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Pandora’s Box

James Cameron's misguided crusade in the Brazilian rain forest.


James Cameron’s blockbuster film, Avatar, describes the plight of a group of indigenous cat-people in a battle to save their planet, Pandora, from a rapacious mining corporation from an environmentally devastated future-Earth. Now it seems that the director, who lived with indigenous people in Brazil’s Para state for a week while researching the film, has spent too much time watching his own movie.

Recently, Cameron and Avatar star Sigourney Weaver re-enacted the plot of their film, minus the Great Leonopteryx and the pseudo-neuroscience, when they joined environmental advocacy group Amazon Watch’s campaign to block the construction of the Belo Monte dam project in Para. In the process, Cameron has become the international face of a dispute that has been building for decades — and a serious irritant for Brazilians on all sides of the issue.

The social and environmental consequences of the dam will indeed be dire, and this week it was announced that Norte Energia, an energy consortium, had won the bid to build it. Belo Monte’s three reservoirs will flood 400 square kilometers of agricultural land and forest. If previous developments are anything to go by, the project will attract tens of thousands of migrant laborers to work in the construction industry. Once built, however, the dam will only generate long-term employment for about 2,000 people. The remaining labor pool is likely to be driven to illegal logging and cattle ranching, the two largest causes of deforestation, while placing further strains on the region’s social services.

Environmentalists also warn that the wide variations in the Xingu River’s water load between the rainy and dry seasons mean that more dams will need to be built upstream to guarantee a year-round flow of water. These will have a far greater environmental impact, but without them Belo Monte, according to Amazon Watch, "will be one of the most energy inefficient dams in the history of Brazil," producing only 10 percent of its capacity during the three-to-five-month-long dry season.

Brazil’s overwhelmingly popular President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has repeatedly insisted that the dam will be a source of clean renewable energy, helping to support the economic development of his country’s poorest region. He argues that his government has modified the scheme to protect the indigenous people who live in the area and that whoever is awarded the project will have to pay $800 million to do so.

"Green-wash!" retort the dam’s opponents, and on this charge they might have a point because there is no question that the dam will result in the uprooting of at least 20,000 indigenous people from their homes and no amount of compensation can restore their traditional way of life. A third of the project’s cost will come out of the public purse — and most of this will be given as "sweeteners" to private-sector companies that remain dubious about the project’s financial viability. Two senior officials from Brazil’s environmental agency, IBAMA, resigned their posts last year, citing high-level political pressure to approve the project.

But though Cameron might be right on the merits of the case, his intervention risks turning it into a debate over Brazil’s ability to manage its own affairs. In an interview with the Associated Press after an injunction against the project was overturned, he blamed "entrenched interests and billions of dollars" for creating a "steamroller." In fact, Brazil’s attorney general is quite properly acting as an independent watchdog, and the courts have carefully considered the constitutional issues at stake. The system of checks and balances, in other words, is working much as it should. Although there is a serious case to be made against the project, attempts to impose a Hollywood narrative on the situation ignore the energy needs of Brazil’s growing economy, trivialize the political issues, and undermine the credibility of international environmental campaigns.

As Luiz Carlos Tremonte, head of a logging industry group in Para, sarcastically remarked to the Associated Press: "To speak about the Amazon, an individual must have come down at least once with malaria, be bitten by a snake…. Cameron only flies first-class, stays in five-star hotels, and never did anything for the Amazon."

The Belo Monte dam is scheduled for completion in 2019. If and when it is built, it will be the world’s third-largest hydroelectric dam. It is expected to produce 11,000 megawatts of power and provide electricity to 23 million Brazilian homes. Officials hope that it will supply 6 percent of the country’s needs by 2014, the same year Brazil will host soccer’s World Cup and just two years before Rio de Janeiro holds the 2016 Olympics.

There is no question that this electricity is needed. The existing power supply cannot keep up with rapidly expanding demand. Power cuts are becoming increasingly frequent and exact a high political cost, as the government’s nervous reaction to a huge blackout last year showed. Ministers say hydroelectric plants are a vital way to ensure power supplies over the next decade — and at least 70 dams are said to be planned for the Amazon region.

Brazilians themselves are divided on the issue. Lula responded to his critics, "No one worries more about taking care of the Amazon and our Indians than we do." But, perhaps unwittingly turning the Avatar analogy on its head, he has warned that developed countries should not lecture Brazil on the environment because "we don’t need those who already destroyed [what they had] to come here and tell us what to do."

Cameron replied, evidently channeling Jake Sully, "I am sure [da Silva] doesn’t like us poking around in his affairs, but this is an international issue…. I am from your future to tell you what you are going to be like, and you are not going to like it."

The original plan for Belo Monte, which dates back to 1975, included six dams, but this was canceled following protests by indigenous groups in 1989, backed by the international rock star Sting, which convinced international investors to drop out. At a recent Amazon Watch conference in Washington, panelists compared their initial legal victory to Sting’s intervention in 1989 and called for pressure to be brought to "encourage the Brazilian public to take a stand."

But the comparison is flawed. In 1989 Brazil had only recently emerged from dictatorship and was groaning under a heavy foreign debt. Today the country’s democratic credentials are no longer under any question. With government reserves of $240 billion, a booming economy, and healthy trade surpluses, Brazil is an emerging superpower and no longer needs to go cap in hand to foreign sources of investment.

The country has not been kind to well-intentioned outsiders meddling in its backyard. When Swedish "millionaire with a conscience" Johan Eliasch bought 400,000 acres of rain forest to prevent deforestation and proposed that the entire Amazon could be bought for around $50 billion, he found himself quickly attacked as a neocolonialist in the Brazilian media and investigated by the government for cutting down trees on his own land.

Brazilians do care about the environment, but many find the idea that they should be "pressurized into taking a stand" by international campaigners deeply offensive and patronizing. There is a serious and grown-up debate to be had about how a large and rapidly expanding economy can meet its growing energy needs on a low-carbon basis. But this is not a battle between the Na’vi and the Unobtanium-greedy earthlings, and Cameron should beware of confusing real life with cartoon fiction.

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