Brazilian criminal deforestation network still active despite arrests and embargo


A view of illegally deforested land from a helicopter belonging to Brazil's federal environmental protection agency Photo: Marcio Isensee e Sá

Last December, Earthsight reported on Operation Flying Rivers, a two-year criminal investigation in Brazil that resulted in the unprecedented detention of a powerful crime boss in July 2016 and uncovered a sophisticated criminal network responsible for illegally clearing over 30,000 hectares of public forests in the state of Para for cattle ranching and soy and rice cultivation.

The head of this criminal network is Antônio José Junqueira Vilela Filho. When they were arrested in June and July 2016, Vilela Filho, also known as Jotinha, and members of his family – including his sisters Ana Luiza and Ana Paula, and brother-in-law, Ricardo Viacava – were charged with illegal deforestation, land grabbing, falsification of property titles to claim private ownership of land in protected areas, conspiracy to commit crime, money laundering and slave labour.

Jotinha, who comes from a powerful family of cattle ranchers, and his associates ran a sophisticated operation that involved cells on the ground, shell companies and IT teams hacking government databases. Flying Rivers was unprecedented in Brazil due to the arrest of a leading agribusiness figure who led a large criminal network responsible for illegal deforestation. Jotinha is seen by many as one of the biggest forest destroyers in the history of the Amazon.

Before the end of the year, Vilela Filho and his relatives were all out of prison. Last week, Mongabay reported that court cases against them are ongoing, but no one knows when trials will take place or what the verdict will be.

Although the land occupied by Jotinha’s network is officially embargoed, Mongabay has found that workers employed by the gang “are still fattening cattle on these properties”. Mongabay summarises the current situation as follows: “the defendants are not in jail, but await trial; large past fines against them have not been paid; the embargo on land use is not being respected; and, most seriously, the public land that [Jotinha] illegally occupied is still indisputably in his gang’s hands”.

The embargo – imposed by IBAMA, the Brazilian environmental enforcement agency – means that Jotinha’s properties in question are banned from any economic activities – including raising livestock or cultivating crops – due to the environmental and other crimes committed. IBAMA has confirmed to Mongabay that the gang will not be able to sell cattle fattened in embargoed areas or get legal titles to the land.

However, as Mongabay points out, laundering cattle is a relatively easy operation. Although several of the largest slaughterhouses in Brazil have pledged not to buy cattle from embargoed ranches, they only usually check the last supplier. So livestock fattened in an illegal ranch only needs to be taken to a legal property before being sold on to the slaughterhouses.

After speaking to people living in the region, Mongabay has noted that the properties are widely seen as still belonging to Vilela Filho and his associates, who could still be able to sell this land on the open market, regardless of whether they have legal titles to it. Mongabay states that Terra Legal, the federal programme responsible for returning illegally appropriated public land to state ownership, is not doing its job to reclaim these properties and put an end to Jotinha’s illegal activities.

Mongabay concludes that Operation Flying Rivers “has not been able to put an end to the most serious problem: those deforesting public lands can still keep that land, use it, make hefty profits from it, and maybe not face much punishment”.

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