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  M.   July 01, 2011

“I wish hubby had been with me but he would have wept to see the rainforest destroyed”
Says Gemma Arterton

THERE isn’t much that escapes a road trip.

How someone sleeps. (Fallen forward, face mashed into the back of the seat in front with a hint of a dribble.)

Their childhood nickname. (“Tarts”)

Their weird food fetishes. (Marmite with marmalade sandwiches. Euw!)

Any moments of slightly dodgy personal cleanliness. (“I’m winning the skanky b*tch competition.”)

And even those embarrassing childhood experiences. (Her friends once connected all the freckles on her face together with blue Biro when she was asleep aged 12.)

Over time nothing is really off limits.

Which makes you think – whichever bright spark thought it was a great idea to trap a bona fide film star like Gemma Arterton, a proper Bond girl and star of St Trinian’s no less, with a tabloid journalist for days on end, needs their head testing.

Not that I’m complaining, mind.

After all Gemma, 25, is not here to tell bad jokes, make hilarious confessions and sing Eighties power ballads at the top of her voice…although she does quite a lot of that.

There is also the more serious matter of helping to save a vital length of forest alongside one of the world’s most controversial roads.

We are on Brazil’s BR-364, an ochre-coloured muddy stretch that is being battered into shape by teams of bulldozers and huge earth-moving trucks.

This highway slices its way across the country before ending here – in the state of Acre, deep in the Amazon rainforest. This area is so remote that one of the world’s last uncontacted tribes still live here.

The new road will bring vital services to some of Brazil’s most isolated people. But it will also kill billions of trees.

Wherever a road appears in Brazil so do the loggers. Eight times more forest is cut down around the roads of the Amazon than anywhere else.

For hundreds of miles along the paved route of this highway, the dense, mossy rainforest has already been plucked out so relentlessly it almost resembles the waxing technique this country is famous for.

Gemma is here to see an ambitious joint project by Sky TV, the World Wide Fund For Nature and the state government.

Sky Rainforest Rescue aims to try to save the forest by paying local people to protect the trees that line both sides of the BR-364.

The project is also supporting initiatives to find markets for local produce – rubber and the popular açai berry, which the forest people are being encouraged to farm.

This, they hope, will ensure these forests will be worth more alive than dead.

Gemma says: “The sheer size of the rainforest is astounding – it’s just breathtaking. But from above you can see the deforestation like a patchwork.

“It was only once or twice on an hour-long flight that I saw untouched land – there was always somewhere that had been deforested.”

An area of around three football pitches of forest disappears every minute in the Amazon.

As we travel, Gemma explains how her interest in the environment developed along with “hippy tendencies” she inherited from her mum Sally-Anne, a cleaner, who brought her up on a council estate in Gravesend, Kent.

“My mum and dad split up when I was little,” she recalls. “It wasn’t too bad but we lived in a council house and I was aware we were among the poorest in the school.

“I was always embarrassed to bring my friends back home.

“I wanted B&Q wallpaper and doilies but we just had loads of stuff on the wall from India.”

A year after getting married to Italian fashion sales manager Stefano Catelli, Gemma admits she jumped at the chance to see the rainforest for the first time.

She says: “It’s great. I feel so much more grounded since being married. That’s why I felt I could do something like this.

“I would have loved Stefano to come but he couldn’t get time off. He would have loved it but he probably would have been in tears the whole time to see what’s going on.”

We soon pull up and trek for an hour into the forest to meet some of its indigenous people.

Within minutes Gemma disappears into the distance at a cracking pace. “I exercise like f***,” she confesses later.

She admits she has learned to ignore criticism that has been aimed at her size. “I do get vexed by that,” she says. “I’m not abnormal – just not as skinny as other actresses. I’m healthy. My grandad is 97 and still does ballroom dancing. I want to live to tell the tale like him, not be 57 with osteoporosis.” After a long walk beneath the rainforest canopy in the afternoon heat, we emerge at a small clearing.

Behind an enormous welcome banner is a group of children who greet us with great enthusiasm.

After a meal of chicken and locally grown vegetable manioc, the villagers demonstrate their newly learned skills of making thick, square rubber mats from the latex they have tapped from the forest trees.

This is a real local success story for the area as the mats are now being exported to France to be made into parts for trainers.

The project is creating a sense of optimism among the people – that they can continue to live off the land and embrace progress.

However, as Gemma points out: “Of course the road will make it easier to live here. It’s very humbling when you see kids who walk for an hour and a half just to get to school.

“A road will bring them transport, electricity and the internet.

“The people here want these things. But hopefully they will be able to protect the forest at the same time.

“If the loggers come through here the land is worthless. In two or three years all they are likely to leave behind is prostitution and violence.”

After a long hike back we spend a night in the nearby small town of Feijo, where Gemma and visiting telly exec and fellow rock fiend Jo Fox treat us and a few inquisitive locals to a hilarious impromptu karaoke session.

Her range of songs include versions of her favourite “power” ballads – Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse Of The Heart, Whitesnake’s Here I Go Again and the Rolling Stones’ Under My Thumb among others.

The next day we are once more bumping along the BR-364 to meet 22-year-old Angelina Santos Do Nascimento, who we discover washing clothes in a nearby stream.

Her family have been delighted to get electricity for the first time because of the road.

But while Angelina is excited by the improvements the road has brought for her, she is the first to admit she is also fearful of what else the development may bring.

In the past month five environmental activists have been murdered in other parts of the country as loggers and local communities wage pitched battles against each other.

With all the evidence pointing to the murders being committed by contract killers working for the illegal logging industry, you can’t help thinking Angelina’s intuition may be right.

Life for these simple people might be about to change more than any of us have bargained for.

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For more information see sky.com/rainforestrescue. A selection of pictures documenting Gemma’s trip to the Amazon will appear as part of an exhibition with the acclaimed Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado later in the year.

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