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.
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