Brazil’s government is set to roll back protections on vast areas of the Amazon that would legitimise land claims often made under fake names to avoid prosecution

Deforestation in the Amazon is largely driven by pastoralists (Photo: Neil Palmer/CIAT)

According to the Brazilian authorities, Pedro Cordeiro is a big time and repeated environmental offender – if he actually exists.

In April 2017, environmental agents fined him $9.2 million for converting into pasture 7,586 acres of Jamanxim National Forest, in Brazil’s Amazon. That didn’t stop the destruction. Next month, Cordeiro got another fine, now at $4.6m, for chopping down 3,618 acres of pristine forest next to the first area.

Cordeiro, however, has never been found. He supposedly lives in Curitiba, a regional capital some 2,800km south of Jamanxim. His name appears only in the Environmental Rural Registry (CAR, in Portuguese) alongside plots of land in the forest he claims to own. That federal database requires all rural properties to register, but does not run background checks.

Setting up straw men or fall guys is the modus operandi of land-grabbers in the Amazon. They allow fines for stripping forests to accrue against other names while avoiding punishment for their environmental crimes.

Last week, this reporter tried to interview one of Cordeiro’s neighbours, Nelci Rodrigues. She is head of the Vale do Garça Association, which represents 186 squatters who claim land inside Jamanxim National Park.

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Rodrigues, her husband Jaime Zaminhan and their two sons claim 17,050 acres of the park, according to the CAR database. They admitted that they took over federal land without paying for it, saying they were lured to the region by federal government policies created during the 1964-1985 military dictatorship. However, they seized the land, where they raise cattle, in 1998, 13 years after the regime’s end.

Rodrigues said she knew Pedro Cordeiro in person, whose land claim in the national forest is next to hers, but refused to help this reporter to locate him.

The conversation didn’t last long. Angered by questions about his family, Zaminhan interrupted the interview and expelled reporters from his comfortable home equipped with a swimming pool, in the Castelo dos Sonhos district, a few miles from the national forest.

“You’re just a…