The head of Brazil's rainforest-defending environmental protection agency, Ibama, resigned on Monday after far-right President Jair Bolsonaro mounted another public attack on the agency for the money spent on rental vehicles.
An Ibama spokewoman said Suely Araujo, who has led the agency since 2016, had resigned her post after Bolsonaro suggested on Twitter that irregularities in the agency's budget, which included 28.7 million reais ($7.73 million) spent renting pick-up trucks and other four-wheel drive vehicles used to patrol rough terrain.
According to an emailed statement from the Environment Ministry, which oversees Ibama, it appears that the resignation was a pre-emptive one since the ministry had already been planning to replace Araujo. The statement said that a new head of Ibama would be named within days.
Bolsonaro, who made strong promises to the country’s powerful agricultural sector during his successful presidential election campaign last year, has routinely attacked Ibama. The agency 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. According to a recent report cited by the New York Times, Brazilian deforestation increased by 50% from the previous year in the three months from August to October of 2018.
During his presidential campaign, Bolsonaro vowed to stop Ibama from handing out fines for environmental infractions, a policy that the agency says is one of its best deterrents against the illegal destruction of the Amazon and other sensitive biomes. Bolsonaro has also publicly suggested that he might take Brazil out of the Paris climate accord.
The accusation came after Brazil's new Environment Minister Ricardo Salles pointed out on Sunday that Ibama was spending "nearly 30 million reais just for the renting of vehicles."
Bolsonaro retweeted the comment, and added 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."
Ajaujo 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% less than the previous contract and for more vehicles."
The official added that the contract remained valid, while the agency feared an attempt by the government to cancel it and cripple the agency's ability to patrol the Amazon and other regions.