Whatever we might think about Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth, I’m glad it has settled one question: can a single film make a difference in tipping public opinion about a matter of global importance? The answer, where climate change is concerned, is a resounding yes!
But years or decades before Al Gore, other film makers have had their own impact on other environmental issues. One of them is Adrian Cowell, the award-winning British film maker whose quest to tell the story of the destruction of the Amazon forest made politicians listen and the world take note.
According to the Centre for Social Media at the American University, “He catapulted the environmental movement to save the Amazonian rain forests through the television series The Decade of Destruction and Banking on Disaster.”
Adrian, whom I have had the pleasure of meeting and talking on several occasions, is a world acclaimed leader in our field. Born in Tongshan, China in 1934 and educated at Cambridge University, Adrian has been making films longer than I have been alive — and luckily for all of us, he is still at it.
He began filming his path-breaking series called The Decade of Destruction in 1980, when the Amazon was first opened up to settlers and developers. He has documented the systematic destruction of the rainforest there into late 1990 when, for the first time, there was an indication that the fires were being brought under control.
As the synopsis says: “Each episode follows the real life stories of people caught up in the frontier’s web of need and greed, stories of personal tragedy and great courage. The programs relate the individual’s struggle to the wider developments going on around them. Together they illustrate the principal issues of Amazonia during the 1980s – its decade of greatest destruction.”
The Chicago Tribune called it an epic, “a brilliantly told story of greed, death, politics, violence, heroism and environmental holocaust.”
I recently came across this brief account by Adrian Cowell himself, looking back at his long engagement with the Amazon:
“In January 1980 we started 10 years of recording the destruction of the Amazon forest. We began by filming colonists invading the territory of the then unknown, and very vulnerable, tribe, the Uru Eu Wau Wau, in the Brazilian state of Rondonia. Many colonists had received, free of charge from the government, plots of 40-50 hectares in the forest traditionally hunted by the Indians. Tragically, within a decade, this ‘colonisation’ process, called the Polonoroeste Project, would not only leave three-quarters of the Indians dead, but also prove a disaster for the colonists themselves. They had been given such poor soil that, within six years, 60% of the land they had so hopefully deforested would be abandoned.
“So we were astounded when the World Bank moved in to lend nearly half a billion dollars to the project, and were even more astonished when we realised that what was being played out in front of our cameras was evidence of one of the most disastrous loans the Bank had ever made. Not unnaturally, I went to Washington to find out what could explain the Bank’s loan. And there I met three environmentalists, Bruce Rich, Barbara Bramble and Brent Blackwelder, respectively from the Environmental Defense Fund, the National Wildlife Federation and the Environmental Policy Institute. They were campaigning on how international economic development affected the environment. But by a remarkable coincidence they had decided to focus, not only on the World Bank, but on – of all its hundreds of loans all over the world – the very Polonoroeste Project that we were filming. They asked me to show our film in Congressional hearings and I telephoned José Lutzenberger – more or less the father of Brazilian environmentalism – to ask him to testify. By yet another happy coincidence, an American researcher, Brent Millikan, had written a report giving academic detail to the facts behind what we had filmed. And an American expert on Amazonia, Dr Philip Fearnside, added his authority to the diagnosis of what was going wrong.
“And so, some months later – after a complex chain of legislative and political developments – we were able to record Senator Robert Kasten, the chairman of the powerful Appropriation Committee’s subcommittee on foreign operations, cutting off 20% of the money the US donated annually to the World Bank. Nothing concentrates a banker’s attention more than the withdrawal of some of his money. Within a few months we were able to conclude our programme, Banking on Disaster, by filming World Bank president Barber Conable admitting, for the first time, that a Bank loan, specifically the Polonoroeste Project, had gone wrong. This was to be the beginning of a very slow and gradual greening of World Bank policies.
“Obviously, our television film had played a part in this political change. But though a film may sometimes be the most dramatic way to present a case, it is an illusion to think that it can be more than just one tool or facet of the very complex process behind international and environmental evolution.”
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Here’s more biographical background about Adrian:
Adrian Cowell has been making documentary films for five decades. In 1955-56, he joined the Oxford and Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition, an experience which launched his film career and his interest in Burma. The following year, he made his first foray into the rain forest of Brazil, part of a joint Oxford-Cambridge expedition of young filmmakers. These early trips became the seeds of Cowell’s award-winning epic projects. His series Opium was filmed over an eight-year period (including nine months when he was trapped behind the lines in Burma). His ten-year chronicle of the destruction of the Brazilian rain forests during the 1980’s—broadcast as the television series The Decade of Destruction —stirred the world and contributed to the international debate on how the Amazon should be developed. In 1990, The Decade of Destruction was broadcast on Channel Four in Britain and on PBS FRONTLINE in the U.S. Adrian Cowell’s more recent British TV series include The Heroin Wars. It is a follow-up to The Opium Trail (1966), The Opium Warlords (1974) and Opium (1978).
Cowell is an environmental activist, co-founder of the Television Trust for the Environment and the author of two books on Brazilian Indians, The Heart of the Forest (Knopf) and The Tribe that Hides from Man (Stein and Day). He also wrote a companion book to the TV series The Decade of Destruction (Henry Holt and Company).
Read PBS interview with Adrian Cowell on another of his film series, on opium trade in Southeast Asia