"Huge dams are a 20th century idea in the 21st century: it's a dinosaur's idea. What's happening in Avatar is happening in Brazil and places like India and China, where traditional villages are displaced by big infrastructure projects."
It is not International Rivers or Amazon Watch which have just denounced large dams as "an ecological disaster." It is the director of the Avatar movie, James Cameron himself. With his recent trip to the Amazon, the Hollywood icon left the comfortable perch of his studio and found his own Pandora - a situation, as he said, "where a real-life Avatar confrontation is in progress."
Traveling with committed activists from Amazon Watch, James Cameron visited the Big Bend of the Xingu River, the Amazon tributary which is threatened by the giant Belo Monte Dam. Over the last few days, he met with environmental experts, local activists like the courageous Bishop Erwin Kreutler, and 80 representatives of the indigenous communities that are threatened by the huge dam project. In his conversations, he learned that the river's fate may be sealed when the Brazilian government auctions the Belo Monte Dam off to interested investors on April 20.
The meetings on the Xingu were highly emotional. James Cameron reports that he "felt compelled, from that moment on, to do what I could to prevent the dam from being built." And so he decided to write to the Brazilian President, Luis Inácio "Lula" da Silva.
In a powerful, compelling letter, Cameron - the director of the most successful movie ever shown in Brazil - lists all the reasons to stop the Belo Monte Project: If built, the dam will leave a 100 kilometer stretch of the Xingu without water and wildlife. The diversion will prevent migratory fish from reaching the Upper Xingu, where they are an important part of the diet of the indigenous communities. The dam's reservoir will force an estimated 20,000 people from their homes, and will spread malaria and other waterborne diseases in the region. Far from producing clean energy, the Belo Monte reservoir will emit large amounts of methane - a greenhouse gas much more aggressive than carbon dioxide. To top it off, the dam will only attain its large electricity potential if additional dams are built upstream to regulate the river's flow throughout the year.
Cameron points out that most of the dam's electricity will not be used by Brazilian consumers, but by nearby aluminum smelters, which employ very few people. And he reminds President Lula da Silva that investments in energy efficiency could meet Brazil's energy needs at a lower cost than the Belo Monte Dam.
James Cameron has listened to the experts. He has done his homework, and knows his facts. Yet in the end, his appeal is emotional. "Brazil sits at the tectonic interface between the modern technological world and the besieged natural world," Cameron writes. "We all want our children and future generations to inherit a world that is survivable. To do that we must change the old ways, and make compassionate decisions based on a sustainable vision of 'progress.' The Indigenous people live with little negative impact to their forest world, and we must learn from their ancient wisdom. We must ask ourselves 'what kind of ancestors do we want to be?'"
James Cameron is a Hollywood celebrity, and it is easy to dismiss his appeal as the publicity stunt of a jet-setting millionaire. The Avatar director is aware of this risk, and he addresses it in his letter. He acknowledges that his own society in North America is the primary contributor to global warming. He knows that industrialized countries must compensate countries like Brazil for protecting the ecosystems which they have destroyed at home, and says that he will use his influence in the media to promote this idea. For what it is worth, he and his wife power their home in Santa Barbara with solar and wind energy and grow organic vegetables.
In an earlier blog post, I argued that a real-life Avatar story is currently playing out in places like the Big Bend of the Xingu, Ethiopia's Omo Valley, and the rainforests of Sarawak. James Cameron has now found his own Pandora in the Amazon. He has borne witness to his experience, and has accepted the responsibility to act on it. We applaud him, and can only try to do the same.