RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — In a move that has shocked environmentalists, the government of Brazil’s third-largest state has given up a legal fight to protect a state park in one of the Amazon’s most biodiverse areas. The result of that decision is that a man responsible for the deforestation of large tracts of protected land wins a firm case against the government. The park will cease to exist.
Antonio José Rossi Junqueira Vilela has been fined millions of dollars for deforestation in Brazil and for stealing thousands of hectares (acres) of the Amazon rainforest. However, it was a company linked to him that filed a lawsuit against the state of Mato Grosso, alleging that it had incorrectly set the limits of the Cristalino II State Park.
The park spans 292,000 acres (118,000 hectares), larger than New York City, and lies in the transition zone between the Amazon and the drier Cerrado biomes. It is home to the endemic white-fronted spider monkey (Ateles marginatus), an endangered species due to habitat loss.
In a 3-2 decision, Mato Grosso’s superior court ruled that the government’s 2001 creation of the park was illegal because it was carried out without public consultation.
The state government did not appeal that decision, leaving it to be final. Now the park will be officially dissolved, the government press office confirmed to The Associated Press.
The loss of the park is a measure of how bad things are today for the Amazon. Not only are environmental laws not being enforced, but now a court has invalidated an important protected area. Scientists say not only are ecosystems being lost, but massive deforestation is damaging the forest’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide, a crucial role it plays for the planet.
DESTROYING THE FOREST
Before he challenged the validity of the Cristalino II park, Vilela’s presence there was already known. In 2005, he was fined $27 million for destroying 11,000 hectares (27,000 acres) of forest within the protected area, according to local media reports at the time.
In 2016, the Vilela family made headlines in Brazil for being at the center of a historic control operation against deforestation in the Amazon, known as Operation Flying Rivers, carried out by the Brazilian environmental agency Ibama, the federal police and the prosecutor’s office. general. .
Vilela was also accused of deforesting 30,000 hectares (74,000 acres) of public forests in Pará state, the equivalent of five Manhattans. Brazil’s attorney general called Vilela the worst perpetrator of deforestation the Amazon has ever seen.
Legal proceedings often drag on for many years in Brazil. If convicted in the Pará case, Vilela could be sentenced to more than 200 years in prison. He could be fined more than $60 million.
Attorney Renato Maurílio Lopes, who has represented both Vilela and an affiliated company, did not respond to messages left by The Associated Press on Wednesday and Thursday.
According to the researcher Mauricio Torresgeographer from the Federal University of Pará, the Vilela family follows the “classic script of land grabbing in the Amazon”.
The way to steal land in Brazil is to deforest it and then reclaim it, he said. “It is through deforestation that the thieves concretely mark their ownership of the land and are recognized as ‘owners’ by other gangs,” he wrote to the AP.
According to official data, as of March 2022, Cristalino II had lost some 22,000 hectares (54,000 acres) to deforestation, even though it is a fully protected area. The destroyed area represents almost 20% of the park.
Mato Grosso, Brazil’s largest soy-producing state, is led by Governor Mauro Mendes, a pro-agribusiness politician and ally of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who has repeatedly said Brazil has too many protected areas and promised do not create more. .
Mendes’ state secretary for the environment is Mauren Lazzaretti, a lawyer who made a career defending loggers against environmental criminal charges.
During his tenure, Mato Grosso experienced one of the worst environmental disasters in the history of Brazil. In 2020, wildfires burned 40% of the state’s Pantanal biome, the largest tropical wetlands in the world. Mendes signed a law on Thursday that allows cattle ranching in the private preservation areas of the Pantanal.
By email, the Mato Grosso Secretary of the Environment said that he will proceed with the dissolution of the park and did not appeal because “it was considered technically unfeasible.” The office noted that the adjacent Cristalino I State Park remains a protected area and covers 66,000 hectares (163,000 acres) of Amazon rainforest.
In a statement, the Mato Grosso Socio-Environmental Observatory, a nonprofit network, said the park’s extinction sets a “dangerous precedent” and the state government has shown itself unable to protect the preserved areas. He said he is evaluating legal options to keep Cristalino II.
“The public should not have to pay the price of the omission and incompetence of the state of Mato Grosso,” Angela Kuczach, director of the National Network of Conservation Units, told the AP.
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