Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Avatar Director James Cameron on a Mission: Will He Support Real-life Ecuador Struggle Against Chevron?

A friend of mine, and a well-connected dude, sent me a cryptic email the other morning: "U need to talk to James Cameron."

Right, sure, I'll just give James 'King of the World' Cameron, director of runaway hit Avatar, a ring on his cell phone. I wrote a quick note back to my friend, assuming he had just seen Avatar and thought I should pitch Cameron on donating to Amazon Watch and our work supporting real-life indigenous struggles against corporate evil-doers. Okay, yeah, nice idea, but c'mon.

My friend called a few minutes later and told me that he somehow ended up at a little cocktail reception at the Four Seasons in New York, where Cameron was shmoozing Academy members ahead of the Oscars. Apparently, Cameron gave a powerful speech about how he's "on a mission" to support environmental causes. He specifically noted how moved and inspired he was by a screening of Avatar in Quito for a group of Shuar and Achuar indigenous leaders and community members from the Amazon rainforests of Ecuador – people that Amazon Watch and our allies have worked to support.

Then, last night at an event in support of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Cameron called himself "proudly anti-corporate" (which I must say is a bit tough to square with the Avatar-McDonald's tie-in campaign) and went on to say that “ ‘Avatar’ asks us all to be warriors for the earth.”

Avatar is a powerful allegory on the evils of war, corporate greed and exploitation, colonialism, and disconnection from the natural world. The Na'vi – an amalgamation of Western fantasies about indigenous cultures from the Amazon Basin to to Bali to the Great Plains of North America – fight back valiantly against the evil RDA corporation and its ruthless military force. And despite the cliché and patronizing narrative, Avatar has brought to the masses a popular film about awakening to the ills of rapacious capitalism, recognizing the inherent interdependence of the natural world, and defending the rights of its indigenous inhabitants.

Of course, Avatar has had plenty of critics, besides cranky right-wingers who are offended by its message, even though they haven't seen it. In an article entitled 'When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like 'Avatar'?,' technology and culture critic Annalee Newitz calls it a "rehash of an old white guilt fantasy." She writes,

"This is a classic scenario you've seen in non-scifi epics from Dances With Wolves to The Last Samurai, where a white guy manages to get himself accepted into a closed society of people of color and eventually becomes its most awesome member."

But others have a different take. In a widely-circulated article on Huffington Post, Josh Schrei writes about some of the parallels between Avatar and real-life indigenous struggles. And guest-blogging at Mother Nature Network, environmental activist and producer Harold Linde asks, "Is Avatar radical environmental propaganda?" (the answer is yes, which is a good thing.) And a number of organizations who work to advance indigenous rights and defend against corporate pillage of indigenous resources are trying to get the director's attention.

The latest push is from our friends at Rainforest Action Network (RAN), who are reaching out through online social media like twitter and facebook to encourage people to ask Cameron to speak up for the indigenous people and peasant farmers in the Ecuadorian Amazon whose rainforest home was ravaged and poisoned by oil giant Chevron.

RAN's new Acting Executive Director Becky Tarbotton has an article on San Francisco Chronicle's City Brights blog. The title is the same as the tweets I've been seeing going around, 'I want Avatar Oscar speech to mention real-life Ecuador struggle against Chevron'

Some film geeks are debating about whether James Cameron should win Best Picture or whether his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow deserves it for The Hurt Locker, a very different film than Avatar. But Avatar has a bunch of nominations and Cameron will likely take to the stage at least a handful of times on Oscar night.

As Becky writes, "What if in his acceptance speech James Cameron mentioned the real-life Indigenous Ecuadorean heroes who are battling the real-life Chevron bad guys?" It would be a big boost to the campaign to hold the company accountable and demand justice for the people of Ecuador.

You can help make it happen. Read Becky's article to learn how:

By Becky Tarbotton

Once upon a time there was a movie.

Hundreds of millions of people around the world saw this movie. They were transported to the beautiful jungles of Pandora and introduced to the blue Na'vis and the evil RDA corporation.

Avatar (or unil-tìran-tokx in Na'vi) has been nominated for 9 Oscars. James Cameron, its infamous creator, has explicitly said he wants the highest grossing film in history to inspire mass environmental activism.

Fast forward to March 7. You're watching the Oscars and Avatar wins.

What if in his acceptance speech James Cameron mentioned the real-life Indigenous Ecuadorean heroes who are battling the real-life Chevron bad guys?

Retweet and help make it happen! I want Avatar director James Cameron to mention real-life Ecuador struggle against #Chevron at #Oscars:http://bit.ly/aOwuNI #realavatar

If James Cameron called out Chevron in his Oscars speech a world transfixed by this film phenomenon could take off the 3D glasses and step into a reality where they can make a difference.

The story of Chevron in Ecuador is no less dramatic, tragic, or inspiring than the fantasy world of Pandora.

The location: Avatar takes place in the beautiful jungles of Pandora where communities have been living in harmony with the Earth for centuries. Much like the communities depicted on Pandora, the Indigenous communities in the Ecuadorean Amazon rainforest relied on the Earth for clean water, healthy food and cultural heritage. They understood the secrets and medicines the forests held, and how invaluable it is to protect those ecosystems.

Enter the RDA corporation on Pandora and the Chevron oil corporation in the Amazon jungles of Ecuador. RDA built an extraction base, just as Chevron (then Texaco) built the oil boom-town Lago Agrio in the 1960s. Both corporations proceeded to drill like there was no tomorrow with no regard for the health of the environment or the communities.

During decades of drilling, Chevron (then Texaco) left 17 million gallons of crude oil spills, 917 unlined crude pits, and 18 billion (with a "B") gallons on toxic waste-water. That is about 9 gallons of toxics for every dollar Avatar (the highest grossing film in history) has made so far.

The Characters: In the fantasy, the Na'vi sit on the most sought after resources on Pandora. In real life, the Ecuadorean communities once sat atop a vast deposit of highly sought after crude oil. The Indigenous communities in the region where Chevron (then Texaco) operated have lost 95% of their ancestral land due to the impact of oil operations. People are suffering from birth defects, illness, cancer, and now death.

The Corporation: The RDA Corporation in Avatar is a money hungry, by-all-means, at-all-costs company that will stop at nothing to get their hands on the minerals of Pandora. Chevron (then Texaco) operated on the same mandate. Both RDA Corporation and Chevron refuse to acknowledge basic human rights and use cut-and-run operations that leave communities devastated. Chevron (then Texaco) deliberately used methods that were illegal in the US, that they knew would harm people, but allowed them to save a few dollars.

The Villain: Every action movie needs a villain, but not every corporation needs one. Chevron's new CEO John Watson is not a military man in the way the Colonel Miles Quaritch is, and has the chance right now to change course, to be a different character, in this story, and right the wrongs of his predecessors. John Watson can listen to the Ecuadorean people and the global community and clean up Ecuador.

The Ending: Courageous Ecuadoreans have been struggling for decades to force Chevron to clean up its toxic legacy. They are fighting for their right to drink clean water, for their families, for their communities to be restored and healed and for their cultural survival. They protest at home, travel to the US to confront Chevron CEOs and board members, and 30,000 are engaged in the largest environmental lawsuit of all time- a $27 billion liability for Chevron.

If Director James Cameron accepts an Academy Award next month, he should also let his legions of fans know that while Pandora is fictional, what is happening to communities in Ecuador because of Chevron's actions is as real as it gets.

– Han

Born and raised in Baltimore, Han Shan is a human rights and environmental justice campaigner living in New York City. He is an organizer with the Clean Up Ecuador campaign for Amazon Watch.

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