TWO stories both inextricably connected, but just how many of us are actually aware of them? The first concerns the death of a renowned Brazilian “sertanista”, the name given to those specialists who work tirelessly in the remote rainforests to protect uncontacted tribes from the often-predatory intrusion of outsiders.

The second story is that of the enormous fires currently ravaging parts of the Brazilian Amazon and the Pantanal, the largest wetlands in the world.

It was earlier this month that Rieli Franciscato, a veteran Brazilian sertanista and indigenous rights defender, was killed when an arrow struck him in the chest as he approached an indigenous group he was seeking to shield.

Fifty-six-year-old Franciscato had spent his entire career in Brazil’s government indigenous affairs agency (FUNAI) working to protect uncontacted tribes who sadly on this occasion mistakenly perceived him as a threat.

As human rights organisation Survival International pointed out on its website, Franciscato’s killing and the appearance of an uncontacted group in the area where he died were almost certainly a response to the immense pressure the tribe and their forest are under.

For years now indigenous people in Brazil – and elsewhere – have come under increasing threat from invasions by illegal land-grabbers, ranchers, loggers and gold miners.

In Brazil’s case these intrusions have been emboldened by the policies of far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, who is determined to develop the Amazon and declared last January when sworn into office that “there won’t be a square centimetre demarcated as an indigenous reserve”.

“The Indians do not speak our language, they do not have money, they do not have culture,” Bolsonaro is reported to have said, before incredulously asking: “How did they manage to get 13% of the national territory?”

As far back as 2015 Bolsonaro was giving clues as to his political direction of travel.

“There is no indigenous territory where there aren’t minerals. Gold, tin and magnesium are in these lands, especially in the Amazon, the richest area in the world,” attested Bolsonaro.

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“I’m not getting into this nonsense of defending land for Indians,” the future president was quoted in Campo Grande News as saying.

Not surprisingly indigenous leaders and campaigners were outraged and remain so now. More than 13% of Brazil’s land is indigenous reserves and the country is home to more than 900,000 tribal people.

Much of this territory is vital not only in safeguarding marginalised communities, but as the world’s largest rainforest the Amazon plays a crucial role in keeping global carbon dioxide levels in check, producing 20% of the oxygen in our planet’s atmosphere. This is why it’s often referred to as the “lungs of the planet”.

This, however, appears to matter little to Bolsonaro, who in his relentless drive to commercially exploit this vast region, has ensured his government has gutted environmental agencies and stymied the funding of monitoring groups like FUNAI.

This year across the globe, from Australia to the Arctic Circle, climate change and mismanagement have fuelled large uncontrolled fires.

Currently it is the West Coast of America that is making the headlines, even if it is Brazil that is actually the worst fire hotspot globally right now.

According to the Greenpeace Global Fire Dashboard, which identifies fire activity using Nasa satellite data, Brazil has had twice the number of hotspots as the US.

But as the Brazil-based journalist Michael Fox, in an article for the environmental group Sierra Club, wrote last week, the doubly worrying thing is that, unlike the fires in North America, those in Brazil right now “are burning by design”.

“The fires have largely been set by ranchers, farmers, miners and land-grabbers, who are determined to transform once intact jungle into pastures for cattle or fields for growing soy,” explained Fox in his article entitled The Worst Forest Fires You’re Hearing Nothing About.

“The land-grabbers flip the landscape as if they were real estate speculators remodelling an old home in a gentrifying neighbourhood,” Fox wrote in his piece.

Like his US counterpart Donald Trump, Bolsonaro is fond of dismissing reports of such fires as “fake news”.

That Bolsonaro’s administration has essentially suspended fines for environmental violations like fires while cutting the fire-fighting budget by 58% over the past year despite the rising number of fires is, says Fox, a “clear sign that the blazes actually benefit his development plans in the region”.

IN one recent report, a Sky News team told of witnessing how 10 fire fighters were deployed to one Brazilian municipality of more than 84,000 square kilometres in size, an area larger than Scotland. The clearing of large tracks of forest and other land by fire in what has been described as the “sacking” of the Amazon poses an ever-increasing threat for its indigenous peoples.

Barbara Zimmerman is a Canadian ecologist who for three decades has worked with one tribe, the Kayapo. Speaking to The New Yorker magazine last year, she described how the situation in some areas was as if “the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse have been let loose”.

In that same New Yorker article written by veteran foreign correspondent Jon Lee Anderson, who knows the region well, he described how while wildcat mining is less pervasive than logging, it can however be more insidious.

“Loggers usually harvest valuable trees and leave the rest; miners cut everything. Mercury, used in the refining process, leaves rivers poisoned and the pollution can spread hundreds of miles downstream. The allure of gold attracts fortune-seekers, who bring prostitution, alcohol, drugs, and violence,” wrote Anderson.

