Avatar Story Was So True to Life
Sadly, the violent displacement of indigenous people by ruthless companies doesn't happen just on screen
By Jonathan Glennie
December 24, 2010 "The Guardian" -- Avatar was the biggest cinematic event over the last year. Set in 2154, it tells the story of the violent displacement of indigenous people from their jungle homes on a planet called Pandora, as a ruthless company searches for a precious mineral. But I wonder how many of the millions of people who went to see Avatar realised just how true to real life the story is.
Director James Cameron located his film in outer space. But violent displacement is neither science fiction nor ancient history for millions of indigenous people who today – in country after country around our world – are fighting for their survival so that people elsewhere can have the things they want at a price they think they can afford.
Although the details of each case are different, the story is usually the same. A company, backed by (the threat of) military might, moves in to displace people after attempts at "dialogue" have failed. In November, Survival, an organisation that fights for the rights of tribal peoples, sent a letter to oil companies in Peru to demand their immediate withdrawal from an area inhabited by uncontacted tribes. In the same month, it launched a campaign in defence of the Kalahari bushmen of Botswana, described by the country's minister of environment, wildlife and tourism, as "living in the dark ages in the middle of nowhere". Not in the middle of nowhere as it happens, but on top of a very large diamond deposit. Sound familiar? The list could go on.
One difference between Avatar and reality is that the military employed to forcibly remove people in our world is not usually a private force but the national army of the country involved. Rather than protecting its people, the army actually attacks the most vulnerable communities in the name of development.
When I worked in Colombia I would regularly talk to communities living in fear of displacement by oil/banana/African palm companies. I used to repeat one message: "You are not alone. The tactics you are experiencing are the same all over the world: divide, threaten, buy off, displace. Only with unity, international support and a positive alternative, can you win."
This is true. The first tactic of companies around the world is to divide a community, picking off leaders and sowing discord among families so that some are with the company and some against it. Only communities that manage to maintain unity despite the odds have any chance of winning the battle.
But that in itself is not enough. Unfortunately, a forgotten community deep in the jungle or high in the mountains stands little chance against the might of a multinational working with the national government and its army. Only with constant international attention, usually led by NGOs and the media, can they win the moral case, the first step towards winning the fight.
But you can't just say "no" – you also need a positive "yes" to a different type of development, both to maintain unity and to garner that national and international support. Luckily, there almost always is a positive alternative, but sometimes communities and NGOs need to be more adept at communicating it.
But there is one quality I should have added: perseverance. I was once with an indigenous community trying to explain the dangers of climate change. I emphasised that, unlike other threats, this was a threat to survival itself, if allowed to continue, and I was surprised how unconcerned the community leader was. Later, he told me that since the arrival of the Europeans their community had had to struggle for survival against renewed and different threats. The threat of climate change was no more worrying than any other.
In August, the Indian government suspended the Vedanta mining company's plan to mine Niyamgiri, a land sacred to the Dongria Kondh tribe. It was a great victory for a marginalised community over a powerful corporation. Unfortunately for the Dongria Kondh people, they have only won the battle, not the war. Their holy ground will always be valuable in the marketplace, and in a couple of years there is little doubt that they will have to organise again, to resist attacks on their dignified way of life. They will be accused of being Maoist rebels, again. They will be kidnapped and beaten, again. They will receive threatening phone calls, and be harassed by the government, the army and their allies in the press. Again.
Sound like a Hollywood movie? It is happening now, to real people. We watch Avatar and emerge from the cinema raging against the fictional mining company. But we are complicit in a thousand similar tragedies, as peoples are displaced and forests destroyed in our names.
This is the modern face of racism and, as with racism's most iconic expression, the black slave trade, the world needs to make a moral decision. Some will argue that compromises must be made for the progress of humanity. After all, we need oil, wood, gold, diamonds, coltan, copper. But are we prepared to see people die and their cultures die out? Is there another way? Or is it time for us to redefine progress?