IN Brazil it’s known as the “beef, bible and bullet” bloc. It’s the political lobby that the country’s current right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, wooed to help win his election campaign decisively last year. Those among the “bullet” bloc are all too familiar to Bolsonaro. Most, like the president himself, are former military and security men.

The “bible” bloc, on the other hand, or Evangelical Parliamentary Front, were only too willing to flock to Bolsonaro’s political side because of this unequivocal opposition to abortion and gender equality as well as his toxic attitude towards homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

Then last, but far from least, given the current crisis in the Amazon, is the “beef” bloc, those rural landowners, ranchers and big businessmen for whom Bolsonaro was ready and willing to exploit Brazil’s vast Amazon expanse.

And what a job he’s already done of that. As I write, the Amazon rainforest is burning, its ecological fragility irrelevant to the likes of Bolsonaro, for whom all that matters is the vast profits to be gleaned from within its biological bounty.

“What causes this tragedy are the words of the president,” insists Ivaneide Bandeira Cardoso, a founder of the Kaninde Ethno-Environmental Defence Association, an advocacy group that campaigns on behalf of Brazil’s indigenous communities.

Speaking last week to National Geographic magazine, Cardoso, like many others, is clear in her belief that Bolsonaro himself is in huge part responsible for the record number of forest fires currently devastating Brazil’s Amazon rainforests.

Prioritising the interests of industries that want greater access to protected lands and cutting back on punitive measures for illegal land-grabbing are the main reasons why the Amazon is burning right now, say critics and activists like Cardoso.

This weekend Bolsonaro was keen to be seen issuing a very different kind of decree, however, authorising the deployment of troops into nature reserves, indigenous lands and border areas in the region to help combat the fires.

But as critics of Bolsonaro quickly pointed out, the Brazilian president only did so after intense pressure from European leaders such as France’s president Emmanuel Macron and Ireland’s prime minister Leo Varadkar, who said they would block the EU-Mercosur trade deal agreement reached in principle earlier this year after 20 years of negotiation.

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Mercrosur is a trade bloc that includes Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, with Venezuela also a member until it was suspended in 2016.

“There is no way that Ireland will vote for the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement if Brazil does not honour its environmental commitments,” Varadkar was quoted a saying as the international row over Brazil’s stewardship of the Amazon blazed almost as fiercely as the fires there.

President Macron even took to Twitter to demand that world leaders discuss the fires at the G7 summit, which he is hosting in Biarritz over the next few days (see international pages in the news section).

“Our house is burning. Literally,” wrote Macron. “It is an international crisis.” Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, weighed in, tweeting that he “couldn’t agree more”.

For his part, the Brazilian president dismissed such international concerns, retorting that the Amazon was an “internal issue” and denouncing Macron’s request as evidence of “a misplaced colonialist mind-set in the 21st century”.

There is a terrible irony in Bolsonaro’s remark given that he himself regards the Amazon as a “virgin” that should be “exploited” for agriculture, mining and infrastructure projects, a view akin to the colonialist mindset of the past.

Bolsonaro, too, cannot hide behind the excuse that forest fires are common in the Amazon during the dry season, which runs from July to October. Admittedly they do sometimes result from naturally occurring events, such as lightning strikes as well as by farmers clearing land for crops or grazing. But this year’s blazes are something else entirely and almost unprecedented.

According to satellite data complied by Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (Inpe) some 72,843 fires have raged in the Amazon this year, a staggering increase of 85% on the same period in 2018. In the five days up to Wednesday of last week, there were 7,746 fires in Brazil, this follows a 278% rise in deforestation last month.

Such figures are the highest number since records began in 2013 and more than a coincidence since Bolsonaro’s rise to power, say detractors of the president.

The situation is particularly acute in northwestern Rondonia state. Here, fires are up 190% from last year, Inpe reports, despite weather conditions being roughly the same. In Porto Velho, the capital of Rondonia state, environmental activists said there were fires around the city and the streets were filled with smoke.

“People are scared. The hospitals are full of people with respiratory diseases. In 60 years, this is the first time I feel difficulty breathing,” said activist Cardoso.

“It’s a thousand times worse than in other years … bad farmers think they can commit all kinds of illegality because they will suffer no punishment … It seems Brazil has no law, that all the laws are in tatters,” she added.

Rondonia state is known as cattle country where so many of the beef bloc rancher supporters of Bolsonaro come from and is now recognised as among the most deforested areas in Brazil.

According to Mary Allegretti, a Brazilian anthropologist who worked closely with environmental activists, says many in the indigenous community are feeling under increasing pressure from ranchers and outside the boundaries of their reserves have fewer legal protections.

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“Farmers are feeling more comfortable making threats,” Allegretti told National Geographic magazine in an interview last year.

“There are a lot of small conflicts around the reserves. It’s a clear consequence of the new government and ideology.”

Given such conditions on the ground, many believe the explosion in forest fire occurrences right now is directly associated with the intensification of deforestation in the region.

