The Real Avatar
people fight to save their forest homes from corporate exploitation
Commentary by: Jeremy Hance
Taken from mongabay.com
December 22, 2009
Spoiler Alert: article reveals
end of the film Avatar.
In James Cameron's
newest film Avatar an alien tribe on a distant planet fights
to save their forest home from human invaders bent on mining the
planet. The mining company has brought in ex-marines for 'security'
and will stop at nothing, not even genocide, to secure profits for
its shareholders. While Cameron's film takes place on a planet
sporting six-legged rhinos and massive flying
lizards, the struggle between corporations and indigenous people is
hardly science fiction.
For decades real indigenous tribes around the world have faced off
with corporations—mining, logging, oil and gas—determined to exploit
their land. These corporations, much like the company in the film,
usually have support from the government and access to 'security
forces', sometimes in the form of ex-military or state police. Yet
unlike the film, in which the indigenous group triumphs over the
corporate and military invaders, the real-life stories of indigenous
tribes rarely end justly: from Peru to Malaysia to Ecuador their
Spears versus guns
In Avatar the indigenous tribe, called the Na'vi, use
poison-tipped arrows to defend themselves against the guns, gas, and
explosions used by the human invaders. Art imitates life: in June of
this year, violence erupted in Peru as heavily-armed police clashed
with indigenous protestors, some carried spears, others were
Kayapo shaman in Brazil
The indigenous tribes were protesting nearly 100 new rules pushed
through the Peruvian government—led by President Alan Garcia—that
made it easier for foreign companies to exploit oil, gas, timber,
and minerals on indigenous land. The violent skirmish that followed
led to the deaths of 23 police officers and at least 10 indigenous
people—with indigenous groups saying the government went to great
lengths to hide/dispose of bodies to make it appear that fewer
natives were killed. Bodies were allegedly dumped in rivers.
What is known is that 82 protesters suffered gunshot wounds and 120
in total were injured in the melee. Protesters say tear gas was
used; in addition some say machine guns—shown in photos—were fired
Just weeks after the bloody incident, Texas-based Hunt Oil, with
full support of the Peruvian government, moved into the Amarakaeri
Communal Reserve with helicopters and large machinery for seismic
testing. A scene not unlike Avatar, which shows a corporation
entering indigenous territory with gun ships. The seismic testing
alone involves 300 miles of testing trails, over 12,000 explosive
charges, and 100 helicopter land pads in the middle of a
largely-untouched and unknown region of the Amazonian rainforest.
The reserve, which was created to protect native peoples' homes, may
soon be turned into a land of oil scars. Indigenous groups say they
were never properly consulted by Hunt Oil for use of their land.
Many of the rules put forth by the government that led to the
protest have since been determined unconstitutional, while Garcia
has rescinded two rules. Still Garcia says—as evidenced from Hunt
Oil—that he plans to move forward with controversial oil and gas
development on tribal lands in the Amazon.
Areas of the region slated for development are also home to
uncontacted Amazonian tribes. Garcia has repeatedly called into
question the existence of any such tribes, though aerial photos
recently showed uncontacted natives armed with spears near the area
in question. The leases under protest are a part of the Free Trade
Agreement signed by both the United States and Canada.
Photos of an uncontacted tribe in the Terra Indigena Kampa e
Isolados do Envira, Acre state, Brazil, near the border with
caused a stir when they were released by Survival
International, an NGO, in May 2008. The indigenous group is
said to be threatened by oil exploration in the area. ©
In the film the Na'vi are dismissed as "blue monkeys" and "savages"
by the corporate administrator. Both the corporation and their hired
soldiers view the Na'vi as less than human.
In Peru, President Alan Garcia has called indigenous people
"confused savages", "barbaric", "second-class citizens",
"criminals", and "ignorant". He has even compared tribal groups to
the nation's infamous terrorists, the Shining Path.
There is no end in sight in the struggle between the indigenous
people of Peru and government-sanctioned corporate power.
Decades of oppression in Borneo: violence, rape, murder
Across the world, another people are fighting to save their homes
from corporate exploitation. The Penan people of Malaysian Borneo
have suffered greatly from industrial loggers entering their
ancestral home: not only has the tribe lost forest land and
important tribal sites, including burial grounds, to bulldozers and
chainsaws, but the Penan people have faced violence, rape, and even
In March 2006, the bulldozers belonging to Interhill, a
Malaysian logging company, reached Ba Abang, a Penan village
in the Middle Baram region.
Since the late 1980s, Interhill has been cutting down
rainforests in a 55,000 hectare timber concession in
Sarawak's Middle Baram region. Photos and captions by the
Bruno Manser Fund
The struggle began when industrial logging first appeared in the
area in the 1980s and today shows no sign of abatement or
resolution. In fact, a new threat has risen in recent decades as
logged forests are swiftly turned into industrial oil palm
plantations, excluding any chance of the natural forest returning
after logging or of natives receiving their land back.
