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BRASILIA (Reuters) - Destruction of the Amazon forest in Brazil accelerated for the first time in four years, the government said on Friday, as high commodity prices tempted farmers and ranchers to slash more trees.
Satellite images showed nearly 4,633 square miles (12,000 sq km), or an area nearly the size of the U.S. state of Connecticut, were chopped down in the 12 months through July, the National Institute for Space Studies said.
That is up from 4,332 square miles (11,224 sq km) last year but still down from a peak of 10,570 square miles (27,379 sq km) in 2004.
Environment Minister Carlos Minc, at a news conference in the capital Brasilia, said he was dissatisfied with the figure but insisted it would have been much worse without government policies aimed at tackling illegal logging.
"Many had expected an increase of 30-40 percent and we managed to stabilize it," Minc said.
"When you confiscate soy and beef it hurts them in the pocket," he said, referring to several crackdowns this year.
The government this year increased policing, impounded farm products from illegally cleared land and cut financing for unregistered properties, stepping up its efforts after figures showed a spike in deforestation late last year.
But President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's commitment to preserving the environment has come into question after Minc's predecessor Marina Silva, known as an Amazon defender, resigned in May citing difficulty pushing through her agenda.
"Today's figures are unacceptable but the long-term trend remains positive and they show that it is possible to do something about deforestation," Paulo Moutinho, coordinator at the Amazon Research Institute, told Reuters.
Critics say the environmental protection agency is understaffed and underfunded to face thousands of often heavily armed loggers and ranchers in the world's largest rain forest.
On Sunday a crowd in Paragominas, a town that depends heavily on logging, ransacked offices of the environment agency Ibama, torched its garage, and used a tractor to break down the entrance of the hotel where its agents stayed. It also stole 12 trucks with confiscated wood.
Commodity prices have plunged in recent weeks, but were near record highs for most of the year, increasing farmers' incentives to clear forest.
The government must do more to change the economics of deforestation to make a real difference, analysts say.
"We need to make it more expensive to cut a tree than to preserve it," said Moutinho.
He proposes local authorities and states be rewarded with tax breaks if they meet deforestation targets by cutting back logging and promoting sustainable industries from fruit picking to tourism. (Editing by Alan Elsner)