Rio de Janeiro: Brazilian police have arrested the "biggest deforester" of the Amazon jungle, identified as Ezequiel Antonio Castanha, officials said.
Castanha was arrested last Saturday in a joint operation of Federal Police and the National Security Force in the Amazonian town of Novo Progresso in Para state, the Brazilian Environmental Institute (Ibama) said Monday.
Castanha is accused of leading a gang that illegally occupied public land in the Amazon and then cut the rainforest to sell the property as high-priced pastureland.
The gang operated near federal highway BR-163 in Para, and according to estimates of the public prosecutor's office in that state, it was responsible for 10 percent of the deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon over the past two years.
The public prosecutor's office called for preventive prison for Castanha and the other nine members of the gang to keep them from repeating their crimes.
When the gang was busted, it was logging close to 3,400 hectares (8,400 acres) of jungle a week, according to the Public Prosecutor's Office.
The illegal buying and selling of land in the Amazon is a deeply rooted practice in Brazil.
Castanha and his family owe Ibama, an agency of the environment ministry, 47 million reals (some $16 million) in fines for crimes related to the destruction of rainforest.
He is accused of such crimes as illegal deforestation, money laundering and the use of forged documents, and could face 54 years in prison.
The director of environmental protection at Ibama, Luciano Evaristo, said that Castanha's arrest and the dismantling of the gang "contributes significantly to the control of deforestation in the region", according to a communique from Ibama.