Rancher Bruno Heller, arrested at the beginning of the month and identified by the Brazilian Federal Police as the “greatest devastator of the Amazon,” transported cattle from a family farm fined for environmental violations to two other properties free from environmental implications, in 2021 and 2022. During the same period, these properties sold animals to a Carrefour supplier slaughterhouse.
This practice is an indication of the so-called “cattle laundering,” where cattle raised in irregular locations are passed on to areas considered “clean record” and subsequently sold to major meatpacking plants. The maneuver is commonly used to bypass control mechanisms and is considered one of the main sustainability challenges in the Brazilian meat industry.
Animal transit information obtained by Repórter Brasil shows that animals raised on the Formosa II farm – fined for illegal deforestation and suspected of land grabbing – were transferred in 2021 and 2022 to Formosa V and Formosa VI, free from environmental implications. These two properties, owned by Bruno Heller’s daughters, sold animals to the Vale Grande slaughterhouse, a Frialto group brand, in those same years.
Frialto operates three meat plants in northern Mato Grosso, all authorized for export to the European Union and other countries. One of these units, located in a town called Matupá, in the Mato Grosso State, acquired animals from the Heller family with suspicions of irregularities.
This same slaughterhouse supplied meat to Carrefour in the years 2021 and 2023, according to the “From Pasture to Plate” app. The digital tool traces the sanitary surveillance code found on product packaging and identifies the originating slaughterhouse of the meat.
Initially, Carrefour stated that they “thoroughly examined the extensive database of farms supplying meat to all the slaughterhouses that cater to the Group, and confirmed the absence of any property linked to the mentioned accused individual or to individuals with the same surname.”
However, Frialto itself confirmed that it slaughtered 249 animals on behalf of Tatiana Heller, one of Bruno’s daughters, in 2022 and 2023. The slaughterhouse also stated that it blocked the properties after identifying “a possible connection to Bruno Heller’s non-conformities.”
Frialto’s statement acknowledges the problem of cattle triangulation but claims “there aren’t yet market tools for monitoring indirect suppliers.” The group is one of the signatories of the “Beef Agreement” proposed by the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office in 2009 to prevent slaughterhouses from purchasing cattle from irregular areas.
Repórter Brasil submitted a new inquiry to Carrefour on Monday (14th) regarding the Frialto units that supply meat to the group, but no response was received until the publication of this article (read the complete statements).
Following the release of this report, Carrefour issued a further statement affirming that the meat from animals raised by the Hellers did not reach the supermarkets within the group. This is despite the fact that the family’s cattle were slaughtered at Matupá plant, a supplier of the retail network.
The defense of Bruno and Tatiana Heller stated in a note that they await the conclusion of the investigations and will only provide comments within the legal process, “an opportunity when the facts will be properly clarified, and Bruno’s innocence will be duly proven.”
“The greatest devastator of the Amazon”
Heller is under investigation by the Federal Police for suspected illegal deforestation of 60 square kilometers of forest in Novo Progresso, a town located in the southwestern state of Pará. Agents classified him as the “largest destroyer investigated within the Amazon biome.” Since 2007, Incra, the federal agency responsible for agrarian reform in Brazil, has been notifying the rancher in an attempt to reclaim lands allegedly grabbed by him.
His arrest on the 3rd of the current month in Novo Progresso took place during “Operation Retomada.” At the time, Heller was detained for illegal possession of firearms and because police found undocumented gold in his possession. He was released the following day but will face charges for these two crimes while remaining at liberty.
Repórter Brasil gained access to the 299-page case filed by Incra, revealing how Heller divided the supposedly grabbed lands among his relatives.
According to the records, Heller’s wife, daughters, brothers, nieces, and other relatives were used to try to regularize the farms, a practice referred to by the federal agency as “fraudulent fragmentation.”
Among the relatives acting as a “straw man” for Heller is his daughter and Frialto supplier, Tatiana Heller. In 2008, when the land fragmentation took place, she was 17 years old, indicating that she was not the one in charge of the area at that time.
Since the 1990s, the Heller family has accumulated 43 environmental fines from Ibama, the federal environmental agency, ranging from illegal deforestation to buying cattle from protected areas.
The total value of the fines exceeds US$ 5 million — Bruno alone is responsible for about half of this amount. His daughter received three fines from Ibama in 2023, totaling US$ 1 million, for buying and trading over 1,600 heads of cattle raised in a federal conservation unit, the Jamanxim National Forest, in Novo Progresso.
By comparing geographical information from the two most recent Ibama fines against Bruno Heller with satellite images on the Planet Explorer platform, the extent of devastation attributed to the rancher’s family can be highlighted. In less than five months in 2021, an area of nearly 17 square kilometers was completely destroyed. This is equivalent to 5 times the size of Central Park, in New York City.
Despite being labeled by the Federal Police as the “greatest devastator of the Amazon,” the same police force has previously conducted operations that resulted in the arrests of ranchers and soy producers accused of causing larger-scale destruction than Bruno Heller, as seen in Operations Castanheira (2015) and Rios Voadores (2016).
Encroaching on Agrarian Reform territories
A portion of the land allegedly grabbed by Heller (19 square kilometers) overlaps with the Terra Nossa Sustainable Development Project (SDP) settlement. Heller is among the 144 farmers who, according to a report by Incra, invaded the area designated by the federal government for agrarian reform.
With agribusiness encroachments, the settlement is affected by illegal logging theft, as shown by Repórter Brasil in 2019, and by soy cultivation, which was sown near the village where some residents live, as exposed by Repórter Brasil in 2022. This type of cultivation contradicts the purpose of this form of agrarian reform, which should serve social and ecological interests, intended for the subsistence of settled peasants.
Land conflicts have led to the murder of two community leaders in Terra Nossa. In 2018, Antônio Rodrigues dos Santos, known as “Bigode,” disappeared after reporting illegal timber extraction on his plot. Aluísio Sampaio, president of the Union of Family Farm Workers of neighboring Castelo dos Sonhos, who demanded an investigation into Bigode’s disappearance, was also murdered.
The current leader, Maria Márcia Elpídia de Melo, survived an assassination attempt and is in hiding, living under the protection of a federal government program. “The land grabbers are advancing and promoting the sale of plots,” Melo told Repórter Brasil in 2022.
Terra Nossa was established in 2006 in an area of 1,500 square kilometers, equivalent to the size of São Paulo city, situated between the municipalities of Novo Progresso and Altamira. There, 350 small farming families reside in plots already demarcated by Incra, but they still await the agency to consolidate the settlement with infrastructure development, credit allocation, and technical assistance.
“The Pioneer Logic”
Exactly four years ago, in August 2019, Novo Progresso, where the Heller family operates, was the epicenter of an event known as the “Day of Fire,” when Pará farmers coordinated via WhatsApp to simultaneously set fire to pasture and forest areas, all in the first year of Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency.
It was also in Novo Progresso that Bolsonaro supporters, disgruntled by the ex-president’s election defeat, blocked the BR-163 highway and attacked federal police officers attempting to clear the blockade.
According to Maurício Torres, a Ph.D. in geography and a professor at the Federal University of Pará, “the town’s logic is pioneering, characterized by invasion and plunder,” normalizing deforestation and land grabbing.
This perspective, according to the researcher, leads the Heller family to be regarded as a respected part of Novo Progresso, present in the community for over 40 years. “Those who deforest become landowners, not criminals, because socially, this kind of activity is not considered a crime in the town.”
*Daniel Camargos is a fellow of the Rainforest Investigations Network, part of the Pulitzer Center, in partnership with Repórter Brasil.