Brazil authorizes national security force to fight deforestation

FILE PHOTO: Pictures of the Year: Fires in the Amazon: a barrier to climate change up in smoke
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BRASILIA (Reuters) - Brazil on Monday authorized its national public security force to support efforts to fight deforestation in the Amazon, amid worries that 2020 could see another surge in destruction of the world's largest rainforest.

Justice Minister Sergio Moro approved the security force, composed of police with special military-style training, to support operations carried out by environmental agency Ibama in Para state through the end of the year, according to the official government gazette.

Para is Brazil's second-largest rainforest state and sits along the so-called arc of deforestation that encircles the Amazon and is rapidly penetrating deeper into the forest.

The announcement comes as scientists, environmental enforcement agents and official statistics point toward another potential spike in deforestation this year, after soaring to an 11-year high in 2019.

Deforestation in Brazil's Amazon doubled in January compared with the same month a year ago, data from space research agency INPE showed on Friday.

Ibama environmental enforcement agents told Reuters last week that usually deforestation falls to a minimum during the current rainy season, from roughly October to April, but this year they are seeing illegal loggers and land speculators continuing to act unusually aggressive.

Ibama is severely understaffed and underfunded, with agents saying this means they cannot contain deforestation in such a vast area as the Amazon.

Agents also complained of a lack of police support last year.

The Amazon absorbs vast amounts of carbon dioxide and scientists say its protection is vital to curbing climate change.

The surge in deforestation and fires in the Amazon last year provoked international condemnation of the right-wing government of President Jair Bolsonaro who has called for protected areas of the Amazon to be developed.

Environmentalists say that Bolsonaro's pro-development rhetoric is encouraging illegal clearances of land.

Bolsonaro says he is being unfairly demonized and that Brazil remains a model for conservation.

(Reporting by Ricardo Brito; Writing by Jake Spring; Editing by Marguerita Choy)