RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — In a move that stunned environmentalists, the government of Brazil’s third-largest state has abandoned a legal battle to protect a state park in one of the Amazon’s most biodiverse regions. The result of that decision is that the person responsible for the massive deforestation of protected land wins a lawsuit against the government. The park will cease to exist.
Antonio Jose Rossi Junqueira Villela has been fined millions of dollars in Brazil for deforestation and theft of thousands of hectares (acres) of Amazon rainforest. Yet it was a company associated with it that filed suit against the state of Mato Grosso, alleging that it had improperly set the boundaries of Cristalino II State Park.
The park spans 118,000 hectares (292,000 acres), which is larger than New York City, and is located in the transition zone between the Amazon and the dryer Cerrado biome. It is home to the endemic white-fronted spider monkey (Ateles marginatus), a species that is endangered due to habitat loss.
In a 3–2 decision, Mato Grosso’s upper court ruled that the construction of the park by the government in 2001 was illegal because it took place without public consultation.
The state government did not appeal leaving that decision to be final. Now the park will be officially dissolved, the government office confirmed to the Associated Press.
The loss of the park is a measure of how bad things are for Amazon today. Not only are environmental laws not being enforced, now a court has invalidated a major protected area. Scientists say that not only are ecosystems being lost, but large-scale deforestation is harming the forest’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide, a key role it plays for the planet.
throwing garbage in the forest
Villela’s presence there was already well known, before the legitimacy of the Cristalino II park was challenged. In 2005, according to local press reports, he was fined $27 million for destroying 11,000 hectares (27,000 acres) of forest inside the protected area.
In 2016, the Vilela family made headlines in Brazil for being at the center of a historic enforcement campaign against deforestation in the Amazon known as the Flying River Operation, which was carried out by Brazil’s Environment Agency, Ibama, the federal police and carried out by the Attorney General. ,
Villela was also blamed for 30,000 hectares (74,000 acres) of public deforestation in the state of Para, which is the equivalent of five Manhattans. Brazil’s attorney general called Vilela the worst perpetrator of deforestation the Amazon had ever seen.
Legal proceedings in Brazil often last for many years. If convicted in the mercury case, Vilela could face more than 200 years in prison. They could be fined more than $60 million.
Attorney Renato Maurilio 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 researcher Mauricio Torres, a geographer at Para Federal University, the Villela family follows “the classic script of land grabbing in the Amazon”.
He said the way to steal land in Brazil is to deforestation and then claim it. He wrote to the AP, “It is through deforestation that land-robbers solidly mark land ownership and are identified as ‘owners’ by other gangs.”
According to official figures, as of March 2022, Cristalino II had lost about 22,000 hectares (54,000 acres) to deforestation, even though it is a fully protected area. The destroyed area makes up about 20% of the park.
Mato Grosso, Brazil’s largest soybean-producing state, is run by Governor Mauro Mendes, a pro-agriculture politician and ally of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who has repeatedly stated that Brazil has too many protected areas. And vowed not to make more of them. ,
Mendes’ Secretary of State for the Environment is Maureen Lazaretti, a lawyer who made a career defending Lumberjack against environmental-related 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 world’s most widespread tropical wetland. Mendes signed a law Thursday that allows cattle to be raised in private conservation areas of the Pantanal.
Via email, Mato Grosso’s environment secretary said it would go ahead with the dismantling of the park and did not appeal because “it was deemed technically impracticable.” The office noted that the adjacent Cristalino State Park I is still a protected area and covers 66,000 hectares (163,000 acres) of Amazon rainforest.
The Mato Grosso Socio-Environmental Observatory, a non-profit network, said in a statement that the park’s extinction sets a “dangerous precedent” and that the state government has shown itself to be unable to protect protected areas. It said it is assessing legal options to retain Cristalino II.
“The public should not pay the price for the Mato Grosso state’s lapses and incompetence,” Angela Kuzach, head of the National Network for Conservation Units, told the AP.
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