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Brazilian authorities launch probe into ‘Amazon’s largest single deforester’

According to the Federal Police, Bruno Heller destroyed at least 6,500 hectares (16,100 acres) of Amazon Rainforest for cattle ranching. Image courtesy of the Brazilian Federal Police.

  • The suspect, Bruno Heller, destroyed 6,500 hectares (16,100 acres) of Amazon Rainforest for cattle ranching — an area larger than the island of Manhattan — according to authorities.
  • The public forests illegally invaded in the Novo Progresso region of Pará state were divided into smaller properties and registered in the Rural Environmental Registry in the name of stooges, several of them were Heller’s relatives.
  • Areas along the BR-163 highway that runs through this part of Pará have long been a target for land grabbers, but the criminal business became more attractive after land prices rose with the highway fully paved in 2019.
  • Experts say the high availability of unallocated public forests boosts land grabbing and deforestation and that these areas must be allocated quickly — such as for protected areas, reserves, or Indigenous lands — to discourage illegal occupation.

Brazilian police on Aug. 3 arrested Bruno Heller, 71, named by investigators as the “Amazon’s largest single deforester” for environmental crimes in Pará state. According to authorities, he illegally appropriated at least 21,000 hectares (51,900 acres) of public land and destroyed 6,500 hectares (16,100 acres) of Amazon Rainforest for cattle ranching — an area larger than the island of Manhattan.

Heller was arrested red-handed for illegal possession of a weapon and 350 grams (11.3 ounces) of gold without proven origin during a police operation at his address. He posted bail and was released two days later. Investigations are ongoing and under seal.

Large areas of deforestation usually involve an organized operation with several nuclei and leaders. In this case, the police found only a single name — just Bruno Heller — associated with the devastation in Novo Progresso municipality, Pará. Federal Police sources told Mongabay the suspect may have deforested 30,000 hectares (74,100 acres) of the Brazilian Amazon, five times more than has been verified to date, including environmental damage to Indigenous lands and other protected territories.

According to the investigations, Heller invaded undesignated public lands, cutting down the forest to raise cattle, investing vast sums of money in the operations. These areas were divided into smaller properties registered on Brazil’s Rural Environmental Registry (CAR), an online self-declaratory land record notorious for its flaws. These registries from Heller’s operations were listed in the name of stooges, several of them Heller’s relatives who didn’t live in the region.

As a self-declaratory registry, the CAR is open to criminals to register a property without owning it. These apparent legal documents hindered inspection operations and protected the man responsible for the deforestation from criminal or administrative proceedings, directing such actions to people without assets, said the investigators.

Public forest grabbed and cleared for pasture and cattle ranching in the region of Novo Progresso, Pará. Image courtesy of the Brazilian Federal Police.

In 2021, a report by The Intercept Brasil and Mongabay showed that the Novo Progresso region, along the BR-163 highway, is experiencing a real estate boom, with a new wave of land grabbing and deforestation. The target is mainly undesignated public lands: government-owned areas, federal or state, that aren’t classified as conservation units, Indigenous territories, agrarian reform settlements, forest concessions or private property.

Bruno Heller is cited in the journalistic investigation as one of the clients of Bianor Dal Magro, an engineer appointed as a specialist in producing CAR registries, whose work gives a legal veneer to public areas occupied by large land grabbers.

The Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) estimates that Heller alone was responsible for producing at least 3.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide through the devastation of 6,500 hectares of forest. That’s the equivalent of approximately 70% of the annual emissions of Amapá state, north of Pará.

“It is unacceptable for an individual to cause such great damage to all of us,” André Guimarães, executive director of IPAM, said in a statement.

Because of the environmental damage, a federal court ordered the blocking of 116 million reais ($23 million) of Heller’s assets, the minimum estimated value of the forest resources extracted, and the recovery of the affected area. The court also blocked Heller’s vehicles, farms, properties, and 10,000 head of cattle.

