Saving threatened habitats worldwide

Avatars, Indigenous rights and the rainforest

2 February, 2010 - 11:35 -- John Burton

At the WLT we have seen a sudden surge in donations and several of our new donors have mentioned that they have seen the blockbuster film Avatar, and wanted to do something to help the environment. So I decided I had better go and see the film, and what it was all about.

Most of my life I have been a bit of a film buff, though in recent years I rarely actually get to a cinema. And I am also fairly infamous among friends as an aficionado of horror films, B movies, and fairly weird surrealist films. So the chance to see a major 3D Sci-Fi fantasy, seemed worthwhile. From the outset the special effects were superb. But nearly three hours later I felt that was just about it; special effects; seamless transitions from actors to computer generated special effects.

However original and clever, special effects do not make a great movie, and unfortunately, the plot of Avatar was pretty unoriginal and could be traced back to several dozen earlier movies. The story line is a pretty banal metaphor for man's destruction of planet earth, and the highlight of the film for me was the portrayal of the US army as colonial, might is right, all the world resources are ours by right, imperialists, with an oblique reference to the invasion of Iraq perhaps.

But the sad part of the green message is that I doubt if more than one person in a thousand seeing these Avatars will realise that this is precisely what is happening, as they watch the film, in the Gran Chaco of Paraguay, to mention just one wild place threatened by human encroachment. For Avatars read Ayoreo, M'ba, Chamococ, Guarani etc.

As a giant bulldozer in the film trundled towards the audience in dramatic 3D, I immediately recalled the image of a bulldozer coming off a boat that had just crossed the Paraguay River from Brazil, and was about to crash into the territory once occupied by the Chamacoco and other indigenous groups.

In the film it was a quest for the imaginatively named mineral 'unobtanium'. In Paraguay it is the quest for more beef, and more soya to feed the cows for more burgers.

The film allegedly cost $460,000,000 to make. But as the audience munch their way through burgers and guzzle cola, how many realise they are responsible indirectly for the destruction that this film allegorises. A few have, and they have made donations. But we need thousands more if we are to slow down the destruction of the Gran Chaco.

The Amazon is usually pinpointed as the area under threat. But the reality is different. Over 95% of the Atlantic Rainforests of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina have already gone. Some 4% survive in a pristine condition. An average of 1,000 acres a day of the Gran Chaco are disappearing, and some of the world's last uncontacted tribes are soon to come face to face with the 'civilization' they have deliberately shunned. Bows and arrows against bulldozers.

When Sir David Attenborough visited Paraguay in 1959 there were thousands of indigenous groups living in isolation, uncontacted by the rest of the world. Since then these numbers have dwindled, and their traditional lands which once teemed with wildlife are being swallowed up for a few years of profit. Most of the Chaco is so fragile that in a few years it will turn to desert - I have seen the dunes that are spreading year by year.

But the world prefers to watch a film about tall skinny blue aliens on another planet, and ignore the fact it is happening right now to real people.


Submitted by Anonymous on

Dear Mr. Burton,

I also saw the film and it reminded me of the destruction of the Chaco, Borneo or the Amazon, too. I told my girlfriend, that I am hoping that at least some will realize, that we do the same to our planet right now. Maybe, some more will follow the example of the few donators you have mentioned.

best wishes

Submitted by Helena Akerlund on

I really liked the film! Yes, the plot isn't particularly original, and I generally agree that special effects don't make a film, but this, I think was the exception that proves the rule, as the forest was just so breathtaking that the plot became secondary.

BUT, I did spend most of the film thinking about how much it must have cost to make and how much real forest that money would have bought.

James Cameron, the Director, offered the following 'excuse' receiving a Golden Globe:

"Avatar asks us to see that everything is connected… And if you have to go four and a half light years to a made-up planet to appreciate the world we have right here, that's the wonder of cinema."

(See more in The Guardian's Avatar shows how dumbing down works:

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