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Recently, I got an invitation to attend an interesting panel dealing with indigenous issues on Earth Day. The talk, held at the Paley Center for Media in midtown Manhattan, would host a number of Native Americans but also James Cameron, creator of the blockbuster movie Avatar as well as other hits such as Terminator and Titantic. What, you might ask, was a Hollywood director doing at such an event?
If you've seen Cameron's movie you know that it deals with a fictional tribe of humanoid creatures called the Na'vi who inhabit the rainforest world of Pandora. In the film, the Na'vi must fight to preserve the forest from a mineral corporation backed up by the U.S. military. Avatar, a true technological feat, brought the Pandora rainforest to movie-going audiences in 3-D. Though Avatar doesn't attempt to teach anything to the audience per se, it does convey a sense of moral outrage.
To his credit, Cameron has sought to address not only fictional struggles in the virtual world but also the real life plight of indigenous peoples fighting to preserve their ancestral lands from hydropower development. Recently, the Hollywood director toured the Brazilian rainforest in association with Amazon Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based NGO which is performing valuable environmental work in South America.
After meeting with the Kayapo Indians, "real life Na'vi," as Cameron put it, the director got inspired and has been campaigning for indigenous peoples. Cameron says the Belo Monte boondoggle dam planned for the Amazon is a "quintessential example of the type of thing we are showing in Avatar — the collision of a technological civilization's vision for progress at the expense of the natural world and the cultures of the indigenous people that live there."
On a tear in New York, he spoke before a United Nations committee on aboriginal rights and even launched an environmental scholarship at Brooklyn Tech High School. Not content to stop there, he updated the Avatar website to keep fans informed about environmental issues and sponsored the planting of a million trees around the world as part of Earth Day.
Cameron's Cinematic Plans
As a writer and author of the recently released No Rain in the Amazon: How South America's Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2010), I was eager to ask Cameron a number of questions. I wanted to know for example how he saw his political role moving forward, and what he might do to stop hydropower for example. I was also interested in addressing Cameron's future film projects.
Reportedly, the Hollywood director based Avatar on the Brazilian rainforest and the struggle of indigenous peoples inhabiting the jungle. However, up until his recent trip he had never stepped foot in the Amazon. Amidst conflicting news about Cameron's future cinematic projects, with some reports even suggesting he might shoot part of a future picture in the Amazon itself, the director recently remarked that Avatar was produced through skillful use of computer graphics out of fear that filming within the rainforest would harm the environment.
Cameron adds that any future film wouldn't be shot in the Amazon, either. Indeed, he has declared that a large part of his next movie will take place in the teeming oceans of Pandora. "Part of my focus in the second film is in creating a different environment — a different setting within Pandora," Cameron said. "And I'm going to be focusing on the ocean on Pandora, which will be equally rich and diverse and crazy and imaginative, but it just won't be a rainforest. I'm not saying we won't see what we've already seen; we'll see more of that as well," he added.
Whatever the case, I wouldn't be surprised if Cameron inserts an environmental message concerning the rainforest in his future films. What kind of movie are we likely to see in future from the blockbuster director? Reportedly he wants to shoot an Avatar sequel and not some kind of environmental documentary. While that's not entirely what idealistic folk such as myself might have hoped for [click here to see my earlier piece describing the history of earlier films dealing with the rainforest], the reality is that Cameron has done more than many other Hollywood directors to bring environmentalism into the mainstream.
For the left, Avatar is not suitably politically correct as the leading protagonist Jake Sully is a white man taking up the burden of Na'vi savages. But reading the left blogosphere sometimes, I wonder what planet people are on: Mars...or Pandora perhaps? At the risk of stating the obvious, in Hollywood you can't produce pictures without financial backing. In order to achieve said backing one must frequently rehash familiar themes.
