BRASILIA - Eight former Brazilian environment ministers blasted new right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro and his administration in a letter Wednesday, saying it is dismantling the country's environmental protections.
The former officials criticized the government's decision to strip the environment ministry's authority over forestry and water agency services, while also saying a lack of clear directives to combat climate change is threatening Brazil's ability to meet its commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
"All this reinforces in the end a sense of impunity, which is the byword for more deforestation and more violence," they wrote, arguing that this perceived dismantling was unconstitutional.
Brazil's current Environment Minister Ricardo Salles responded point by point to the letter in a statement and blamed external forces for what he saw as a campaign against the country.
"What is damaging Brazil's image is the permanent and well-orchestrated defamation campaign by NGOs and supposed experts, within and outside of Brazil," Salles' letter said.
Bolsonaro on the campaign trail railed against what he has called "an industry" of environmental fines targeting farmers and at one point considered pulling out of the Paris Agreement on climate change. He still maintains climate change may not be man-made, although Brazil remains a party to the agreement.
His remarks have spurred fears among environmentalists that deforestation will spike in Brazil's portion of the Amazon rainforest, which absorbs vast amounts of greenhouse gases.
Brazil's Amazon deforestation, however, has fallen 34 percent year-on-year in the first four months of the year, according to data from the country's space agency INPE.
The former environment ministers who drafted the letter include Rubens Ricupero, who served in the early 1990s, and Edson Duarte, who stepped down at the end of the previous government.
In his response, which is longer than the original letter, Salles said he agreed with the former ministers' call for robust and efficient environmental regulations.
"The current government did not reject, nor deconstruct, any previously assumed commitment that is tangible, advantageous and concrete for Brazilian society," he wrote.
Salles criticized a lack of action in a variety of areas by previous governments. He defended moving the authority over forest services and the water agency ANA to other ministries, saying it would help kickstart action in those areas.
"We reaffirm our commitment to combat illegal deforestation, with effective actions and not merely rhetoric," he wrote.