The New Brazil vs anti-modern celebs

James Cameron and other wealthy Hollywooders are wrong if they think they can carry on bossing Brazil about.

John Conroy

Topics Politics

Film director James Cameron, responsible for Terminator, Titanic and, more recently, Avatar, has been working on a considerable side-project for a few years now. Cameron film fans shouldn’t get their hopes up, however. This side-project is more political than filmic. He has been trying to prevent the Brazilian government from constructing Belo Monte, the world’s third-largest hydroelectric dam, on the Xingu river which runs through the Amazonian rainforest.

That a Western movie director has taken an interest in what happens in parts of the Brazilian interior is not without precedent. For some time now, be it John Boorman’s Emerald Forest (1985) or John McTiernan’s Medicine Man (1992), various movie-makers have treated Brazil’s forests as a source of locations and actors to set and populate their fairytales of environmental destruction.

But Cameron is slightly different. When he made Avatar in the late 2000s, having written the screenplay 15 years prior, his tale of technological civilisation versus nature and indigenous peoples dispensed with real forests in favour of CGI. The result was an environmental morality tale presented in the most vivid, broad and simplistic of digital brushstrokes. But Cameron didn’t leave it there. Instead, he decided to depart from his CGI world and take his flimsy fantasy seriously.

In April 2010, with the Brazilian government in the process of granting the Belo Monte dam project an environmental licence, Cameron seized his opportunity. One could see the appeal for Cameron: the conflict between indigenous groups and NGOs pitched against a dam that would supply energy to companies mining the Amazon forest seemed to replicate the ecological morality tale of Avatar. So it was that Cameron – followed closely by film star Sigourney Weaver, then-governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger, and former US president Bill Clinton – lined up alongside the Kayapo Indigenous group to campaign against the dam. As a result of the protests, the Brazilian Federal Attorney’s Office suspended the licensing process and Cameron then made a celebratory documentary called Message from Pandora (a reference to the fictional planet in Avatar). For Cameron, his CGI morality tale had been brought to life.

Following Cameron’s high-profile intervention, international pressure began to mount on the Brazilian government. The Organisation of American States’ (OAS) Inter-American Commission on Human Rights demanded that the dam project be suspended because of the supposed harm it would do to indigenous groups. A powerful lobby inside Brazil, inspired by Leonardo DiCaprio’s ‘Don’t Vote’ viral campaign, decided to use television and the internet to undermine the dam project’s progress, with the TV Globo channel and its most popular soap-opera actors making a series of videos and adverts attacking the dam. Like DiCaprio and friends, stars of soaps such as Enchanted Rope, Bite and Blow, That Kiss, Macho Man and Insensitive Heart assumed a tone of feigned disbelief that anyone could support the dam or think it was good for the nation. In one particularly sneering outpouring, two actors mocked their own television audiences’ energy consumption while they feed their addiction to soap operas.

But then something very curious happened. Another tribe of Brazilians, normally so fearful of being seen outside of their natural habitat, fought back. Geeky university students and their professors made a film with zero production values undermining every argument used by Cameron, the NGOs, the Kayapo and TV Globo. These are the myths they challenged:

  • The Indians will have nowhere to live. Actually, a student from Brasilia University who has done little else but study the impact of the project on indigenous lands responded that not one of the indigenous lands in the region will be flooded. There are 12 indigenous territories near the project in an area of 56,000 square kilometres with 2,200 indigenous people living on them. That’s two-and-a-half times the size of Wales. Thirty consultative meetings were held in tribal villages and recorded on video.
  • The dam and its reservoirs will flood and destroy 640 square kilometres of rainforest. Not exactly. The reservoirs will cover an area of 502.8 square kilometres of which 228 square kilometres are already within the body of the river itself.
  • The dam will starve the Xingu National Park of water. This is not true. The students displayed a map revealing that the park is in fact 1,300 kilometres up river of the dam.
  • For eight months of the year the region above the dam is nearly a desert making the dam inefficient and only capable of generating a third of its installed capacity. The implication here is that there is insufficient water to drive the turbines at full power. However, during the high-water period of the year, the river empties 28million litres of water per second at the point of the turbines, creating an extraordinary potential energy generation of 11,233 megawatts (MW). Even at the river’s lowest levels in the month of October, it delivers 800,000 litres per second. The annual average energy production of Belo Monte will be 4,571MW, or 41 per cent of the potential generating capacity, not one third. This will power 40 per cent of Brazil’s entire residential energy consumption.
  • If we watched less TV we would not need the dam. This is pure fantasy. Between 2010 and 2020, for Brazil to just reach five per cent GDP growth rates per year, its energy capacity will have to increase 60 per cent, from 460million to 730million megawatts. Watching less TV would make very little difference to this demand for energy.
  • A better option would be wind and solar power. Yes, the cost of the dam is expected to be $13 billion. But neither wind nor solar energy are better options. In fact, to produce the same energy from wind would cost $23 billion; by solar technology, the bill would be $153 billion.

