The man who destroyed a vast forest wins the park

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) – In a move that shocked conservationists, the government of Brazil’s third largest state has given up on a legal fight to protect a state park in one of the most biodiverse areas in the Amazon. The result of that decision is that a man responsible for deforesting large areas of protected land ultimately wins a lawsuit against the government. The park will cease to exist.

Antonio José Rossi Junqueira Vilela was fined millions of dollars for deforestation in Brazil and for stealing thousands of hectares (acres) of Amazon rainforest. Yet it was a company linked to him that filed a lawsuit against the state of Mato Grosso, alleging that it had improperly set the boundaries of the Cristalino II State Park.

The park spans 118,000 hectares (292,000 acres), larger than New York City, and is located in the transition zone between the Amazon and the drier Cerrado biomes. Home to the endemic white-fronted spider monkey (Ateles marginatus), an endangered species due to habitat loss.

In a 3-2 decision, the Mato Grosso Superior Court ruled that the government’s creation of the park in 2001 was illegal because it took place without public consultation.

The state government did not challenge this decision, letting it become 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 enforced, now a court has invalidated an important protected area. Scientists say that 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.

WASTE IN THE FOREST

Before challenging the validity of the Cristalino II park, the presence of Vilela was already well known there. In 2005, he was fined $ 27 million for destroying 11,000 hectares (27,000 acres) of forest within the protected area, the local press reported at the time.

In 2016, the Vilela family made headlines in Brazil for being at the center of a historic operation to combat deforestation in the Amazon, known as Operation Flying Rivers, conducted by the Brazilian environmental agency, Ibama, the federal police and the general Attorney .

Vilela was also indicted for deforesting 30,000 hectares (74,000 acres) of public forest in the state of Pará, the equivalent of five Manhattan. Brazil’s attorney general called Vilela the worst deforestation perpetrator the Amazon had ever seen.

Legal proceedings often extend over 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 over $ 60 million.

Attorney Renato Maurílio Lopes, who represented both Vilela and an affiliate company, did not respond to messages left by the Associated Press on Wednesday and Thursday.

According to researcher Mauricio Torresgeographer of the Federal University of Pará, Vilela’s family follows the “classic script of land grabbing in the Amazon”.

The way to steal the land in Brazil is to deforest it and then reclaim it, he said. “It is through deforestation that land robbers actually mark their land ownership and are recognized as ‘owners’ by other gangs,” he wrote to the AP.

According to official data, by March 2022 Cristalino II had lost about 22,000 hectares (54,000 acres) due to deforestation, even though it is a fully protected area. The destroyed area constitutes almost 20% of the park.

Mato Grosso, Brazil’s largest soy-producing state, is run by Governor Mauro Mendes, a pro-agribusiness politician and ally of far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, who has repeatedly claimed Brazil has too many protected areas and has vowed to do not create others.

Mendes’ secretary of state for the environment is Mauren Lazzaretti, a lawyer who made a career of defending loggers from environmental criminal charges.

During their tenure, Mato Grosso suffered one of the worst environmental disasters in Brazilian history. In 2020, wildfires burned 40 percent of the state’s Pantanal biome, the world’s largest tropical wetlands. Mendes signed a law on Thursday allowing the rearing of livestock in Pantanal’s private conservation areas.

Via e-mail, the Mato Grosso Environment Secretary stated that he will proceed with the dissolution of the park and has not filed an appeal because “it was deemed technically impracticable”. The office noted that adjacent Cristalino State Park I is still a protected area and covers 66,000 hectares (163,000 acres) of Amazon rainforest.

In a statement, the Mato Grosso Socio-Environmental Observatory, a non-profit network, said the extinction of the park constituted a “dangerous precedent” and the state government proved unable to protect the preserved areas. He said he is considering legal options to keep Cristalino II.

“The public should not pay the price for the omission and incompetence of the state of Mato Grosso,” Angela Kuczach, head of the National Network for Conservation Units, told the AP.

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The Associated Press’s climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. Find out more about the AP climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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