SAO PAULO – The "largest deforestation gang" active in Brazil's Amazon rain forest has been dismantled, authorities said Thursday.
The federal prosecutor's office in the jungle state of Para said eight suspected members were taken into custody on Wednesday and could be charged with invading public lands, environmental crimes, forgery, criminal association and money laundering. They face more than 50 years in jail, although Brazilian law stipulates that no one can serve more than 30 years.
Another six members of the gang are at large.
A statement from the prosecutor's office said the group deforested public lands then sold the property to farmers and ranchers.
According to the statement, the group allegedly is responsible for the destruction of 38,000 acres (15,500 hectares) of rain forest, an area equivalent to the size of the British Virgin Islands.
The Federal police said those arrested form "the largest deforestation gang in Brazil's Amazon rain forest." The environmental damage they have caused is estimated at more than 500 million reals ($222 million).
Last year, the Brazilian government said that annual destruction of its Amazon rain forest jumped by 28 percent after four straight years of declines. Based on satellite images, it estimated that 2,256 square miles (5,843 square kilometers) of rain forest were felled in the one-year period ending July 2013. That was up from 1,765 square miles (1,571 square kilometers) cleared the previous year, which had been the lowest level of Amazon clearing recorded since tracking began in 1988.
The Amazon rain forest is considered one of the world's most important natural defenses against global warming because of its capacity to absorb huge amounts of carbon dioxide. Rain forest clearing is responsible for about 75 percent of Brazil's emissions, as vegetation is burned and felled trees rot.
Such activity releases an estimated 400 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year, making Brazil at least the sixth-biggest emitter of carbon dioxide gas.