By Gabriel Araujo
SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Deforestation in Brazil's Amazon rainforest fell 68% in April from the previous year, preliminary government data showed on Friday, a positive reading for President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva as it represents the first major drop under his watch.
Lula won last year's election pledging to end deforestation after years of surging destruction under his predecessor Jair Bolsonaro, but has faced continued challenges since taking office as environmental agency Ibama grapples with lack of staff.
Official data from space research agency Inpe showed that 328.71 square km (126.92 square miles) were cleared in the Brazilian Amazon last month, below the historical average of 455.75 square km for the month.
That interrupted two consecutive months of higher deforestation, with land clearing so far this year now down 40.4% to 1,173 square km.
Bolsonaro had slashed environmental protection efforts, cutting funding and staff at key agencies as he called for more farming and mining on protected lands.
Experts say it is still too early to confirm a downward trend, as the annual peak in deforestation from July to September lies ahead, but see it as a positive signal after rainforest destruction rocketed in late 2022.
"There are several factors, and the change in government might indeed be one of them," said Daniel Silva, a conservation specialist at WWF-Brasil. "The environmental agenda has been resumed, but we know time is necessary for the results to be reaped."
Lula has said it is urgent for Brazil to show his government is not only talking about protecting the environment, but that it is on its way to fulfill a commitment to end deforestation by 2030.
Earlier this month he reaffirmed that pledge when securing an 80 million-pound ($100.97 million) contribution from Britain to the Amazon fund, an initiative aimed at fighting deforestation also backed by Norway, Germany and the United States.
Previously he had also resumed the recognition of Indigenous lands, reversing a Bolsonaro policy, while announcing new job openings at the environment ministry and indigenous agency Funai.
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(Reporting by Gabriel Araujo; Editing by Steven Grattan and Louise Heavens)