Avatar is a rather skillful composite of earlier movies like Alien, Dances with Wolves and Platoon. But even after he adopted familiar formulas Cameron found it difficult to get Hollywood on board. Indeed, the industry proved resistant to any environmental content. "It's not like the studio said, 'Jim we want you to make a movie about the environment,'" Cameron has declared. "No... They said, 'We really like the big epic science fiction story, but is there any way we can get this tree-hugging crap out of it?' "
Hollywood Director's Future Role
Having prevailed over the conventional logic and directed a mega hit with an environmental message, the real question now is how Cameron sees his role moving forward. When he made Avatar, Cameron didn't imagine that people would interpret the movie as a call to action. In fact, he remarked, "I figured I'd be on vacation right now. I figured I'd make my big statement with the movie and let everyone else sort out what to do. Turns out there aren't that many people figuring out what to do....I think we're facing [an environmental] crisis and I'm not going to stand around and leave it to someone else to deal with it."
Those are energetic words, but when I saw Cameron speak in New York I got the impression that the director was a little overwhelmed by his new role. When one man stood up and asked Cameron if the director would help to save tribes from going culturally extinct in Colombia, the director frankly admitted he was suffering from "cause fatigue." Later, when Quichua indigenous women got up and offered Cameron a ceremonial scarf, the director looked slightly taken aback.
Cameron's political role could prove particularly thorny in Brazil. There, the director not only met with native peoples but also participated in an indigenous rally in the capitol of Brasilia and urged top political leadership to halt hydropower development. Determined to halt Belo Monte in its tracks, Cameron believes the project "is a very, very important, pivotal battleground" as it will set the stage for the development of 60 additional dams.
The director has gone straight to the top, writing personally to President Lula in an effort to persuade the government to reject any policy which harms forests. In a letter, Cameron requested a meeting with Lula and declared, "This is an opportunity for you to be a hero, a visionary leader of the 21st century, and modify Brazil's path in such a way that you have sustainable economic growth instead of economic growth that has serious consequences for certain sectors of the population."
In an effort to plunder the Amazon, Brazil's governing elite likes to fan hyper nationalist hysteria by claiming that foreigners are trying to get their hands on the rainforest. It's a bogus argument, but international campaigners must nevertheless tread lightly lest they fall into a political booby trap. Judging from his letter to Lula, Cameron is certainly aware of this pitfall.
"I suspect you will consider me a meddling outsider who does not understand the political realities of your country," Cameron wrote. "But I care deeply about the future for all of us, and feel compelled to speak, nevertheless."
If Cameron was hoping that Lula would come to his senses, the president seems to have dashed any such hopes. Lula, an ostensible leftist from the Workers' Party who supports Belo Monte, recently declared that Brazil did not need advice from foreigners. "No one is more worried about protecting Amazônia and the Indians than we are," he said.
Talking the Amazon with Cameron
I hoped to bring up some of these touchy issues with Cameron at the Paley Center, but unfortunately other journalists like Geraldo Rivera monopolized the director's time. At long last, however, I was able to share a car ride with the director as he made his way to a midtown screening of Avatar. Cameron knew of my work and we had a brief conversation about Brazilian politics [needless to say, if he had contemplated the notion of casting me as Indiana Jones in Avatar 2 he made no mention].
Cameron expressed some frustration that Lula had not seen fit to answer his letter. I then joked that the director might offer his support to Marina Silva in Brazil's upcoming presidential election in order to advance a more environmentally-friendly agenda. Silva, whose story I recount in my current book, is an extraordinary woman who worked as a rubber tapper and later served as Lula's Minister of the Environment. Currently, she is running as Brazil's Green Party candidate.
As we made our way through traffic, Cameron expressed great admiration for Silva. But thinking about it, I wondered whether a well known foreigner endorsing a particular candidate would be a wise political move. When I said as much in the car, Cameron chuckled and seemed to register my point. Indeed, the director must surely be aware by now that he's treading on eggshells.
Amazon Watch, which helped to coordinate Cameron's trip, is surely aware of the dynamics too. According to Christian Poirier, who works as the group's Brazil Program Coordinator, Cameron's presence in Brazil proved controversial amongst certain political sectors. In an e-mail, he told me there had been a "predictable backlash" against the trip. Some of the Brazilian media, he said, had characterized the director's trip as so-called "naive meddling." Many editorials, Poirier added, were harshly critical of Cameron and some even labeled the director an ignorant outsider intent on "saving" the Amazon.
