Life Imitates Art: “Avatar” and The Amazon

Today being Earth Day, one’s mind logically runs to notions of sustainability, ecology, and environmental preservation: catch words that conjure up myriad images and places, but perhaps few so strongly, universally, and with such poignant impact as the vast and somewhat mythical Amazon forest, 70 percent of which is located within the borders of Brazil.

Although it’s never quite out of the news, in the last couple of weeks the planet’s largest rainforest and greatest river system (with over 1,000 tributaries) has been back in the headlines with a vengeance. The reason? The Brazilian government’s plans to build the world’s third largest hydroelectric dam in Belo Monte, Pará – a project that environmentalists claim will flood hundreds of square miles of the Amazon and dry up a 60-mile stretch of the Xingu River, destroying the livelihoods of the indigenous communities that have made their homes along its shores for centuries.

Interestingly, [James] Cameron had never been to the Amazon until this year, but when he finally arrived, he was struck by the similarities between real life and the world he had conjured up on celluloid. Bidding for the rights to build the controversial project took place on April 20, in Brasília. The auction went forth despite injunctions handed down by a federal court of Pará, protests from environmental organizations such as Amazon Watch, and even a last-minute, Hollywood-worthy intervention by Canadian film director James Cameron, whose recent 3-D blockbuster, Avatar, carries a strong environmental message.

Many viewers – particularly in Brazil – were quick to note the parallels between Avatar’s tale of an Edenic planet’s indigenous inhabitants struggling against the greed and corruption of an “advanced civilization”, and the very real encroachment of greedy developers upon the rich yet fragile Amazon ecosystem. Interestingly, Cameron had never been to the Amazon until this year (although the fictional planet of Pandora was heavily inspired by its lush rain forests), but when he finally arrived, he was struck by the similarities between real life and the world he had conjured up on celluloid.

The director’s trip was in response to an invitation from environmental and indigenous groups asking him to participate in a meeting to help save “the real Pandoras in the world.” Many of the indigenous leaders invited to the event had been told that Cameron was a “powerful ally” in their fight against the dam, but none had actually heard of him – or of Avatar – which is why, the night before the meeting, a special DVD screening took place at the house of the chief of the Arara tribe.

Cameron’s own trip down the Xingu River to meet with the region’s native leaders left him as amazed and moved as Avatar’s American protagonist, Jake Sully, played by Sam Worthington. After having his face smeared with tribal paint, receiving ceremonial gifts that included a warrior’s spear and a superb, feather headdress, and being treated to a traditional dance in his honor, Cameron apparently was moved to tears during a gathering at which various leaders swore they would die if necessary to stop the dam.

However, despite all the attendant publicity, so far, all efforts opposing the construction of the dam have been in vain. While Cameron, in an interview with The New York Times, vowed that the anti-dam campaign had become his “personal crusade,” and boats full of indigenous people have begun traveling to the dam site with the intention of establishing a permanent village that will block construction, the Brazilian government shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, there are apparently plans to build over 100 large dams on various Amazon tributaries over the next few decades.

Perhaps the most eloquent response to the announcement that the dam’s construction would be going forward was that of the hundreds of Greenpeace activists who dumped three tons of manure assembling in front of the National Electric Energy Agency in Brasília, calling the excrement “the best representation of what this infrastructure project means to Brazil.”


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