The Penan—some of whom live as nomadic hunter-gatherers in the
forest—have fought corporate loggers through lawsuits and road
barricades. In turn they faced violence from Malaysian police and
security forces hired by powerful logging companies. Some even fear
for their lives. In 2008 longtime Penan chief, Kelesau Naan, was
allegedly murdered for his long activism against logging on tribal
lands. When his body was finally found—after two months—it was
discovered that several of his bones were broken, leading the Penan
to believe he was murdered for his opposition to the destruction of
his tribe's traditional lands. Prior to this, two Penan activists
disappeared mysteriously in the 1990s and Swiss-activist, Bruno
Manser, who fought long and hard for Penan rights, vanished in the
region in 2000.
Recently, Penan girls have come forward to say that they were raped,
beaten, and sexually abused by logging employees. A 110-page report
released this year by the Malaysian Ministry for Women, Family and
Community Development has documented their stories, while a
government team investigating the matter stated that at least eight
allegations of rape or sexual abuse were "certainly true". Girls as
young as ten were assaulted and raped, some becoming pregnant. The
Penan girls, who receive rides to-and-from school by loggers, have
said that it was common to be sexually abused during these rides.
Yet a probe by the police into the matter went nowhere due to lack
Just this month the rapes were dismissed by government official,
James Masing, the Sarawak Minister for Land Development. The
Minister told the BBC that in regards to the rapes the "Penan are
very good story tellers. They change their stories, and when they
feel like it."
Former regional Penan chief of the Upper Baram region, James
Laloh Keso (center). Photo courtesy of the Bruno Manser
Most recently, the Penan people have tried a new strategy to
preserve their dwindling home. Seventeen tribes of the Penan
declared a 'peace park' covering 163,000 hectares of their ancestral
home in order to bring light to their situation and pressure the
government to halt plans for logging in the area. The government
refused to recognize the status of the peace park and logging is
slated to continue.
Few indigenous people have faced more tragedy, despair, and
humiliation over the past thirty years than the Penan.
The curse of oil
A battle of a different kind is ongoing in Ecuador. Oil giant
Chevron is currently in a $27 billion lawsuit with Ecuadorian
indigenous tribes for environmental damage caused by Texaco, a
company acquired by Chevron in 2001. In court Texaco has admitted to
dumping 18 billion gallons of toxic waste inside Ecuador's
rainforest from 1964-1990. A court expert found contamination at
every one of Texaco's former well sites, estimating oil damages 30
times larger than the infamous Exxon-Valdez spill and spanning an
area the size of Rhode Island.
The case, known to some as the 'Amazon Chernobyl', involves 30,000
indigenous Ecuadorian plaintiffs. The toxic spill impacted six
indigenous tribes, one of which has vanished entirely. The court has
found that over 1,400 people have suffered untimely deaths from
cancer due to contamination from the oil spill.
Despite these facts, Chevron has gone to great lengths to avoid
reparations for environmental damage. In 2008 it was revealed that
Chevron hired key political players, including former Senate
majority leader Trent Lott and John McCain fund-raiser Wayne Berman
to lobby United States Trade Representative Susan Schwab, members of
Congress, and Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte to threaten
suspending US trade preferences with Ecuador until the lawsuit was
dropped. But the corporation's attempt to use US political power to
disenfranchise 30,000 indigenous people failed.
Then this September Chevron released a video that it said proved
Ecuadorian officials, including the presiding judge, were taking
bribes on the case. However, the video turned out to be a fake: the
business man in the video is in fact a convicted drug felon and
another person in the video is an Ecuadorian contractor who has
received payments from Chevron. Both the bribe and the bribers in
the video were faked and others appearing in the video say the
footage was heavily edited. Chevron denies that they were in any way
involved in making the video.
The lawsuit has been ongoing since 2003 and a ruling has not yet
been made. But Chevron has stated publically that even if it loses
the case it won't pay any damages.
"We're not paying and we're going to fight this for years if not
decades into the future," according to Chevron spokesman Don
This year a documentary Crude detailing the struggle by
indigenous people to hold Chevron accountable was released in
theatres. Chevron's responded with a PR campaign to disparage the
film-maker and the indigenous victims [Editor's note: Chevron's
PR efforts included posting comments on mongabay.com articles].
No happy Hollywood ending
While the film Avatar ends with the indigenous aliens
securing their home from corporate and military invaders, in reality
that outcome is rare. Often these conflicts drag on for decades with
the indigenous tribes, despite best efforts, tragically losing their
home bit-by-bit. Forests are decimated, biodiversity lost, carbon
released into the atmosphere, and the tribe is slowly weakened and
destroyed from without, their culture and traditions attacked at the
same time as their territory is knocked down.
Oil and gas blocks in the western Amazon. Solid yellow
indicates blocks already leased out to companies. Hashed
yellow indicates proposed blocks or blocks still in the
negotiation phase. Protected areas shown are those
considered strictly protected by the IUCN (categories I to
III). Image courtesy of
Despite the repeated unjustness, rarely do these stories reach the
mainstream media in the industrial world. Companies act with
impunity, devastating forests and homes in part to feed the
insatiable appetites of developed and emerging economies for
furniture, oil palm, gas, and crude oil.
While Avatar is a fun, showy film that many may view as
simple sci-fi entertainment, the film clearly alludes to struggles
and injustices that one doesn't need to travel across the galazy to
see, but are occurring right here on planet Earth.
Some notable organizations working with indigenous groups to secure
Bruno Manser Fonds,
Amazon Conservation Team,