On the other hand, Cameron has some momentum on his side. Avatar did quite well at the box office in Brazil, which could complicate elite attempts to demonize the director amongst the public. What's more, Poirier says some media outlets recognized that Cameron had indeed done his homework about Belo Monte and as a result tended to treat him fairly. Some news coverage, he adds, even cast Cameron "as a concerned world citizen rather than another misguided Amazon crusader."
Volatile Situation Calls for Humility
What will Cameron do if all his efforts come to nothing? That's no longer an abstract question since a Brazilian court recently gave the green light to proceed with construction at Belo Monte. Indigenous peoples, who say Belo Monte will devastate wildlife and their livelihoods, have alarmingly warned of bloodshed. With the situation headed towards confrontation, hopefully cooler heads will prevail.
Within this volatile mix, Cameron should take a backseat to the indigenous struggle and make sure that he does not eclipse the Indians with his high public profile. I am sure that environmentalists in the U.S. are aware of this pitfall and, in light of what I saw at the Paley Center, the director himself is willing to take a step back. Indeed, time and again during Cameron's panel discussion at the Paley Center the director deferred to other Indians on the panel hailing from the Onondaga, Chipeywan, Mikisew Cree and Wayuu Nations.
In the car later, I was impressed at one point when Cameron said he was touched by the Quichua Indians who had presented him with a ceremonial scarf. For a man who has racked up the highest movie sales in Hollywood history, this director struck me as remarkably un-puffed up with himself. Judging from what I saw in New York, indigenous peoples may have a good champion in James Cameron.
It’s everyone’s worst nightmare: being caught in an underground subway in the midst of a power outage. Yet, that is exactly what happened recently when Brazilian commuters in the city of São Paulo were trapped inside trains and literally had to be pulled out of subway cars. In addition to sparking problems in public transport, the blackout or apagão led to hospital emergencies and the shutting down of several airports. In all the power outage darkened approximately half of the South American nation, affecting sixty million people.
In recent years Brazil has become an economic powerhouse yet the blackout exposed vulnerabilities in the country’s infrastructure. In the wake of the power outage, government officials intent on sustaining high economic growth have tried to figure out what might have gone wrong with the country’s electrical grid. Initial reports blamed the power outage on the massive Itaipu hydroelectric dam though a spokesperson for the facility said there had been no problem at the plant.
Itaipu, the official stated, was solely responsible for power generation and the failure occurred in the transmission line. Perhaps, the Energy and Mines Minister declared, a chance atmospheric event like a storm could have disconnected Itaipu. While the authorities conduct further investigations into the matter, some are concerned about the scope of the apagão and have demanded a more detailed explanation.
In addition to power outages there are other, more profound problems associated with hydropower, problems that now concern us all. Indeed, hydroelectric plants lead to emissions of methane which are formed when vegetation decomposes at the bottom of reservoirs devoid of oxygen. The methane is either released slowly as it bubbles up in the reservoir or rapidly when water passes through turbines.
One Brazilian dam, Balbina, flooded about 920 square miles of rainforest when it was completed and during the first three years of its existence the actual reservoir emitted 23 million tons of carbon dioxide and 140,000 tons of methane. Dr. Philip Fearnside, a scientist who I interviewed for my upcoming book No Rain In the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects The Entire Planet (Palgrave Macmillan, April 2010), has calculated that during this time Balbina’s greenhouse gas output was four times that of a coal-fired plant producing the same amount of power.
The news is particularly troubling as methane is twenty times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon. Environmentalists say that methane gas produced by forests inundated by hydroelectric projects accounts for one-fifth of Brazil’s greenhouse gas contribution to global warming.
How concerned should we be about dams and their effect on Earth’s climate? According to researchers, the world’s reservoirs release 20 percent of the total methane from all known sources connected to human activity, including livestock, fossil fuels, and landfills. Experts say that same methane released by dams, meanwhile, accounts for 4 percent of total global warming while reservoirs contribute approximately 4 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions resulting from human activity.
