Wires

Brazil deforestation soars in July, threatening EU trade deal

Jake Spring

BRASILIA, July 18 (Reuters) - Deforestation in Brazil's Amazon rainforest accelerated in the first half of July, outstripping the full month last year and raising red flags for a regional trade deal with the European Union.

Over 1,000 square kilometers of the jungle were cleared in the first 15 days of July already a 68% increase from all of July 2018 according to preliminary satellite data from Brazil's state-run National Institute for Space Research.

The deforestation in July so far is the largest for one calendar month since August 2016, and follows sharp year-on-year rises in May and June.

The Amazon is the world's largest tropical rainforest and scientists consider its protection critical to the fight against climate change. Environmentalists blame rising deforestation in Brazil on new President Jair Bolsonaro's policies and rhetoric in favor of development of the Amazon.

The president's office and the Environment Ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Last month, the South American bloc Mercosur, which includes Brazil, reached a free trade deal with the European Union that includes environmental commitments.

That deal already faces a battle to be ratified by EU member states whose farmers fear competition from Brazil's powerhouse farm sector, which they argue is subject to less stringent environmental requirements than in Europe.

Ireland's parliament and Italy's farm minister have called for the deal to be blocked.

Green parties and farmers may seize on the rising deforestation in Brazil to bolster their cases against ratification, a European diplomat based in Brazil told Reuters.

"I think it's ammunition for them to use, especially farmers, even if they don't care about the Amazon," said the diplomat, who was not authorized to speak to the media.

If the deal is ratified, EU member states would have formal dispute procedures to file complaints if they deem Brazil to be violating a provision to "implement measures to combat illegal logging and related trade," according to the text of the deal published by the EU on Friday.

BOLSONARO POLICIES

Environmentalists have warned that right-wing President Bolsonaro, who took office this year, is emboldening Brazilian loggers, ranchers and land speculators to destroy forest.

He has railed against environmental fines for farmers and called for indigenous reserves and other protected areas to be opened up for development. The Environment Ministry has set up a body with the power to pardon deforesters.

"All of this together creates the expectation that environmental laws are not going to be enforced," said Philip Fearnside, a professor at Brazil's National Institute of Amazonian Research, commenting on Bolsonaro's policies and rhetoric.

The government deforestation data for this month is preliminary and final data measuring the 12 months to the end of July will be released later this year. According to the space research agency, a rise in the preliminary data almost always indicates an increase in the yearly figures.

"It's obvious that it's going to be a big increase this year," Fearnside said.

(Reporting by Jake Spring Editing by Brad Haynes and Bernadette Baum) )