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It’s a corrosive process, as I witnessed for myself elsewhere in Latin America when I visited Colombia a few years ago to look at illegal gold mining’s impact there on the Embera, an indigenous hunter-gatherer people.

It was along what they call the “River of Butterflies”, or Rio Andagueda, in the mining towns of Bagado and San Marino that members of the Embera told me of the impact illegal gold mining was having on their way of life and communities.

There in Colombia’s Choco Province, where 10% of the world’s plant and animal species can be found, earthmovers had torn out swathes of the rainforest and the highly toxic mercury used as part of the extraction work had reached dangerous levels in the river and leached into the soil.

“I remember not so long ago when much of this water was clear, but now look at it: green, dark and people get sick from it,” the owner of the canoe in which I was travelling told me as we journeyed along the waterways he had navigated since he was a boy.

Like many other indigenous people whose lives have been spent in the rainforest, for the Embera plants, trees, animals, everything in nature they believe has spirits. But their way of life and belief system now finds itself under threat like never before from the rapacious commercial greed of outsiders.

In Brazil the current fires are just a continuation of what has become a regular feature of life in the Amazon. For those settlers and land-grabbers that have carved their way into the remotest regions and impinged on indigenous reserves, fire-raising is simply a tool in furthering Brazil’s progress and a means to an end when making a profit.

While last year’s illegal fires in Brazil were bad enough and made global headlines, they at least were met with outcry from the international community. In cities worldwide there were protests, from Sao Paulo, Brasilia and Rio de Janeiro to London, Paris and Berlin.

Greta Thunberg, the climate activist, also called for action, as did French President Emmanuel Macron, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, and German chancellor Angela Merkel, the latter threatening to block the EU-Mercosur trade deal if Bolsonaro did not move to combat the fires.

But this year the fires are even worse while any outcry there has been is near silenced in a world preoccupied with the Covid-19 pandemic.

BRAZIL, of course, is one of the worst hit countries in the world by coronavirus and the disease has ripped through the indigenous communities in much the same way as the fires that destroy their lands and territories. It goes without saying that Bolsonaro vehemently denies the threat of the virus, just as much as he does that of the fires, to the lives of indigenous communities.

“It’s so many things for us to handle at the same time,” Adrian Ramos, the the coordinator of policy and rights programme at Brazil’s Social Environmental Institute (ISA), told Sierra Club last week. “The situation is complex and serious.”

“The government has a policy of detonating these territories in order to weaken these communities. The pandemic and the out-of-control fires only strengthen the government strategy,” Ramos said. “It’s really hard to think about how to unite forces and confront it.”

As early as July this year, the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) said nearly 8000 Covid-19 cases and 177 deaths had been reported among indigenous people living in Brazil.

Indigenous leaders have warned of “facing extermination”, and as the virus kills elders, chiefs and traditional healers, it is also taking what some say might be an irreparable toll on tribal history, culture and knowledge.

In June the Munduruku people told a journalist from The Guardian they alone as a group had lost 10 sabios, or wise ones.

“We always say they are living libraries,” Alessandra Munduruku, a tribal leader, told Dom Phillips the Brazil-based correspondent of The Guardian. “It’s been very painful,” Munduruku added.

Just last week, one Amazonian indigenous leader issued another urgent warning that coronavirus could infect an uncontacted tribe known as the Flecheiros, or Arrow People, with lethal consequences.

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According to Survival International, Kura, from the Kanamari tribe, says that the virus has spread throughout the Javari Valley, the second largest indigenous territory in Brazil and home to the greatest concentration of uncontacted tribes in the world.

It was precisely such people that Rieli Franciscato was trying to protect when he was killed earlier this month by an indigenous group that had no ability to distinguish between friend and foe from the outside world.

Survival International’s senior researcher Sarah Shenker described Franciscato’s death as “a tragic loss for unconnected tribes, for the forest, and for the fight to stop Brazil’s genocide”.

“For decades he refused to accept the violent greed destroying the Amazon rainforest and its best guardians ... he didn’t let Bolsonaro’s war on indigenous peoples and strangling of his budget stop him,” added Shenker, who said the last thing the respected “sertanista” would have wanted was for the “government and invaders” to use his death to target the territory and its communities even more aggressively.

Just a few days ago Bolsonaro, responding to criticism, insisted Brazil was being “disproportionately” criticised for the fires raging in the Amazon rainforest and Pantanal wetlands.

“California is burning with fire. Africa has more fires than in Brazil,” he told supporters waiting for him at the entrance of his official residence.

Such evasion and denial have now become a familiar tactic, and once again it could have come straight from the Trump playbook, the leader with whom Bolsonaro has so much in common.

But his comments were a stark reminder, too, that the controversial Brazilian president is not for changing tack.

For now the perfect storm of forest fires, coronavirus and Bolsonaro’s aggressive anti-indigenous policies will continue to take their toll on some of the most vulnerable people in the world.

Time is not on their side unless the world makes its voice heard and the Brazilian president is forced to think again.