Like the students, the Brazilian government was not prepared to tolerate such lazy and baseless attacks from Cameron and Co. It not only refused the OAS’s demand to suspend the project, but withdrew its ambassador from the OAS and stopped all payments to the organisation.

This month, the dam was given the green light. Brazil’s confidence and the students’ creative indignation reflected a new self-confidence derived from the country’s extraordinary growth rates and a palpable desire to fulfil its economic potential.

In the past things were different. In 1985, John Boorman made the film Emerald Forest, a frontal assault on the promise of progress presented by energy and industry in the Amazon. It tells the story of the kidnapping of an American dam engineer’s son by Amazonian Indians. Years later, the dam engineer returns and, instead of rescuing his son, joins young Tommie in fighting alongside the Indians. Three years after the Emerald Forest, Sting and green NGOs mounted an influential international campaign opposing the Belo Monte project (then known as the Kararao Dam Project) and succeeded, in alliance with the Kayapo indigenous group, in forcing the World Bank to withdraw its loan for the project. The film and campaign were part of a growing green movement that fabricated the fiction of the Amazon rainforest and indigenous peoples as symbols of a morally enchanted world, free from, and superior to, the influence of destructive modernity.

Of course, back then the anti-dam campaign was able to exploit Brazil’s economic woes. In the early 1980s, foreign creditors had refused capital flows to a heavily indebted Brazil and the country was forced to accept an IMF austerity programme. After years of exponential growth, Brazil was a humiliated giant, dependent upon the World Bank for investment, particularly as regards its infrastructure. Today, however, the situation has altered. Cameron and his friends have walked into a brick wall.

Unfortunately, this rebuke to James Cameron et al has come after considerable damage has already been done to the project. Although Cameron will have to restrict his anti-development fantasies to Avatar 2 and 3, Belo Monte has suffered severe reductions in scale and impact. The original project was designed over 30 years ago. In 1979, the plans had six dams rather than the two that remain today, with four more dams upstream to control river-level fluctuations, thereby maximising the productivity of the downstream turbines. After the Sting-inspired 1989 campaign against the dam, its reservoir size was cut by two thirds. The latest campaign has reduced its size and power capacity still further.

Every modern economy has exploited hydropower, owing to its low cost and abundance. However Brazil, which possesses some of the largest river systems in the world, has used less than half of its economically exploitable 800TWh of hydropower. In 1979, national plans projected 279 dams to be built by 2010, but only 158 have been completed. Today, President Dilma Rousseff is determined to service her country’s growing demand for energy from industry and the domestic sector. This month, she has announced the beginning of construction of a further 61 hydroelectric dams, most of them in the Amazon region. It is part of Brazil’s second Growth Acceleration Plan, PAC2. In a poll, over half the country supported Belo Monte, yet still Brazil’s energy minister felt it necessary to offer an apologetic and costly olive branch to James Cameron: ‘This new model of hydroelectric dams is almost like a science-fiction film, it reminds us of Avatar.’ The dams will be built using enormous oil rig-like platforms to prevent any permanent human development and impact in the forest. The transmission lines will be suspended above the forest canopy and all workers will be airlifted by helicopter, making roads unnecessary.

Today, Brazil is not in the mood to be stopped, but it still must go to extraordinarily defensive lengths to appease anti-development fantasists – both domestic and foreign.

John Conroy is a television producer/director and a journalist.

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Topics Politics


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