Ricardo Salles, Brazil’s environment minister, on Wednesday resigned from the post in a surprise decision that was celebrated by activists.

Nicknamed Brazil’s “anti-environment minister” by opponents, Salles presided over a sharp rise in deforestation in the Amazon rainforest over the past two years.

Local media reported that his exit was connected to the need to attend to “family business”. He will be replaced by Joaquim Alvaro Pereira Leite, who is currently secretary of the Amazon and environmental services within the environment ministry.

Salles’s resignation comes amid an investigation by federal police into allegations that he colluded with illegal loggers to export wood from the Amazon.

Last month, Brazil’s supreme court granted investigators access to his home and bank records. At the time, Salles said there was “no substance to the accusations”.

As minister, Salles was relatively insulated from prosecution and could only be tried by the supreme court. If he remains outside government following his resignation, investigators will be more easily able to pursue legal proceedings.

Salles was considered one of President Jair Bolsonaro’s closest ideological allies and rarely diverged from him in rhetoric or ideas.

His resignation comes a day after Bolsonaro congratulated him publicly on Twitter, telling Salles: “It’s not easy to occupy your ministry.”

Deforestation in the Brazilian section of the Amazon soared 67 per cent last moth compared to the same month a year earlier, according to data from Inpe, the national space research institute. During the first five months of this year, deforestation increased by a quarter on the corresponding period last year, to 2,548 square kilometres.

Alongside the president, Salles, a former lawyer, was widely perceived as sympathetic to the legions of illegal loggers and wildcat gold miners that permeate the rainforest.

Brazil is suffering from its worst drought in almost 100 years, with millions facing water shortages and the risk of power blackouts.

Marcelo Laterman, a climate campaigner from Greenpeace Brazil, said the drought was “directly connected” to deforestation in the Amazon, which last year reached its highest level in more than a decade. The forest’s water recycling system plays a vital role in distributing rainfall across South America.

Scientists have also warned that the dry weather increases the possibility of destructive fires in the southern reaches of the rainforest and in Pantanal wetlands, a biome rich with wildlife where vast swaths of territory were scorched last year.

“[Salles] oversaw the weakening of environmental agencies that protect the Amazon. He sought to exploit the pandemic to relax environmental rules. He obstructed investigations on illegal logging. His departure is good news for the rainforest,” Luciana Téllez, an environment researcher at Human Rights Watch, said on Twitter.

Follow on Instagram