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Story December 2, 2021

Exclusive: Court deals blow to 'invaders' at Amazon reserve

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Manuela Andreoni covers environmental issues with an emphasis on the Amazon for The New York Times...

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Just days after the publication of a wide-ranging investigation into illegal cattle production in the Jaci-Paraná reserve, a protected area in Rondônia, a regional court declared unconstitutional the state government's attempt to legalize the destructive ranches. New York Times reporter Manuela Andreoni discusses the case in this exclusive for the Rainforest Investigations Network.

Last May, Brazil’s Jaci-Paraná reserve epitomized one of the most feared visions for the future of protected areas in the Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest. A law, passed by the state government of Rondônia, all but extinguished the reserve, the second most-devastated in the Brazilian Amazon, to benefit the very people who had destroyed it.

The law was a major victory for the over 600 cattle ranchers in Jaci-Paraná, many of whom make a living fattening cattle solely on grass they plant on the stolen land. Still, ranchers there find it easy to sell their cattle to major slaughterhouses through middlemen. While the beef is exported mainly to China, the tanneries that buy the hides supply the international leather industry, including major automakers in the United States, as The New York Times revealed.

But last week, a court in Rondônia decided to strike down the law, which also shrank a state park, labeling it as unconstitutional. Judge Jorge Ribeiro da Luz argued the government wasn’t allowed to award those who had illegally occupied the Jaci-Paraná reserve and the Guajará-Mirim park simply because it was unable to protect the protected areas.

“Allowing for this type of conduct,” he wrote, would enable the government “not to adopt policies to fight deforestation, and people would receive confirmation that crime pays off.”

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The Jaci-Paraná reserve. Image by Victor Moriyama/New York Times.

The reserve had been created in 1996 to protect a community of rubber tappers who had sustainably extracted their livelihoods from the forest for generations. But it didn’t take long for them to start being forced out by profit seekers willing to use violence to take over their land. By the time the government passed the law, 56 percent of the tree cover was gone.

Prosecutors and state attorneys vigorously fought the land grabs for decades. By the time the law was passed, they had proposed 98 lawsuits and obtained almost $30 million in reparations. But weak law enforcement meant the dozens of court rulings were almost never followed. Meanwhile, violence ensued. Since 2020, 17 people were murdered in the region, the majority because of land conflicts, according to the police.

State attorney Atonio Isac, who joined the prosecution in opposing the law, argued that The Times story showed the impacts of extinguishing the protected areas would be felt way beyond Rondônia—highlighting that the story showed that over 17,000 cattle from Jaci-Paraná had been sold to major slaughterhouses since 2018, entering the global marketplace.

Isac also stressed the precedent established by the law could impact protected areas across the country. Illegal ranching has been growing in Indigenous lands in Rondônia, such as the Karipuna and Uru Eu Wau Wau lands.

“Rondônia is going through a moment when protected areas are being simultaneously invaded,” he said. “Depending on the outcome, your decision will become an incentive or a disincentive for new invasions.”

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