The issue of hydro power has been climbing up the political agenda of the world’s leading scientists: in 2006 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) included emissions from artificially flooded regions in its greenhouse gas inventory. That hasn’t stopped Brazilian policymakers however from proceeding full throttle with their plans for Amazonian dams and currently the country relies on hydropower for more than 80% of its electricity. In particular, the government has pushed a controversial dam project called Belo Monte. Scientists have raised the alarm bell about the complex, which will cause an increase in greenhouse gas emissions due to the decomposition of organic matter within the stagnant water of the reservoir.
President Lula has said that developing hydro power in the Amazon is essential if the country wants to sustain more than 5 percent growth. The mere fact, however, that Brazil is afflicted by chronic energy problems does not mean that Lula must sacrifice the rainforest to hydro power and thereby intensify climate pressures. Indeed, critics charge that Lula’s dam building is merely designed to satisfy big business which gobbles up energy so as to export tropical commodities.
With all of the social drawbacks associated with hydro power, not to mention the implications for climate change, why won’t authorities consider meeting Brazil’s future energy needs through alternative means? Environmentalists argue that the Lula government should upgrade existing energy systems and push through rapid development of wind, solar, and biomass technologies. If Lula adopted such clean technologies Brazil could meet its electricity needs through 2020 and actually save $15 billion in the process.
Sounds like a proposal worth exploring, but predictably the electrical sector has wasted no time in attacking environmentalists for being utopian and naive. To retrofit older dams and cut transmission losses is simply wishful thinking, the powerful lobbying group has charged. One expert reports that hydroelectric projects die hard in Brazil. “It’s like a Dracula movie,” he says. “Every 20 years or so, it surges up out of the coffin. You have to drive the stake back through the thing and make it go away again.”
Where is all the money coming from for these hydroelectric initiatives you ask? One chief culprit is the Brazilian National Development Bank, the financial arm of the Ministry of Development, Industry and Foreign Trade. Because of the incestuous relationship between the government and hydropower, it’s politically difficult to challenge these boondoggle projects.
But just in case you thought methane-producing dams were a strictly Brazilian affair, consider that the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) is also expected to contribute financially to hydro electric projects despite heavy lobbying from environmental and human rights groups that have been urging the bank to steer clear of such initiatives.
Moving away from hydropower and solving our climate conundrum will require political leadership in Brazil but also significant international cooperation. As we move forward in crucial climate change negotiations, the Global North needs to do much more to invest in truly green technology such as wind, solar, and waves. Instead of sponsoring hydropower, large financial institutions as well as affluent countries should provide clean energy transfers to such nations as Brazil.
Failure to act now could exact a heavy environmental toll and condemn Brazil to a vicious energy-climate trap. Consider the case of an earlier, 2001 apagão: in that year, a blackout crippled the country and authorities were forced to decree emergency measures, including a ban on power-hungry floodlights. A special government task force (nicknamed the “Blackout Ministry”) called for the switching off of lighting on streets, beaches, and squares. In the midst of the energy crisis some Rio business leaders feared a crime wave and called for the army to be deployed in the event of power cuts.
Meanwhile, panic-stricken citizens stocked up on candles, generators, and flashlights. When the rationing went into effect, cutbacks obliged schools and businesses to close and disrupted transportation, trade, and leisure. As street lighting in most major cities was cut 35 percent, police night shifts were increased and even Brazilians’ prized night games of soccer were prohibited.
The connection between hydro power and climate change is becoming all too painfully clear. Consider: the immediate cause of the 2001 energy crisis and blackout was a severe drought–the worst in more than sixty years. When the dry spell hit, water levels at hydroelectric plants fell to less than one-third of capacity.
In the long run hydro power may be caught in a vicious cycle of its own making: as large boondoggle projects such as Belo Monte proliferate, they may emit harmful greenhouse gases and thus contribute to climate change and increasing drought. But if global warming dries up parts of the Amazon, Belo Monte and other dams like it could wind up being white elephants as there won’t be much water left to harness.