Police arrested 46 people, including 16 agents of the nation's environmental protection agency, for allegedly operating illegal logging operations in the Am-azon rainforest and in southern Brazil, the environment ministry said on Wednesday.
The group is accused of selling an estimated 905,000m3 of illegally logged tropical hardwoods, worth an estimated US$25 million, the ministry said in a statement.
The environmental agents are accused of selling permits that allowed loggers to cut down and transport trees while breaking Brazil's strict environmental laws. Other members of the ring included loggers and lobbyists, the ministry said.
Federal police some 250 officers cracked the operation and carried out arrests in four states. Police were still searching for eight more suspects.
Police called it the second-largest operation to crack down on illegal logging. The biggest was in June, when federal police and environmental officials broke up a ring involving 74 suspects in five states.
Environment Minister Marina Silva said joint operations by the environment ministry and federal police had reduced deforestation by 31 percent last year compared with 2004.
The rainforest lost 18,900km2 -- an area more than half the size of Belgium -- between July 2004 and August last year, down from 27,200km2 the year before, according to the environment ministry.
Many environmentalists say the drop in deforestation may also be linked to the decline of soybean prices on the international market. In recent years, soybean planting has surpassed cattle ranching as the leading threat to the Amazon.
The environmental group Greenpeace estimates that three-quarters of rain forest logging is illegal, as ranchers routinely ignore regulations requiring land owners to leave 80 percent of forested areas untouched.
Loggers also must file land management plans and have them approved by environmental authorities before cutting down the rainforest -- a requirement they often ignore.
Experts say as much as 20 percent of Brazil's rainforest has been destroyed by development, logging and farming.