Twelve years after the filmmaker blockbusters James Cameron became a Hollywood ambassador for the Brazilian indigenous people, the Kayapó, the sequel to his blockbuster film Avatar is projected in the Amazonian city of Altamira.
When Cameron, Sigourney Weaver and other actors from the indigenous science fiction film visited the city at the end of 2010, during Numantina’s fight against the Belo Monte hydroelectric megaproject, the leader of the Workers’ Party (PT), Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was still president of Brazil.
At that time, Altamira, with 80,000 inhabitants, located at the crossroads of the Xingu and the Trans-Amazonian highway, still maintained a relationship of relative harmony with the complex ecology of the immense river –a tributary of the Amazon– and with its various indigenous peoples.
The main drug trafficking groups in Brazil have settled in the city and records of sexual assaults are being broken
Now, after the construction of the mega dam, the arrival of thousands of workers and the displacement of tens of thousands of peasants and fishermen to the city, it has doubled to 170,000.
The transformation has not been smooth. Homicide and child suicide rates are among the highest in Brazil. The main drug trafficking groups in Brazil such as the First Command of the Capital (PCC) have installed themselves in the city and records of sexual assaults and rapes are being broken.
Meanwhile, the Altamira region –with a surface area larger than England– registers the highest deforestation rate in all of Brazil and emits more greenhouse gases –mainly methane from the arrival of thousands of heads of cattle– than the industrial areas of São Paulo. As if all this were not enough, the contribution of the hydroelectric plant to the national network – around 3% of the national supply – is less than half of what was expected.
After the filming of the first film, Altamira has built a dam and has received thousands of workers
The explanation: a decrease in the flow of the Xingu River, probably related to the same deforestation. The dam has caused a drastic decline in aquatic life. “They connected us to electricity, but in everything else we live worse,” said a small merchant who sold bananas in an island fishing community, half an hour by boat from Altamira.
An indication of how much everything has changed here can be seen in the cinema where it is shown Avatar . It is a multiplex of the Shopping Serra Dourada, the new shopping center surrounded by a thousand empty lots belonging to the real estate developer Nova Altamira. It was built five years ago in order to “take advantage of a constantly growing city,” according to the brochure. When the team came Avatar to Altamira twelve years ago, Serra Dourada was a jungle where spider monkeys and jaguars climbed.
Thanks in part to Cameron, the 2010 protests against Belo Monte made world news. But memory is short in a region that has been partly wiped off the map after the dam was built. Consulted when leaving the cinema, some young spectators were unaware that the director and the actors of Avatar they had supported the fight against Belo Monte. Nor had they noticed similarities between the fight of the “blue skins” of the Na’vi tribe in the film against the quasi-military corporation that mines the unobtanium mineral on the planet Pandora, and the battles of the Kayapó in Altamira against a consortium of large construction companies, energy companies and the mega mining company Vale. “It hadn’t occurred to me,” said a boy with long hair, who was heading towards Burger King after the movie.
The current forgetfulness contrasts with the awareness that was palpable here in 2010. Then, during a visit from The vanguard Altamira, shortly after Cameron and Weaver’s, the young indigenous Sheyla Yakarepi reflected: “I have seen Avatar in pirated version; It is similar to what happens to us, with the difference that our history is real”.
“The international environment for saving the Amazon has been improving thanks to campaigns like Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future,” says Marcelo Salazar, an environmentalist at Altamira, who organized the Cameron and Weaver hearings in 2010. “But the youth here have not become aware, at least in a massive way”, he says.
The truth is that the international consensus in favor of halting deforestation and protecting biodiversity in the Amazon is not always shared in a region that registers the worst social indicators in Brazil.
In Belo Monte, more than 500 km2 of jungle have been flooded and hundreds of indigenous villages have disappeared
The movie sequel the sense of water Ironically, it is close to the current reality of this region of the Brazilian Amazon where the construction of Belo Monte has led to the flooding of more than 500 square kilometers of jungle and the disappearance under water of hundreds of indigenous and non-indigenous villages. “Water connects life with death”, says the Na’vi mantra in avatar 2 . Never better said than in Altamira.
