of the implementation of the historic peace agreement signed with the Farc in 2016 has been accompanied by the news that deforestation has increased rapidly in the Amazon and in many regions formerly controlled by Marxist guerrillas, and drug traffickers.
The geologist, the first Colombian environment minister with a decade’s extensive experience in the sector, is known for having led Ideam for five years. Ideam is Colombia’s meteorological institute which Lozano created in 2012. It is a robust forest monitoring system which publishes early warnings of deforestation trends every three months.
That is precisely his biggest challenge. Colombia is losing 219,973 hectares of forest per year and is presided over by a government that came to power with the promise of opposing the peace agreement and promoting the country’s large agricultural sector.
Throughout his career, Lozano – whose appointment was well received by environmentalists – has worked extensively on important issues for Colombia and the Amazon such as climate change, risk management (in a country that contributes little to global greenhouse gas emissions, but is very vulnerable to the effects of extreme climatic events such as floods and landslides), and water resource management.
That said, Lozano still has the challenge of communicating the urgency of these problems to other government departments: “Deforestation is not only a problem for the environment ministry or just one minister, but of the State,” he has said several times.
Ecuador: oil sector ties
Marcelo Mata Guerrero, the new Ecuadorian environment minister, assumed his post just two weeks ago – in the midst of a cabinet re-shuffle by President Lenin Moreno.His appointment concerns those working in the Amazon.
Mata is a lawyer who managed environmental issues in the hydrocarbons sector. He was responsible for the environment at oil company Repsol Ecuador and was an adviser in environmental and social issues at state company Petroecuador. He also held several environment-related positions in the ministry of mines and petroleum, where he was national director of environmental protection and coordinator of social participation and community relations.
“It is unacceptable that today the head of the environment ministry is a former official of the first oil company to extract in this [Yasuní] national park, the most biodiverse in Ecuador, and where there are people living in voluntary isolation,” said Elizabeth Bravo of influential NGO Acción Ecológica.
“He has also participated in public policy formulation for the mining sector, so environmental movements in the country fear his appointment will facilitate mining operations in areas that are environmentally fragile,” she added.
Peru: forest management expertise
Fabiola Muñoz Dodero arrived at the Peruvian Ministry of Environment as new president Martín Vizcarra took office in April, after a decade working in the forestry sector.
Until her appointment as minister, for four years the lawyer led the National Forestry and Wildlife Service (Serfor), an agency connected to the Ministry of Agriculture. It is the highest forest management authority in Peru. Prior to that, she led US’ Forest Service programme in Peru.
An important part of her career has been fighting illegal activities that decimate the Amazon and other Peruvian ecosystems. At Serfor, she focused on logging and the illegal wood trade, joining the National Pact for Legal Wood that endeavours to ensure that by 2021 all commercialised wood in Peru has legal origins and is verified.
Now, as minister, she is focused on illegal mining and deforestation, and stresses the need for alternatives for communities.
“We have to recognise that within the State we are not usually efficient in creating conditions for legal activity to be cheaper and faster than illegal activity,” she said in April.
The Vizcarra government is looking for the new minister to build bridges with the private sector. “We need an environment minister who understands that the best way to maintain the environment is by generating investment in the country, but in a responsible way for the sector, which she is going to do,” said prime minister César Villanueva after appointing her.
What may help Muñoz is her previous role as manager of community relations of the Peruvian subsidiary of British company Anglo American, which operates the Quellaveco copper mine.