Brazilian brothers Orlando (1914–2002), Cláudio (1916–1998), and Leonardo (1918–1961) Villas Boãs spent their lives fighting to protect the indigenous tribes of Brazil. The brothers' work led to the formation of the Xingu National Park in 1961. The park was established to provide a sanctuary—and preserve the inland biodiversity—for Brazil's native people, who faced extinction as developers moved into the area and encroached on their way of life.
The Villas Bbas brothers first traveled into the Brazilian interior in 1943 as part of a government expedition. They fell in love with the region's indigenous people and spent the rest of their lives working to protect these tribes from the modern civilization that was breaching their borders. For decades, the brothers lived in the Amazon, becoming experts on the varied cultures living in the Brazilian rainforest. Although Leonardo died in his early 40s, Orlando and Cláudio wrote a dozen books documenting their fieldwork in the Amazon.
Legendary among human-rights activists and environmentalists, the Villas Bôas brothers were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize twice during the 1970s. Despite accolades from their admirers, they recognized the paradox of their work. According to Jan Rochas of the London Guard-ian, Orlando once remarked: “Each time we contact a tribe, we are contributing to the destruction of what is most pure in it.”
The Villas Bôas brothers were born on their father's coffee plantation near the southeastern Brazilian town of Botucatu in the state of São Paulo. Part of a family comprising 11 children, Orlando was born on January 12, 1914, followed by Cláudio on December 8, 1916. Leonardo was born in 1918. Little brother Álvaro (born 1926) joined the brothers in the jungle briefly during the early 1960s and later offered logistics support for their missions.
In 1943, Brazilian dictator Getúlio Vargas wanted to explore the upper reaches of the Xingu River in the Brazilian backlands, his intent being to open it for colonization. The Xingu is a large clearwater river in the Amazon basin and the jungle area it traverses is located in the state of Mato Grosso. Named by the Portuguese, Mato Grosso means “Great Woods,” and up until the early 1940s, the region remained unmapped and largely untapped. In 1925, British explorer Percy Fawcett and several companions set out to explore the area, but he never returned. From time to time, missionaries and gem seekers made shallow inroads, but the Mato Grosso remained largely unfamiliar.
The Brazilian government knew that indigenous tribes inhabited the jungle, but these communities avoided contact with modern civilization. When the Europeans landed in South America in the 1500s and began taking land, slaves, and gold, the native people were forced deep into the Amazon basin to hide. Vargas tapped Colonel Flaviano de Mattos Vanique to head the excursion, dubbed the Roncador-Xingu expedition and nicknamed the “March to the West.”
Looking for adventure, the Villas Bbas brothers volunteered for the expedition. At the time, Orlando worked at Standard Oil's São Paulo offices, and to get out of work, he insulted his boss and was fired. He used his severance pay to buy a revolver and a bush knife and then joined his brothers. The expedition, about 50 strong, left from the Brazilian capital of São Paulo in 1943 and headed northwest to Mato Grosso. Although the brothers were initially rejected from the expedition because they did not look rugged enough, they grew scruffy beards and tagged along behind the official recruits, eventually finding work with Vanique as bricklayers and land clearers.
Once in the Brazilian rainforest, the brothers encountered an environment teaming with venomous snakes and frogs as well as pathogenic insects; Orlando would suffer more than 250 bouts of malaria in his lifetime. Using machetes, they cut their way through the bush, their job to lay an infrastructure—in the form of trails and airfields—that would make settlement and economic development possible. When the expedition chief discovered that the Villas Bôas brothers could read, he promoted them from their manual labor posts. Cláudio became the chief of staff, Leonardo was put in charge of the warehouse, and Orlando became the base secretary. Within a few years, the brothers were in charge of the entire operation.
Besides the jungle elements, the Roncador-Xingu expedition had to be cautious of natives as it traversed land occupied by the Xavánte people. Enslaved in the 18th century, the Xavánte worked hard to avoid contact and were known to be hostile; they were reported to have killed two priests during the 1930s. Their hostility was understandable, given that they felt corralled. At this point, cattle ranchers were invading Xavánte territory and the tribe had no place left to migrate. The Brazilian government considered the Xavánte a huge barrier to progress and the expedition had dozens of skirmishes with them, as well as with other native peoples. As their goal was to make peace with the Indians, the brothers lived by the motto: “Die, if necessary, but kill never.”
The Roncador-Xingu expedition moved slowly, taking 11 months to cross a 200-mile area. Eventually, they made contact with the Xavánte as well as other native tribes who had never seen a Westerner. While many Brazilians feared the indigenous population, viewing them as savages, the Villas Bôas brothers discovered that the indigenous people lived contentedly and peacefully within their tribal societies. They decided to make their life's work spreading the message that Brazil's native people were not to be feared. Likewise, they lived among the Indians to allay tribal fears regarding the encroaching actions of outsiders. Over several years, they located and befriended several tribes, including the Kalapalo (1946), Xavánte (1948), Jurunas (1949), Kayabí (1951), Txukarramãe (1953), Xikrin (1953), Suyá (1959), and elusive Kreen-Akrore (1973).
The Roncador-Xingu expedition lasted nearly 20 years, during which time the Villas Bôas brothers helped open 1,000 miles of jungle paths. The expedition charted six previously unknown rivers and located 18 villages of indigenous natives. It also established airstrips so that supplies could be airlifted to the region. After the expedition ended around 1960, the brothers remained in the jungle and began lobbying for a protected site in which the indigenous people could preserve their traditions. They realized that the new roads cut through the Amazon Basin were the beginning of the end for these native cultures; in the mid1950s, a measles outbreak had already wiped out a significant portion of the native population in the Upper Xingu region. The brothers were also worried about the outsiders who would come in search of diamonds, gold, rubber, lumber, and land on which to graze their cattle.
