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André Villas-Bôas : a Voice in the Wilderness

André Villas-Bôas : a Voice in the Wilderness

Kayapó women use body paint to mimic animal markings, believing it brings them closer to the spirit world.

Source : Condé Nast Traveler
22nd Annual Condé Nast Traveler Environmental Award André Villas-Bôas has helped the Amazon's tribes protect a quarter of the earth's freshwater and its largest remaining rain forest for decades. Now, as they face their most powerful foe, the future of the planet could hang in the balance.

In 30 years of helping the Amazon's indigenous tribes peacefully defend their lands from outsiders, André Villas-Bôas has been in plenty of tight spots. But it wasn't until 2008 that he saw the sharp end of a machete headed straight at him.

The weapon, wielded by an angry Kayapó warrior, was aimed at an engineer who had just given a presentation defending a massive dam project that the Indians feared would destroy their villages. Villas-Bôas had leapt from his chair in an attempt to shield the engineer from machete blows, but it was too late to prevent bloodshed. The other tribesmen were already upon them. Screams echoed through the cavernous gymnasium in the dusty frontier town of Altamira, as one of the bare-chested Indians ripped the engineer's neatly ironed shirt off his back, and another pushed him to the floor. The angry mob struck him with their war clubs and machetes. "Don't do this," Villas-Bôas shouted, his palms outstretched as he pushed into the scrum. "This will be very bad for you!"

As one of the founders of the leading Brazilian environmental and indigenous rights organization Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), Villas-Bôas had played a key role in organizing that day's protest against the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant, an 11,000-megawatt dam that would be the world's third largest. The demonstration had attracted several thousand people to protest a project many feared would have disastrous consequences for the Xingu River, the Amazon's largest tributary and a vital source of food and water for the thousands of indigenous people who live along it. But now the situation was degenerating into just the kind of violent fiasco Villas Bôas had spent his career working to avoid.

Though Villas-Bôas would later maintain that the engineer's life was never in any danger and that the Kayapó had only intended to humble him after a very arrogant speech, others present credit the activist with defusing a crisis that might easily have ended fatally. "I thought they were going to kill the engineer," says Marcelo Salazar, one of Villas-Bôas's colleagues. Antônio Melo da Silva, a leader of the movement to stop the dam, says that the incident would have been much worse if Villas-Bôas had not intervened. "They respect him, they listen to him," Melo says.

It's a trust Villas-Bôas, 55, has earned during his 32 years fighting, in the media and in the courts, alongside the Amazon's indigenous tribes to protect—and sometimes reclaim—ancestral lands from speculators, colonizers, and ruthless and well-armed loggers and ranchers.

But today, Brazil's tribes are facing new threats that are even more insidious and intractable. Agricultural conglomerates continue to make incursions into the Amazon Basin, and the country has developed a voracious appetite for electricity to fuel its industrial expansion. Belo Monte is likely only the first of many new dams that could destroy the very lands that Brazil's indigenous populations rely upon for survival. As a trusted adviser, advocate, and middleman to the Indians, Villas-Bôas is more important to them than ever. But at stake, he argues, is something far greater than preserving the rights and traditional lifestyles of Brazil's indigenous communities: The Amazon is the source of one-quarter of the world's freshwater, the planet's largest area of remaining rain forest and biodiversity, and one of the last defenses against global warming. "The Indian lands in the Amazon are immense," says Villas- Bôas, "and they have a great impact on the world's water and climate."

The heartland for many of Brazil's native populations and the setting for much of Villas-Bôas's work is the Xingu Indigenous Park, a 6.5-million-acre preserve in the Amazon's Xingu Watershed that is home to 16 ethnic groups.

Not long after I met Villas-Bôas in the town of Canarana, 1,200 miles from São Paulo and deep in the country's interior, he made his priorities clear. "This is a short trip, and I will be very busy," he told me pointedly. With him at the wheel on a bonejangling three-hour drive over primitive, rutted roads to the Xingu reserve, I got a firsthand view of the encroachment of the modern world.

It was August, the height of Brazil's dry season. And as the final outpost of civilization receded behind us, the parched, fallow soybean fields outside town presented a vast, desolate tableau that stretched as far as the eye could see. Though the first colonizers arrived in the area 39 years ago, the land was not considered especially fertile until trade with China picked up in the 1990s and local farmers began to feed Asia's insatiable demand for soybeans. Then, in the early 2000s, large agricultural concerns realized that the terrain was perfect for growing soybeans, and the pace of development exploded. Even ten years ago, much of these monochrome plains was still covered with the impenetrable green growth of the rain forest. But for most of the ride, all I saw were the solitary burned out husks of long dead trees.

After several hours of driving, a wall of green appeared on the horizon and Villas-Bôas announced that we were approaching the Xingu Indigenous Park. The electric hum of cicadas and the whirring and chirping of birds greeted us as we stepped out of the truck. On the edges of the road, thick walls of vegetation grew 20 to 30 feet high.

to be continued on the original page of the article

© Adam Piore /

Date : 02/01/2012