In a move that shocked environmentalists, the government of Brazil's third-largest state has given up a legal fight over protecting a state park in one of the Amazon's most biodiverse areas. The upshot of that decision is that a man responsible for the deforestation of huge swaths of protected land wins with finality a lawsuit against the government. The park will cease to exist.
Antonio Jose Rossi Junqueira Vilela has been fined millions of dollars for deforestation in Brazil and for stealing thousands of hectares of the Amazon rainforest. Yet it was a company linked to him that filed a lawsuit against the state of Mato Grosso, alleging it had improperly set the borders of the Cristalino II State Park.
The park stretches for 118,000 hectares, larger than New York City, and lies in the transition zone between the Amazon and drier Cerrado biomes. It is home to the endemic white-fronted spider monkey (Ateles marginatus), a species endangered because of habitat loss.
In a 3-2 decision, Mato Grosso's upper 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 appeal that decision, leaving it to 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 the state of the Amazon. Not only are environmental laws going unenforced, now a court has invalidated a major 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.
Laying waste to forest
Before he challenged the validity of Cristalino II park, Vilela's presence was well known there. In 2005, he was fined $27 million for destroying 11,000 hectares of forest inside the protected area, according to local press reports at the time.
In 2016, the Vilela family made headlines in Brazil for being at the center of a landmark enforcement operation against deforestation in the Amazon, known as the Flying Rivers Operation, carried out by the Brazilian environment agency, Ibama, the federal police and the attorney general.
Vilela was also indicted for deforesting 30,000 hectares of public forests in Pará state, the equivalent of five Manhattans. Brazil's attorney general called Vilela the worst perpetrator of deforestation the Amazon had ever seen.
Legal proceedings often stretch 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 affiliate company, did not respond to messages left by The Associated Press Wednesday and Thursday.
According to researcher Mauricio Torres, a geographer from Pará Federal University, Vilela's family follows the "classic script of land grabbing in the Amazon."
The way to steal land in Brazil is to deforest it and then claim it, he said.
"It is through deforestation that the land-robbers 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 to deforestation, even though it is a fully protected area. The area destroyed makes up almost 20% of the park.
Mato Grosso, Brazil's largest soybean-producing state, is run 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 vowed not to create more of them.
Mendes' state secretary of the environment is Mauren Lazzaretti, a lawyer who made a career defending loggers against criminal charges related to the environment.
During their tenure, Mato Grosso experienced one of the worst environmental disasters in Brazilian history. In 2020, wildfires burned 40% of the state's Pantanal biome, the world's most extensive tropical wetlands. Mendes signed a law Thursday that allows cattle raising in the Pantanal´s private preservation areas.
Via email, Mato Grosso's Environment Secretary said it will proceed with the park's dissolution and did not appeal because "it was deemed technically unviable." 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.
In a statement, the Mato Grosso Socio-environmental Observatory, a nonprofit network, said that the park's extinction sets a "dangerous precedent" and the state government has shown itself incapable of protecting preserved areas. It said it is assessing legal options to maintain Cristalino II.
"The public should not have to 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.