Bruno Heller was caught red-handed in illegal possession of a weapon and 350 grams of gold without proven origin. Image courtesy of the Brazilian Federal Police.

A well-known name

Bruno Heller wasn’t unknown to authorities. IBAMA, the Brazilian environmental protection agency, didn’t participate in the police operation but sent Mongabay spreadsheets showing that the suspect was the target of 12 notices and six embargoes for environmental irregularities between 2006 and 2021, including for destroying or damaging native forests for cattle ranching.

Heller is also the target of proceedings by INCRA, the federal agency for land reform, which has taken administrative measures to recover a large area of federal land near BR-163 improperly occupied for cattle ranching, according to an email sent to Mongabay.

According to news outlet g1, Heller was also fined by the Pará State Secretariat for the Environment and Sustainability for destroying and burning 1,215 hectares (3,002 acres) of native vegetation without authorization or license on state land in Novo Progresso in October 2022. The suspect is also the subject of more lawsuits in federal court for environmental damage.

Lawyers for Bruno Heller have not issued any comments since the police operation that resulted in the arrest.

The investigation against Bruno Heller was initiated by the Federal Police after identifying a large area recently deforested along the edge of the BR-163 highway, which connects the Santarém municipality in Pará to Cuiabá in Mato Grosso state. The region has been a target for land grabbing for many years, but the criminal business became more attractive after land prices rose with the highway fully paved in late 2019.

In 2020, a Greenpeace Brazil survey showed 62% of the public forests without defined use around BR-163 in Pará are registered as private, showing the extent to which fraudulent land registrations are being made. Deforestation in the region increased by 205% between August 2019 and July 2020 compared to the same period a year before, according to the same report.

Limits between forest and pasture in Novo Progresso, Pará, region where Bruno Heller works. Image courtesy of Vinícius Mendonça/Ibama

In the same region, in 2015, the Federal Police arrested Ezequiel Antônio Castanha, at the time also named “the Amazon’s largest deforester” for leading a large organization that grabbed public forests near BR-163. Even though Castanha was suspected of slave labor, money laundering, bribery of authorities, and even murder, today he’s no longer in prison.

Experts say the high availability of unallocated public forests allows for land grabbing and deforestation to thrive. They call on the government to accelerate the process of making these forests unavailable.

“These lands must be taken off the market,” Paulo Moutinho, senior scientist at IPAM, the research institute, told Mongabay by phone. “Today, 50% of forest destruction in the Brazilian Amazon occurs in public forests.”

The lack of a designation feeds the perception that these public forests are a no-man’s land, when they are actually a public asset that’s plundered year after year by land grabbers.

“It is a problem that occurs throughout the Brazilian Amazon. The illegal appropriation of public forests totals more than 55 million hectares [136 million acres], an area the size of Spain,” Moutinho said.

In March 2023, IPAM helped formulate a technical note on the advance of land grabbing and deforestation in public areas in the Brazilian Amazon. The document proposes measures to combat environmental crimes, including canceling and suspending rural property registrations overlapping with public lands, and the rapid allocation of forests yet to be designated.

Unanimous among experts in combating deforestation, these two points are listed in the new Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Deforestation in the Legal Amazon (PPCDAm), a major instrument in reducing environmental destruction in the Amazon Rainforest relaunched by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in June after being abandoned by his predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro.

For Cristiane Mazzetti, senior forest campaigner at Greenpeace Brazil, the operation against land grabber Bruno Heller highlights a new stance by the Brazilian government against environmental crimes.

“For four years, the Bolsonaro government’s environmental policy signaled invaders of public lands would not be punished,” Mazzetti told Mongabay by phone. “So it is important to have the return of actions against land grabbing to attack the idea this is an advantageous activity for offenders.”


Banner image: According to the Federal Police, Bruno Heller destroyed at least 6,500 hectares (16,100 acres) of Amazon Rainforest for cattle ranching. Image courtesy of the Brazilian Federal Police.

Report offers a road map to restore the rule of law in the Brazilian Amazon

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