Was 'Avatar' good for indigenous people?

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4 November 2010

The Dongria Kondh, Xikrin Kayapo, and Penan peoples have a lot in common. Not only are they all indigenous groups facing potentially damaging extractive and energy projects on their tribal land, they also share the dubious distinction of being compared to some quirky blue hominids from a certain Hollywood blockbuster. Just a casual Google search for ‘real life avatar’ will reveal a slew of articles arguing that indigenous groups across the world are nothing less than the real life versions of the Na´vi, with harmonious relationships with nature and exotic tribal costumes to boot.

Avatar and Advocacy

To many activists and NGOs, the arrival of the film Avatar, with its anti-corporate, eco-socialist message, is clearly seen as an opportunity not to be missed. By reaching millions of people who may never have considered the plight of indigenous people or of environmental destruction, the film has massively increased the potential for campaigners and activists to spread their messages.

Survival International, the indigenous rights advocacy group, explicitly (and successfully) linked the plight of the Dongria Kondh, opposing the mining company Vedanta, to that of the Na’vi in their struggle to save Pandora. Indigenous leaders themselves are increasingly becoming aware of the film’s symbolic potential, and 50 Amazonian leaders attended a screening of it in Quito.

Real life Na’vi?

But how accurate are such comparisons? And more importantly, how useful are they? Real life indigenous people are often far more complex and divided than the ‘Na´vi’ that inhabit Pandora. Like all societies, indigenous peoples share diverse opinions, and are often divided over whether or not to oppose extractive projects, or to negotiate in the hope of receiving benefits.

In the Yasuni Biosphere in Ecuador, for example, where broad swathes of indigenous territory have progressively fallen under the control of foreign oil companies, many Waorani vacillate between opposition and compromise. Some communities have even gone the whole hog - actively cooperating with oil companies and illegal loggers in order to improve their material living standards. The mind only boggles at what Neytiri, Zoe Saldanha’s Na’vi heroine, would have thought of that.

Can exaggeration be justified?

But do such nuances matter? Some of the comparisons between the Na´vi and indigenous groups are often valid; many indigenous people do care about their natural environments, many extractive companies and governments do act in a predatory fashion, and foreigners can have a role in defending indigenous peoples´ rights.-Therefore, might the rather simplistic representation of indigenous peoples be justified in order to effectively advocate on their behalf?

The problem with this approach is that it is based on the assumption that it is legitimate to tell a lie, or at least exaggerate, in order to achieve a greater goal. Whilst attractive and occasionally effective, this approach is laden with dangers. For starters, basing an argument on half-truths leaves it highly vulnerable to being discredited in the future.  In Brazil in the 1990s, the indigenous rights movement was rocked by revelations that some high-profile Kayapo leaders, having based their land demands on claims of living in harmony with nature, had signed deals with illegal loggers and miners. The scandal led to a serious backlash against the cause of indigenous rights.

Secondly, if half-truths are employed for political ends, there is always the danger that some people might actually believe them. A simplistic focus on indigenous people as ecologically noble savages can lead well-meaning outsiders to overlook demands which may seem beneath the saintly Na’vi, such as for services, jobs, and infrastructure.

‘Indigenism’

None of this is new. In 1998, the anthropologist and indigenous rights advocate Alcida Ramos wrote Indigenism, a provocative book which included a scathing critique of advocacy strategies based around creating romanticised images of indigenous people. Sadly, it is hard to look at the flood of ‘real life avatar’ stories on the internet without concluding that Ramos’s warnings have not been well heeded.

This post is not seeking to delegitimise the claims of groups which mobilise in order to oppose large-scale mining or hydroelectric dams. In many cases, such projects fail to bring promised benefits to local people, and can wreak havoc on local communities and ecosystems. Moreover, in an age of climate change awareness, there is clearly a case for moving beyond the unsustainable ‘extract at all costs’ model, which continues to policy. But such arguments need to be based on firm evidence and reasoned logic - not a Hollywood blockbuster.
 

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