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Brazil's Lula summons ministers as Congress seeks to dilute environmental powers

FILE PHOTO: Brazilians vote in presidential election run-off

By Maria Carolina Marcello

BRASILIA (Reuters) -Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on Thursday summoned his environmental and indigenous affairs ministers for emergency talks after a congressional committee passed a bill gutting the ministries' environmental oversight powers.

The measure, which requires approval on the lower house floor and the Senate to pass, represents Lula's first major clash with a newly conservative Congress following significant gains by right-wing lawmakers in last year's election.

"The game has begun," Lula said at an industry event in Sao Paulo. "Now we are going to play and talk to Congress."

But Lula also said at the same event that Brazil needs to continue to grow its meat and grains export industries, a sign of his conundrum.

Lula is under pressure to generate jobs in a long-lagging economy that has grown more dependent on environmentally threatening agricultural exports. Yet, he has staked his international reputation on slowing deforestation which surged under his predecessor, far-right former President Jair Bolsonaro.

Late on Wednesday, committee members in Congress approved a proposal that weakened the environment ministry, stripping it of oversight of the rural land registry and other responsibilities. The bill also removed the ministry of Indigenous peoples' power to demarcate Indigenous lands. Both measures would pave the way for greater agricultural development, critics say.

Lula's Environment Minster, Marina Silva, blamed Bolsonaro's congressional allies for going to war against her and those seeking to toughen Brazil's climate goals.

"At this moment, we are being threatened," she said. "Democracy is being threatened, environmental policy is threatened ... It's difficult to manage this situation."

Luiza Lima of Greenpeace Brazil echoed Silva's concerns.

"A day of profound setbacks for the environment and for Indigenous peoples," said Lima, adding that even with Bolsonaro out of power, his "project of destruction" is intact.

Environmental regulator Ibama said last week it would block a request by state-run oil giant Petrobras to drill at the mouth of the Amazon river near Amapa state. Environmentalists praised the decision but it disturbed those in Lula's coalition who want Petrobras to deliver growth in poor, far-flung states.

Scientists have repeatedly warned that the fossil fuel industry exacerbates catastrophic climate change and threatens global ecosystems and livelihoods.

(Reporting by Maria Carolina Marcello; Writing by Carolina Pulice; Editing by David Alire Garcia, Gabriel Stargardter, Aurora Ellis and David Gregorio)