As early as 1952, the Villas Bôas brothers began advocating that land in the Xingu region be preserved, publishing articles in the Brazilian newspapers stating their case. In 1961, the Parque Nacional do Xingu (Xingu National Park) became a reality through a presidential directive. According to Adrian Cowell in his book The Tribe That Hides from Man, the decree establishing the park reads: “The Lands inhabited by Indians are inalienable in terms set out by Federal law, and to the Indians pertain the permanent possession of, and acknowledged right to, the exclusive usufruct of the natural riches and all the utilities on them.”
Sadly, Leonardo died in 1961 and did not see the Xingu National Park come to full fruition. As the first indigenous area in all of South America to be protected, the park served as a prototype for others across the continent. It included jungles, rivers, lakes, savannahs, and other wilderness areas where native tribes were free to hunt and travel, continuing the way of life they had enjoyed since prehistoric times. In 1962, the Kalapalo, Matipuhy, and Nahukuá tribes moved into the park.
After the Brazilian government set aside lands for Xingu National Park, Orlando and Cláudio Villas Bôas had more work to do. To safeguard the future of native inhabitants, they had to befriend them and persuade them to relocate to protected lands. Unlike other government agencies, they did not want to civilize the Indians but, rather, to isolate them so that they could retain their way of life. While civilization would continue to advance, they hoped to slow the process and allow native peoples to transition into society slowly, choosing their own path.
As Orlando and Cláudio wrote in the foreword to their 1970 book Xingu: The Indians, Their Myths, “In our modest opinion, the true defense of the Indian is to respect him and to guarantee his existence according to his own values. Until we, the ‘civilized’, create the proper conditions among ourselves for the future integration of the Indians, any attempt to integrate them is the same as introducing a plan for their destruction. We are not yet sufficiently prepared.”
Orlando served as Xingu National Park's first director and coordinated a medical assistance program with the Federal University of São Paulo to build a medical station in the region. As indigenous people made contact with the outside world, they contracted measles and influenza that often proved fatal because they had no antibodies to fight such diseases. In 1963, a nurse named Marina Lopes de Lima came to the region. She married Orlando in 1969, and they had two children, Noel and Orlando Jr.
The Villas Bôas brothers were fascinated by the Indians' way of life, and between them they spoke a dozen Indian dialects. To discover how these people survived and prospered in such a hostile environment they attempted to live on a native diet of wild honey and locusts. When they complained that there was not sufficient food, the Indians laughed, went into the rainforest, and returned with armadillo meat, monkey meat, roots, and fruit.
An anthropologist, Cowell spent time with the Villas Bôas brothers and described them thus: “Where Claudio is thin, Orlando is fat. Claudio looks like a saint, Orlando a pirate. Where Claudio rarely stirs from his hammock, Orlando is usually at his desk. Claudio dislikes pets and reads philosophy. Orlando's comics and detective thrillers were being decorated that morning by two parakeets plodding up and down the bookshelf.” In Cowell's view, the park's success was due to the brothers' “contradictory qualities”: Cláudio was gentle, but with stamina, and Orlando was the talkative politician who could get things done.
In 1971, the Brazilian government began building the Trans-Amazonian Highway, which cut through the middle of Xingu National Park. Ranchers encroached on park borders and cut down trees to graze their cattle. Within two years, half the park's total area was lost. In a letter, Orlando complained to Cowell, writing, “The Parque has been mutilated. Each time the situation is worse. This will bring the Indian rapidly to destruction.” Unfortunately, the government was unconcerned about disrupting the lifestyle of the indigenous people, calculating that they could find work as laborers in the factories and fields that were slowly moving toward them.
In 1973, the Villas Bbas brothers resigned from FUNAI, the National Indian Foundation. Cláudio made his last trip into the jungle in 1976, then settled in São Paulo with Tauarru, a 12-year-old Indian boy he had adopted as his son. He died in 1998, having suffered from severe depression since leaving the Indians behind.
In 1994, Xingu National Park had approximately 6,000 indigenous people living in 18 settlements. Within a decade, however, statistics showed a considerable decline: by 2002, the year Orlando died, about 4,000 Indians from 14 tribes still lived there, amid heavy deforestation and with pesticides and fertilizer polluting local rivers due to runoff from newly established farms.
As recorded by New York Times writer Larry Rohter, Orlando Villas Bbas, Jr. would aptly sum up his father's legacy in 2003. “The destiny of the peoples of the Xingu is still uncertain,” he said, “because of what is happening around them. Brazil may have changed, and the times, too, but in my father's absence someone still needs to work to guarantee that 60 years of effort are not lost.” In 2012, the brothers' lives and efforts were honored in a film, Xingu, by Brazilian director Cao Hamburger.
Cowell, Adrian, The Tribe That Hides from Man, Bodley Head, 1973.
Villas Bbas, Orlando, and Cláudio Villas Bbas, Xingu: The Indians, Their Myths, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1973.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), December 14, 2002, “Orlando Villas Bbas, Anthropologist and Explorer,” p. 38.
Economist, March 12, 1998, “Claudio Villas Bôas, Protector of the Amazon Indian.”
Los Angeles Times, September 2, 2001, Tony Smith, “Brazil's Champion of a Forgotten People Draws Line in the Sand.”
New York Times, March 8, 1998, “C. Villas Bôas, a Defender of Brazil's Indians”; December 13, 2002; July 26, 2003, Larry Rohter, “Amazon Indians Honor an Intrepid Spirit,” p. A1.
Times (London, England), December 14, 2002, “Orlando Villas Bbas,” p. 48.
Guardian (London, England), https://www.theguardian.com/news/2002/dec/14/guardianobituaries.brazil (December 13, 2002), Jan Rochas, “Orlando Villas Bôas.”□