[Marxism] James Cameron in the Amazon

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Apr 5 07:55:36 MDT 2010

Counterpunch April 5, 2010
After Avatar
James Cameron in the Amazon


Fresh off his huge blockbuster success with Avatar, James Cameron 
is taking a commendable stand on indigenous issues in the 
rainforest. Flying down to Brazil’s Amazonian city of Manaus 
recently, the film director criticized the Belo Monte hydro 
electric dam project. “For people living along the river, as they 
have for millennia,” he said, “the dam will end their way of life. 
I implore the Brazilian government, and President Lula, to 
reconsider this project.”

To his credit, Cameron did not simply pop up in Manaus impromptu 
without getting the full inside story behind hydro-power. With the 
help of hardworking and dedicated organizations such as Amazon 
Watch, Cameron toured the Xingu River and attended a gathering of 
over 100 indigenous leaders from dozens of communities. Not to be 
outdone, he also visited Altamira, a local town which stands to be 
flooded by the Belo Monte dam.

Having tackled the thorny problem of environmental destruction in 
Avatar, Cameron is now adding his own high profile voice to the 
cause of rainforest preservation. No doubt, the film director has 
already sensed the disturbing parallels between the virtual, 3-D 
world of Pandora and the Amazon jungle: just like the fictional 
Na’vi people, who fight against an earth-based, mining consortium, 
the Kayapo Indians are fighting to preserve about 500 square miles 
of their lands threatened by flooding.

Amazonian indigenous peoples, like the Na’vi, maintain intimate 
connection to the land, rivers and forests. If they are displaced 
by mega projects such as dams, they lose their culture, history 
and sense of identity. Belo Monte would be particularly damaging 
to the environment: if constructed, the project would divert 80 
percent of the flow of the Xingu River along a 60 mile stretch, 
drying up the lifeline of tens of thousands of people who depend 
on the local water supply.

Despite widespread opposition, the Brazilian authorities recently 
approved Belo Monte's environmental license and consortiums will 
bid on the project in April. Not only is the project an ecological 
boondoggle but it makes little sense from an energy standpoint. 
Indeed, Belo Monte would constitute one of the most inefficient 
dams in Brazilian history.

“There are always other solutions, when good leaders put their 
will to a problem,” Cameron declared in Manaus. “A WWF [World 
Wildlife Fund] Brazil study showed if Brazil were to invest a 
fraction of the cost of the dam in energy efficiency it could 
generate 14 times the energy of the Belo Monte Dam and have 
electricity savings of up to US$19 billion,” the director added.

I hope that Cameron will take his activism to the next level and 
shoot a film about the Amazon, situating hydro power within the 
larger environmental context. As I reveal in my book No Rain in 
the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Affects the Entire Planet 
--- now hot off the press from Palgrave-Macmillan --- hydro power 
is just one piece of the overall jigsaw puzzle.

In Brazil a nefarious web of soy planters, cattle ranchers and 
hydropower interests shunt indigenous peoples and others aside 
while fostering deforestation in the rainforest.
In years past, many in the Global North viewed the Amazon dilemma 
as an important, but somewhat abstract, environmental issue. That 
attitude must change: deforestation threatens to unleash a massive 
carbon bomb while hydropower will lead to dangerous methane 
emissions, thus exacerbating our climate change conundrum.

Despite the gravity of the situation, some may conclude that the 
Amazon is a largely Brazilian or Peruvian problem which 
northerners have little to do with. Think again: it is Europe, the 
United States, and even China which now consume many of the 
tropical commodities from the Amazon. Meanwhile, American 
companies are cashing in on the agribusiness boom in Brazil while 
large financial institutions backed by the U.S. fund backward 
environmental enterprises.

Now is the time for Hollywood to take up the vital issue of the 
rainforest, and Cameron is the ideal director to undertake the 
project. While a number of Hollywood movies have dealt with the 
Amazon over the years, none of them have been runaway box office 
smashes. Given his environmental activism, I think it likely 
Cameron has at least considered doing a film about the rainforest 
but publicly there’s been no mention of such a move.

If Cameron were to launch a movie about the tropics, what previous 
work might he build upon? Hopefully, Hollywood will not seek to 
rely on the same tired and clichéd plot lines. The analog to 
Cameron’s Jake Sully, a white man who goes native on Pandora, is 
Mendoza, a debased slave trader who becomes a Jesuit priest in the 
1986 film The Mission. The movie is set in the mid eighteenth 
century in what is today northeastern Argentina and western 
Paraguay as Mendoza, played by a horribly miscast Robert De Niro, 
fights to defend the Indians living in missions from nefarious 
Portuguese imperial interests.

