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Man who cleared vast swaths of Brazilian forest wins court fight

State park will cease to exist after its creation ruled illegal

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In this July 22, 2019 photo provided by Rodrigo Vargas, a black hawk sits on a tree in Cristalino II State Park in the state of Mato Grosso, in Brazil.
In this July 22, 2019 photo provided by Rodrigo Vargas, a black hawk sits on a tree in Cristalino II State Park in the state of Mato Grosso, in Brazil. (Rodrigo Vargas via AP) (Provided by Rodrigo Vargas) Photo Gallery

RIO DE JANEIRO — 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 José Rossi Junqueira Vilela has been fined millions of dollars for deforestation in Brazil and for stealing thousands of acres 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 292,000 acres, larger than New York City. It is home to the endemic white-fronted spider monkey, a species endangered due to 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 how bad things are today for the Amazon. Environmental laws are going unenforced, and 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.

Before he challenged the validity of Cristalino II, Vilela’s presence was already well known there. In 2005, he was fined $27 million for destroying 27,000 acres 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 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 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 and 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.

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.

President Jair Bolsonaro has repeatedly said Brazil has too many protected areas and vowed not to create more of them.

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