When Avatar (creator) meets Amazon (tribes)…

James Cameron in the Amazon - Photo by André Vieira for The New York Times

This encounter was bound to happen: Hollywood movie director James Cameron, creator of the blockbuster movie Avatar, meets a group of indigenous tribes in the Brazilian Amazon.

But this wasn’t part of a movie plot or promotional stunt: Cameron took time off to make his first ever visit to the Amazon because of a real world environmental cause.

He was visiting Volta Grande Do Xingu last week to discuss the Belo Monte dam being planned by the Brazilian government. According to The New York times: “It would be the third largest in the world, and environmentalists say it would flood hundreds of square miles of the Amazon and dry up a 60-mile stretch of the Xingu River, devastating the indigenous communities that live along it. For years the project was on the shelf, but the government now plans to hold an April 20 auction to award contracts for its construction.”

Map courtesy The New York Times

The dam is a “quintessential example of the type of thing we are showing in ‘Avatar’ — the collision of a technological civilization’s vision for progress at the expense of the natural world and the cultures of the indigenous people that live there,” the newspaper quotes Cameron as saying.

Cameron had derived inspiration from decades long struggles to save the Amazon, but he didn’t know of this specific project until recently. Apparently he first became aware of the issue in February 2010, when he was presented with a letter from advocacy organizations and Native American groups saying they wanted Mr. Cameron to highlight “the real Pandoras in the world”.

Read the full story in The New York Times, 10 April 2010: Tribes of Amazon Find an Ally Out of ‘Avatar’

As I noted in my first comments on Avatar in January 2010: “It looks as if Cameron has made the ultimate DIY allegory movie: he gives us the template into which any one of us can add our favourite injustice or underdog tale — and stir well. Then sit back and enjoy while good triumphs over evil, and the military-industrial complex is beaten by ten-foot-tall, blue-skinned natives brandishing little more than bows and arrows (and with a little help from Ma Nature). If only it works that way in real life…”

A few days later, I followed up with another post I titled Avatar unfolds in the Amazon – a comparison with an investigative documentary, Crude: The Real Price of Oil, made by Joe Berlinger, which chronicles the epic battle to hold oil giant Chevron (formerly Texaco) accountable for its systematic contamination of the Ecuadorian Amazon – an environmental tragedy that experts call “the Rainforest Chernobyl.”

And now, within weeks, the Avatar-maker and Amazon-savers have joined hands!

Watch this space…

See also October 2009 blog post: Adrian Cowell and ‘The Decade of Destruction’: A film can make a difference!

Adrian Cowell and ‘The Decade of Destruction’: A film can make a difference!

The Amazon burning

The Decade of Destruction A unique chronicle of the destruction of the Amazonian rainforest.

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 Cowell

Adrian Cowell

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.

Amazon: The last frontier?“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.”

* * * * *

Here’s more biographical background about Adrian:

The Decade of Destruction - book cover

Book of the TV series

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

New Face of People Power: Social Accountability in action

In an earlier post, I wrote about how citizen groups are increasingly empowering themselves with information to demand greater accountability from their elected representatives in local, provincial and central governments.

This is collectively called Social Accountability – and it represents a significantly higher level of citizen engagement than merely changing governments at elections or taking to the streets for popular revolt (‘people power’).

In 2004, TVE Asia Pacific produced a half-hour international TV documentary titled People Power that profiled four Social Accountability projects in Africa (Malawi), Asia (India), Europe (Ireland) and Latin American (Brazil).

Watch the Brazil story on TVEAP’s YouTube channel:

The experiment with participatory budgeting in the municipality of Porto Alegre in Brazil is a long-running example that we filmed. This is one of the largest cities in Brazil, one of the most important cultural, political and economic centers of Southern Brazil.

The city is well known as the birth place of the World Social Forum. The first WSF was held there in January 2001.

Participatory budgeting goes back to a decade earlier. It was started in 1989 by the newly elected “Worker Party” (PT) to involve people in democratic resource management in an effort to provide greater levels of spending to poorer citizens and neighborhoods. It has since spread to over 80 municipalities and five states in Brazil.

Porto Alegre’s challenge was how to include the poorer people in this success. Housing was a major problem as rural people migrate to the city looking for work. In the past, people built temporary houses on whatever land they could find, and the city council kept on demolishing these unauthorised structures.

from-people-power-porto-allegre-story-2.jpg

As Brazil moved from a totalitarian to democratic form of government in the late 1980s, the newly elected city government adopted a program where the people participate in prioritising the City Budget.

The city is divided into sixteen regions and during each year, local neighbourhoods send representatives to people’s assemblies. In these assemblies, the neighbourhood representatives discuss priorities for the allocation of the city budget. They then elect their representatives from each region to form a budget council.

Over a year, from neighbourhood associations to people’s assemblies, up to 20,000 people have a direct say on how the city budget should be allocated.

This participation ensures democratic accountability and fairer distribution of tax revenue. It allows the poorest and the richest regions to have equal weight in the decision process.

After the introduction of participatory budgeting, an influential business journal nominated Porto Alegre as the Brazilian city with the ‘best quality in life’ for the 4th consecutive times. Statistics show that there has been significant improvement in quality of roads, access to water services, coverage of sewerage system, school enrollment and tax revenue collection.

from-people-power-porto-allegre-story.jpg

We interviewed Joao Verle (wearing pink shirt in photo above), the then Mayor of Porto Allegre, who said: “I believe in this project since i was one of those responsible for starting it fifteen years ago. The participatory budget is now part of the organic life of this city – people can change it any time they please. And this makes it more adaptive to the people’s needs.”

First broadcast on BBC World in February 2004, People Power documentary has since been widely distributed to broadcast, civil society and educational users in the global South. It is still available from TVEAP on DVD and VHS video.

Photos are all captured from People Power video film. Courtesy TVE Asia Pacific

Read my post about social accountability in the world’s largest democracy, India