Brazil’s new rightwing president Jair Bolsonaro has prompted fresh alarm among environmentalists after stressing that protecting his country’s unique ecosystem has to be consistent with growing the economy.

In remarks that did little to assuage fears of the risks that a go-for-growth strategy would pose to the Amazon region, Bolsonaro used his first overseas trip since taking control at the start of the year to outline a strongly pro-business agenda.

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Brazil’s new president brief speech to the World Economic Forum in Davos outlined a tax-cutting, privatisation agenda designed to reduce the size of the state and encourage entrepreneurialism.

“It is now our mission to make progress in harmonising environmental preservation and biodiversity with the much-needed economic development,” he said.

One of Bolsonaro’s first acts was to transfer control of the regulation and creation of indigenous reserves to the agriculture ministry, which is controlled by Brazil’s agribusiness lobby. That move was widely criticised by environmental groups, but Bolsonaro told his audience of business leaders that protecting nature was consistent with economic development.

“Agriculture makes up no more than 9% of our territory and has grown thanks to technology and the hard work of farmers,” he said. “No other country in the world has as many forests as we do.” The economy and the environment were interdependent and inseparable, the president added.

José Gregorio Mirabal, the general coordinator of the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin (COICA), said: “The world’s economic and political elite in Davos today should not be distracted by Bolsonaro’s efforts to calm investors interested in investing in Brazil. Bolsonaro’s attack on the peoples and forests of his country threatens all the peoples and forests of the Amazon, and puts at risk global efforts to address climate change.”

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Jennifer Morgan, the executive director for Greenpeace International, said Bolsonaro’s attitude to the Amazon was one of the biggest threats to the environment. “We’re working with allies, and we’ll work to defend everything that we can because the Amazon isn’t just an amazing forest, it’s the lungs of the earth and it plays an incredibly important role in climate,” she said.

Bolsonaro, whose son Flavio is being investigated for alleged financial irregularities, said his ministers were committed to cracking down on corruption and money laundering. “I took office amid a great ethical, moral and economic crisis. I am committed to changing our history,” he said.

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