Writing in the New York Times, Vincent Canby lauded the film for 
its stunning natural beauty: “the film's most riveting sequence,” 
he remarked, “comes at the very beginning, when we see a crucified 
Jesuit missionary being tossed - cross and all - into the river 
and carried over the spectacular Iguassu Falls.” On the other 
hand, Canby was critical of the film in other respects. “The 
Indians,” he declared, “about whom the film seems to care so much, 
are condescended to as mostly smiling, trusting, undifferentiated 
aspects of Eden - innocents with sweet singing voices and a lot of 

Other filmmakers such as Werner Herzog have eschewed Hollywood 
sentimentalism in favor of a more mannered and quirky style. 
Herzog’s early films dealing with the Amazon, Aguirre: Wrath of 
God, about a sixteenth century conquistador on the search for the 
legendary city of El Dorado, and the later Fitzcarraldo, 
concerning an opera loving madman determined to drag a boat 
overland from one river to another, were too eccentric to appeal 
to a mass audience.

On the other hand, White Diamond, Herzog’s recent documentary, is 
not as overwrought as his earlier movies. It’s about an English 
aeronautical engineer who designs a balloon which he pilots over 
the Guyanese rainforest. The film includes breathtakingly 
beautiful images of the jungle and a dazzling waterfall. Unlike 
The Mission, White Diamond is not driven so much by narrative than 
ideas and impressions. The film features occasional voice over by 
the director.

Trying to get people to the theater to take in a serious and 
political environmental documentary is a difficult sell, but with 
the model of White Diamond in hand an enterprising filmmaker could 
pack in the crowds. Imagine flying over the Andes and down into 
the jungle, all the while taking in the jungle canopy as in White 
Diamond. Now imagine taking the same trip, but with 3-D technology 
as in Avatar.

A 1983 film, Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance, about man’s 
mastery over the earth, was visually stunning. Since then, 
however, 3-D has taken movie-going to a whole other level.
Ten years ago for example I saw a film about the Galapagos 
featuring marine iguanas at an Imax theater. Today, we have high 
definition and National Geographic TV has exploded, so much so 
that the network now plans to launch an additional network called 
Nat Geo Wild.

The problem for Americans is that they are cut off from the 
rainforest, which is abstract and far away. The vast majority 
isn’t adventurous and will never go to Peru or Brazil to stay in 
an eco-friendly jungle lodge. That doesn’t mean, however, that 
northerners aren’t interested in the Amazon. I think if given the 
chance, they would want to swim with a manatee, even if it were 
just in the virtual world.

One of the most outlandish creatures on the planet, the shy and 
retiring manatee is my favorite Amazonian animal. First described 
as a cross between a seal and hippo, the manatee has a wonderfully 
round body, mostly black skin the texture of vinyl, a bright pink 
belly, a diamond-shaped tail, a cleft lip, and a unique sixth sense.

Living life in the slow lane, manatees are fond of doing nothing 
much at all. However, the manatee does eat a lot of aquatic 
vegetation. An exclusive vegetarian that feeds on water lettuce 
and hyacinth, the animal eats 10 percent of its body weight in a 
single day. Not surprisingly manatees are robust—they can grow up 
to ten feet long and weigh nearly a ton.

As a recent documentary about the Ecuadoran Amazon entitled Crude 
demonstrated, you can be political about environmental issues and 
make your point without hitting people over the head. Crude, shot 
in cinema vérité style, was compelling without resorting to 
incessant narration.

Crude, however, did not concentrate very much on wildlife and it 
is here where future filmmakers could make their mark. Those who 
do undertake the arduous trek to the rainforest may have dreamt 
all their lives about seeing certain animals. For me, the primary 
objective was to see a manatee and in Iquitos I finally got my chance.

At an installation belonging to the Institute of Peruvian Amazon 
Research outside of town, I saw a couple of caretakers throwing 
lettuce into open-air tanks. In the first tank, a pint-sized baby 
dolphin was scratching its back against a wood pole. Walking 
further, I spotted another tank full of juvenile manatees, and, in 
a third, a baby manatee all on its own.

By the look of it, the infant was not doing too well. One of the 
staff explained that the caretakers found the animal in a severely 
malnourished state. While seeing the manatees was certainly one of 
the highlights of my trip, it was disappointing to observe the 
infant in such a poor state of health.

In 2005 observers were saddened by the sight of dying manatees 
lying in local rivers. According to the Brazilian environmental 
agency, more than one hundred of the rare aquatic mammals could 
have died as a result of a drought thought to be linked to warming 
currents in the Atlantic.
In addition to climate change, the manatee faces a number of other 
daunting threats including rainforest destruction, dam building, 
and accidental drowning in commercial fishing nets. If that were 
not serious enough, the manatee is hunted for its meat and oil, 
which has taken a toll. It’s impossible to say how many manatees 
are left, perhaps fewer than 10,000 in the Amazon region.
Americans want to see all the wonders of the Amazon and to feel 
connected to exotic wildlife.

New cinematic technologies now make that possible. However, the 
audience needs to be brought inside the corporate board rooms and 
high up government offices where lasting decisions are made about 
the rainforest’s future and the plight of the manatee. A cinema 
vérité film, particularly if it is pushed by a high profile 
director, could raise consciousness in the Global North without 
necessarily being overly didactic or preachy.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of the upcoming No Rain In the 
Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects The Entire 
Planet (Palgrave Macmillan, April 2010). Visit his web site, 

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