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Brazil committed to protecting environment, Bolsonaro tells U.N.; activists unconvinced

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Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro puts back on a protective face mask due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic after speaking during the 76th Session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York City, U.S., September 21, 2021. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz/Pool

SAO PAULO, Sept 21 (Reuters) - Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro struck a conciliatory tone on the environment during his speech to the United Nation's General Assembly on Tuesday, bragging that his country's environmental laws are a model for the world and reinforcing a vow to end illegal deforestation.

The far-right leader, who has pushed to open more of the Amazon rainforest to mining and agriculture, has been criticized at home and abroad for increased deforestation under his government.

But he sought to deflect that criticism on Tuesday, telling the U.N. that his government was taking protection of the Amazon seriously. After years of funding cuts and hiring freezes, Bolsonaro promised to double resources for environmental enforcement to combat illegal deforestation.

"No country in the world has a more complete environmental legislation than ours," Bolsonaro said, though he admitted that the size of Brazil made enforcement difficult.

The Amazon is a vital natural bulwark against climate change, storing huge quantities of carbon, and scientists are increasingly worried by the rate of its destruction.

In contrast to his predecessor Donald Trump, U.S. President Joe Biden has put climate change at the center of his diplomatic agenda and pressured Brazil to improve its environmental record. Bolsonaro's comments on Tuesday about the environment were toned down considerably from previous remarks before the annual gathering of world leaders.

Deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon has risen sharply since Bolsonaro took office in 2019. Although preliminary data suggest clearing so far this year is little changed from last year, destruction remains at a level not seen in Brazil since 2008. read more

Environmental groups were not convinced by Bolsonaro's speech.

"The Bolsonaro government does not have any commitment to the climate. Under his presidency, all indicators in this area have only worsened," the Brazilian advocacy group Climate Observatory said in a statement following the speech.

On COVID-19, Bolsonaro struck a more defiant tone, standing by unproven early treatments for the virus and attacking global resistance to the use of untested drugs. Bolsonaro has long supported off-label use of the anti-malarial hydroxychloroquine, taking the drug when he had contracted the coronavirus despite scientific studies finding it ineffective.

Bolsonaro also said Brazil's vaccination campaign against COVID-19 had been successful and that by November all adults who wanted a vaccine would be fully inoculated.

The president, a vaccine skeptic, proudly claims to have refused the shot for himself so far.

With unvaccinated diners barred from eating in New York restaurants, Bolsonaro and his entourage ate pizza on a sidewalk on their first night in the city on Sunday. read more

Reporting by Stephen Eisenhammer Additional reporting by Jake Spring in Brasilia Editing by Brad Haynes and Grant McCool

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