Few in the environmental movement want to remember him in a moment of euphoria after the defeat of Jair Bolsonaro. But the uncomfortable truth in Altamira is that Belo Monte – a work conceived by the military dictatorship in the 1970s – was approved by Lula’s government and finished during the presidency of his successor in the presidency, another leader of the Workers’ Party ( PT), Dilma Rousseff.
“Lula and Dilma’s idea for the Amazon was quite similar to that of the generals,” says journalist Eliane Brum, based in Altamira.
The comparison is unfair. Lula adopted effective policies between 2004 and 2012 to achieve an 85% reduction in deforestation (with Bolsonaro it has risen to 56%). What’s more, it gave the green light to the demarcation of dozens of indigenous lands and other conservation areas that already cover almost a third of the Brazilian Amazon. Few doubt that the new government will do what is necessary to stop the orgy of destruction of the Bolsonaro years.
“Lula is going to reduce deforestation without a doubt. Just by saying that she is going to act against illegal loggers and miners, she will change the feeling of impunity that Bolsonaro created,” Salazar said.
The president-elect has promised to restore surveillance systems, strengthen protection agencies and police authorities responsible for combating environmental crime. Likewise, the creation of a new ministry for original peoples will facilitate the demarcation of more indigenous territories and other protected areas.
But a change in the productive model and infrastructure in the Amazon can be more difficult. “The PT has a problem with the Amazon; I participated in a meeting with Lula before the elections and I was surprised that he still defended Belo Monte despite the fact that we all know that it has been a disaster”, says Salazar.
The appointment this week of Marina da Silva – a former partner of the iconic environmentalist and rubber worker Chico Mendes – as Environment Minister is an indication of the desire for a change in model. Da Silva resigned from Lula’s first government, in part, in protest against megaprojects like Belo Monte. “The Navy will play a very important role in avoiding a repetition of mistakes,” says economist Ricardo Abramovay, whose new book on sustainable infrastructure in the Amazon is one of the reference documents for Lula’s transition team.
The new ministry for original peoples will facilitate the demarcation of more indigenous territories
Of course, there are signs of a possible confrontation within the team of the president-elect between Marina and another heavyweight in environmental areas, Izabella Teixeira, a former adviser to Dilma Rousseff, who supported the construction of Belo Monte.
Abramovay proposes a radically different plan, inspired by “nature-based” infrastructure. Instead of understanding the Amazon as a set of natural resources – including energy – that must be extracted to boost the development of the rest of Brazil, he proposes prioritizing sustainable development and a new bioeconomy in the Amazon region. This supposes the radical decentralization of energy generation. “All infrastructure projects in the Amazon (roads, hydroelectric plants, railways) must be reconsidered”, assures the essayist.
There are already some examples. The Xingú Solar project has been installing small photovoltaic power generation plants in hundreds of communities in the Amazon. The electrification of river transport is also being studied to replace diesel with wind turbines and photovoltaic systems to charge the motor batteries.
Projects are also beginning in Amapá, north of Altamira, to install solar-powered ice machines, a crucial requirement for the conservation and marketing of fish.
Homicide rates have increased, sexual assaults and drug traffickers have settled
Instead of building large dams like Belo Monte, Abramovay defends the use of hydrokinetic systems, a new technology that uses underwater turbines, with a design “inspired by the fins of whales and fish.” This would generate electricity “without disturbing the flow of the river”.
Another option is the production of biogas from both livestock and human waste or from locally produced biomass. Fruits such as babassu, obtained from the palm, are excellent sources of bioenergy. “Almost all the innovation and investment has been focused on raw materials such as soybeans; this must be changed”, says Abramovay.
It remains to be seen if Lula – who takes office tomorrow Sunday as president of the country – is willing to take the first step towards a new model. “Belo Monte was a trauma for the PT and there will be those who want to look for something different; but there will be others who don’t,” suspects José Heder Benatti, a law professor at the Federal University of Pará.
There are already signs that business lobbies are mobilizing against the change. The MoveInfra association, made up of large infrastructure groups such as CCR and Rumo, announced a new plan for the Amazon a few days ago. “The core idea of Moveinfra is the same as before,” warns Abramovay. “More highways, a new Ferrograu railway (to transport soybeans) and the use of hydroelectric potential.” As the Na’vi repeat in Avatar : “The battle has only just begun.”