ACROSS Brazil, a petition by the campaign group Avaaz, asking the government to halt illegal deforestation, has had 1.1 million signatures. Federal prosecutors in Para state are also investigating why environmental inspections have declined and military police are absent from inspection operations, where they used to provide protection. All this, say activists, points to Bolsonaro’s policies, the effect of which is impacting rapidly.

READ MORE: The Amazon is burning and we need a global response

In the Amazon rainforest, it’s estimated that through deforestation roughly the size of a football pitch is now being cleared every single minute, according to the same Inpe satellite data. As the world’s largest rainforest, the 6.7 million square km region plays a crucial role in absorbing carbon dioxide emissions and stabilising temperatures.

By one recent estimate, the trees of the Amazon rainforest pulled in carbon dioxide equivalent to the fossil fuel emissions of most of the nine countries that own or border the forest between 1980-2010.

The forest is also the richest home to biodiversity on the planet, a habitat for perhaps one-tenth of all species of plants and animals.

Few doubt that despite Bolsonaro, in a televised address to the nation, professing to feel “profound love and respect” for the Amazon, his expression of concern is nothing but empty talk. This, they contend, is a politician determined to force through profiteering policies at whatever cost to the environment and the one million or more of Brazil’s indigenous people who live, hunting and gathering amid the trees.

“Nobody knows what’s going on with them … they have no firemen to call to go there and put out the fire,” National Geographic quoted activist Cardoso as saying about the plight of Brazil’s indigenous peoples last week as the extent of the fires began to be fully realised by the world beyond. In all, Brazil’s indigenous communities live on 13% of the country’s land area.

Just last week, 68 fires were registered in indigenous territories and conservation areas, the majority in the Amazon, according to Jonathan Mazower from Survival International, which campaigns for indigenous rights.

“It’s hard to overstate the importance of these forests for indigenous peoples,” he says. “They depend on them for food, medicines, clothing and a sense of identity and belonging.”

But the incentives to steal these resources are high and “sadly it’s not a question of one or two rogue actors”, Mazower warns, saying that this could be the “worst moment for the indigenous people of the Amazon” since the military dictatorship in Brazil which ended in the 1980s.

Few can forget how during Bolsonaro’s presidential election campaign he announced: “Not one centimetre of land will be demarcated for indigenous reserves or quilombolas (descendants of those people who freed themselves from slavery).”

In what the writer and historian Vijay Prashad described as the “language of genocide”, Bolsonaro went as far as saying: “Let’s make Brazil for the majorities. Minorities have to bow to the majorities. Minorities will fit in or just disappear.” This despite the fact that the independence and culture of Brazil’s indigenous people is meant to be protected by Article 231 of the country’s 1988 Constitution.

As the US-based journalist Yessenia Funes pointed out last week in the online science and technology website Gizmodo, for the Amazon’s indigenous peoples, the destruction of their home is nothing new.

“It’s an unfortunate reality they’ve had to deal with since the Portuguese pillaged their lands in the 16th century,” said Funes, stressing that the “devastation is building to a new fever pitch” under Bolsonaro as the ongoing fires in the rainforest show.

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So bad is the situation now that a number of groups representing the Amazonian indigenous peoples declared an environmental and humanitarian emergency on Thursday. In an open letter calling on the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, they urged that action be taken as the fires threaten their people with what the letter calls “extinction”.

Earlier this year human rights group Amnesty International published a report it had drawn up after visiting three different indigenous territories in northern Brazil where illegal intruders had begun or expanded efforts to seize land and or cut down trees.

Indigenous leaders told the rights groups that they had received death threats for defending their traditional lands. The report also highlighted how they feared new intrusions in the dry season when easier physical access to forests facilitates clearance and burning.

“Brazil’s indigenous peoples and their land face enormous threats and the situation will soon become untenable in the dry season,” warned Richard Pearshouse, senior crisis and environment advisor for Amnesty International at the time. But as the current dry season grips the country, such warnings continue to go unheeded by the Bolsonaro government.

“Under the Bolsonaro administration, the rise in deforestation is sending the Amazon careening toward a very dangerous place, not just for the forest but for the planet as a whole. It might not be at a tipping point, but that’s hardly any consolation,” warned Vitor Gomes, an environmental scientist at the Federal University of Para in Brazil, speaking to the environmental news website Earther recently.

“We should be worried in finding that out, because probably there will be no turning back after we cross a tipping point,” Gomes added.

For many of Brazil’s indigenous people, however, that tipping point is a stark reality that daily stares them in the face.

“With each passing day, we see the destruction advance: deforestation, invasion, logging,” said Handerch Wakana Mura, a member of the country’s Mura indigenous tribe.

“We are sad because the forest is dying at every moment. We feel the climate changing and the world needs the forest,” he told Reuters news agency last week speaking from Amazonas state.

Like other members of his clan he knows it will be a tough battle with Bolsonaro having vowed not to set aside any more tribal land.

It’s a challenge recognised too by the Mura community’s clan leader Raimundo Praia Belem Mura. Now 73 years old, he has lived in the same place his entire life and remains undaunted in doing all he can to protect the land on which he and his people depend.

“For this forest, I will go on until my last drop of blood,” he said. Few doubt such heartfelt feelings will remotely bother Bolsonaro.