James Cameron's blockbuster film, Avatar, describes the plight of a group of indigenous cat-people in a battle to save their planet, Pandora, from a rapacious mining corporation from an environmentally devastated future-Earth. Now it seems that the director, who lived with indigenous people in Brazil's Para state for a week while researching the film, has spent too much time watching his own movie.
Recently, Cameron and Avatar star Sigourney Weaver re-enacted the plot of their film, minus the Great Leonopteryx and the pseudo-neuroscience, when they joined environmental advocacy group Amazon Watch's campaign to block the construction of the Belo Monte dam project in Para. In the process, Cameron has become the international face of a dispute that has been building for decades -- and a serious irritant for Brazilians on all sides of the issue.
The social and environmental consequences of the dam will indeed be dire, and this week it was announced that Norte Energia, an energy consortium, had won the bid to build it. Belo Monte's three reservoirs will flood 400 square kilometers of agricultural land and forest. If previous developments are anything to go by, the project will attract tens of thousands of migrant laborers to work in the construction industry. Once built, however, the dam will only generate long-term employment for about 2,000 people. The remaining labor pool is likely to be driven to illegal logging and cattle ranching, the two largest causes of deforestation, while placing further strains on the region's social services.
Environmentalists also warn that the wide variations in the Xingu River's water load between the rainy and dry seasons mean that more dams will need to be built upstream to guarantee a year-round flow of water. These will have a far greater environmental impact, but without them Belo Monte, according to Amazon Watch, "will be one of the most energy inefficient dams in the history of Brazil," producing only 10 percent of its capacity during the three-to-five-month-long dry season.
Brazil's overwhelmingly popular President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has repeatedly insisted that the dam will be a source of clean renewable energy, helping to support the economic development of his country's poorest region. He argues that his government has modified the scheme to protect the indigenous people who live in the area and that whoever is awarded the project will have to pay $800 million to do so.