Friday, January 1, 2010

"Avatar" and James Cameron Waxing Poetic on Global Imperialism

I saw "Avatar" today. And I was moved, along with some audience members sitting near me, by the underlying anti-imperialist message of this movie.

Before I get started, if you haven't seen the movie, go see it. You'll understand what you're about to read a lot more if you have. But if not, I'll do my best to summarize without giving too many spoilers.

Basically, the story is about a young marine who participates in a highly-advanced military research project, where humans can tap into the bodies of native Na'Vi people from the planet Pandora, and move, walk and talk as they do. The marine learns through talking with the natives that the company who hired the marines to fly to Pandora is exploiting the natives' land for a pricey mineral that lies underneath.

The marines eventually roll in, destroying the natives' homes and surrounding forest, which they view as a sacred part of their existence, so the company can move in and extract the resources. The young marine ends up siding with the Na'Vi, and leads a resistance against the marines. There's an epic battle scene and a happy ending.

Now, if you omit the happy ending, and replace the word "Pandora" with Ecuador, and replace "Na'Vi" with the Shuar tribe or Zaparo tribe, and I've just told you a true story that's happening today. The only difference is that the mineral in that case is oil, and the company doing the extraction and using military force to do the dirty work is Texaco. There's not quite an epic battle scene in Ecuador, but it's certainly getting close to the boiling point.

The story of Avatar also mirrors the story from the late '90s/early '00s about Texaco and Unocal in Burma. Burma, or Myanmar, is perhaps best known through its outrageously oppressive and violent military junta government.

Texaco had a large investment in a natural gas pipeline through Burma/Myanmar, as it was said 6 trillion feet of natural gas lay underneath in Southeast Burma.

This project was taken over by Unocal, whose progress was impeded somewhat by local resistance. Because indigenous locals, like the Karen people near the Thailand border, refused to move from their homes so construction could take place, the Burmese military provided "security forces" to clear out the Karen.

Thus, much of the Karen land was deemed a "Free-Fire Zone," where forces were free to shoot whoever was in the way. This means US-owned oil companies were complicit in genocide, as they stood to profit from the Karen's forced exodus and mass murder on behalf of the Burmese regime. The Burmese also helped Unocal expand the project by forcing the Karen into slave labor.

From the first link:

"The pipeline project into Thailand has been widely criticised by human rights organisations because the concession funding, worth some $400 million a year, goes to the Burmese junta."

"Unocal has remained steadfast in pressing ahead with its oil and gas program in Burma, despite pressure for it to pull back."

"Company officials last year denied allegations that slave labour had been used to clear land for the new pipeline, saying they were "patently false, absolutely unfounded".

"two US envoys, retired Ambassador Mr William Brown and Mr Stanley Roth, a former US National Security Council director, acknowledged in Bangkok recently the use of forced labour involving American companies in Burma."

From a Karen Human Rights report:

We ran every time we heard the Burmese were coming. If they see you in the forest they don’t ask questions, they just shoot you.

We had to build their roads, and give money also. I was staying there with my 2 daughters. If we didn’t go [for forced labour] we couldn’t stay in the village, so my daughter had to go. They didn’t give her anything. No food.

The campaign, which intensified in January 1997, involved the forced relocation and destruction of at least 60 Karen villages as well as clampdowns on Burman and Mon villages...

Villagers are ordered to destroy their own houses by removing the floor, walls, and roof, and if they do not then troops will burn their entire village.

Avatar's story is their story. It is the story of the indigenous Shuar tribes fighting foreign occupiers. It is the story of the Karen people, who have had their homes burned to the ground because they refused to move. It is the story of the African tribes forced into labor to pan for gold and mine diamonds. And, dare I say it, it is the story of the Iraqis who had their homes destroyed by American firepower's collateral damage.

And all of this was done not because those doing it were necessarily evil people, but because the system they support requires such actions to be taken. Were it not for Unocal/Texaco's actions in Burma, shareholders would have lost money and taken their stock elsewhere. Were it not for the actions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo's military, whose presence is used for "security" while contracting companies extract Tantalum, we wouldn't have cheap computers. Were it not for the forced diamond mining labor in Zimbabwe, jewelry stores wouldn't be able to sell us cheap diamonds.

Some have accused Avatar of having an anti-American/anti-capitalism message. However, there is nothing at all wrong with capitalism or America. Capitalism has been the dominant form of economics for several centuries. America was founded on the ideal of an individual being free to prosper as long as that person's prosperity doesn't infringe on the rights or property of others.

Avatar's message is rather against imperialism, being that imperialists come without invitation, take without asking, and do so without regard to human life or mutual respect. The fact that there are some interpreting this movie as anti-American instead seem to be upset that American policy has been deemed to be imperialistic.

I propose to these detractors that rather than defending imperialism as some corrupt, mutant form of capitalism and saying that it's okay to hurt others if we can make money off of it, that they instead accept that maybe the system they support is unsustainable, and hurtful to others.

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