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Patrick McCully

Patrick McCully

Posted: August 30, 2010 04:43 PM

Deep in the Amazon rainforest, the Brazilian government wants to build a massive, nasty dam called Belo Monte. The hydropower plant has long been at the center of a lopsided battle between Brazil's powerful hydro-industrial complex -- with full backing from President Lula and his government -- and the country's indigenous people and environmental and social activists.

The dispute came to international prominence in April this year with a front-page New York Times story about Avatar director James Cameron visiting the Belo Monte region. Cameron heard directly from local Indians how they would lose their lands and livelihoods because of the flooding and river destruction that the dam would cause.

Cameron was deeply moved by his exposure to this real-world "Pandora." His trip inspired an idea to use Google Earth to produce a state-of-the-art digital animation to illustrate the potentially devastating impacts of the dam on the Xingu River, a major Amazon tributary.

The Google Earth animation has now been launched to coincide with the August 27 release of "Avatar: Special Edition" (a longer version of the original movie complete with what director James Cameron calls "the Alien kink scene"). The animated tour is narrated by Avatar star Sigourney Weaver, who accompanied Cameron to the Xingu in April. (Brazilian actress Dira Paes narrates the Portuguese-language of the tour, available in early September.)

The animation was produced by two U.S.-based organizations, International Rivers and Amazon Watch, who are working closely with Brazilian opponents of the dam.

The Belo Monte Dam Complex would dry-up an important stretch of the Xingu, flood an area upstream the size of Chicago, and displace more than 20,000 people. Late last week, the Brazilian government signed the concession to build the dam.

Brazilian economists and engineers say the dam would only generate at a fraction of its capacity during the dry season and could lose billions of dollars a year. Many suspect that Belo Monte is only the first phase of the destruction of the Xingu; the government may very well implement its previous plans of building more reservoirs upstream, with even greater impacts.

The animation uses map overlays and 3D models to illustrate the potential for conservation, solar and wind energy to meet Brazil's future energy needs. Less optimistically, it describes the plans to build over 60 big hydro projects in the Brazilian Amazon, and a further 80 in the other countries that share the Amazon, chiefly in Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia. The plans for the hydro-electrocution of the Amazon can be explored in this interactive map.

Cameron has also produced a video feature on Belo Monte called "A Message from Pandora." A 3-minute trailer of the feature was launched last week with a link from the Avatar movie website, inviting Avatar fans to join the campaign to stop the Belo Monte Dam and defend the rainforest. The full feature will be included in the DVD of "Avatar: Special Edition," to be released in November.

Watch the video of the animation, interact with the tour, and see for yourself. Then sign the petition to stop the Belo Monte Dam. The people of the Xingu will thank you for it.