Brazilian authorities bust corruption scheme behind “extensive” illegal deforestation for cattle in the Amazon

Friday, May 17th, 2019

Brazilian authorities have arrested more than a dozen law enforcement agents and cattle ranchers over corruption, money laundering and illegal deforestation in the Amazon. The criminal group is also accused of land grabbing and violent acts against local residents.

On 8 May a law enforcement operation led by the Federal Police in the states of Acre, Amazonas and Minas Gerais resulted in the arrests of 17 civil servants, police officers and cattle ranchers over corruption, money laundering and “extensive” illegal deforestation in the state of Amazonas.

In addition to the arrests, Operation Ojuara, which started in 2017 and had the participation of the federal prosecutor’s office and the Army, also led to the seizure of 12 vehicles, 11 tractors, one small aircraft, 10 fire arms, R$800,000 (200,000 USD) in cash, and 8,700 heads of cattle.

Among those arrested was Carlos Francisco Augusto Gadelha, a former high level Ibama official in Acre.

The corruption scheme involved Ibama employees in Acre, military police officers stationed in Boca do Acre, Amazonas, and large-scale cattle ranchers operating illegally in a southern area of Amazonas. According to the police, Ibama staff received bribes to overlook land grabbing and illegal deforestation of public lands carried out by the ranchers.

As part of the scheme, Ibama agents allegedly informed the ranchers of dates and places of upcoming enforcement operations and deliberately failed to seize equipment used to clear forests. Operation Ojuara also uncovered evidence that military police officers had been hired by the ranchers to protect ranch areas and equipment, while also threatening and ejecting local residents from the area. The Federal Police found evidence of at least one attempted murder against a small farmer who had opposed land grabbing and deforestation in the area.

The ranchers targeted by the operation are no strangers to the law. In recent years they have been fined R$147 million (36 million USD) by Ibama for clearing or degrading around 86 thousand hectares of forests in the Amazon.

On 9 May a court ordered all those arrested, including Augusto Gadelha, to remain in prison pending further investigations. The men have been taken to the Francisco D’Oliveira Conde penitentiary in Rio Branco, Acre. Among those detained are five Ibama staff, four military police officers, four cattle ranchers, two land grabbers and two people identified by the police as frontmen for the ranchers.

The arrest of Augusto Gadelha came two weeks after another high ranking Ibama official was arrested in Amazonas over corruption connected to illegal logging in the state. Both men were part of a group of Ibama officials who wrote a letter to President Jair Bolsonaro in November 2018, shortly after he won the elections, complaining that Ibama had been taken over by “leftist” elements driven by “ideological” beliefs. The signatories asked the then president-elect to grant them powers to nominate regional officers and curb Ibama’s “centralising” tendencies.

Southern parts of Amazonas state, for many years relatively free from deforestation, have seen significant increases in forest loss in recent years, mostly driven by land grabbers, legal and illegal cattle ranchers, loggers and miners moving into the area. In the 2016-2017 period, southern Amazonas lost 100,000 hectares of forests, nearly twice as much as in 2014-2015. The municipalities of Lábrea and Apuí have been among the most affected.

Deforesters are motivated by promises from the federal government to pave the BR-319 motorway, which would make land speculation, ranching, logging and mining in the area more profitable.

President Bolsonaro has pledged to ‘develop’ the Amazon by investing in infrastructure projects in the region that include roads, railways and hydroelectric dams. Officials in Bolsonaro’s administration have called the Amazon an unproductive, “desert-like” region that needs to be integrated into the national economy.

Image on homepage shows money seized during Operation Ojuara. Courtesy of the Federal Police of Brazil.