Avatar Downfall a Blow for Indigenous Communities


QUITO, Mar 9, 2010 (IPS) – Science fiction blockbuster Avatar was the big loser in the Oscar awards ceremony – not only a blow for director James Cameron but also seen as a symbolic reverse in the struggle to recover Amazon rainforest areas in Ecuador from the effects of oil pollution.

Several environmental organisations, like the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) and the Amazon Defence Coalition, had asked Cameron to "let his legions of fans know that while Pandora is fictional, what is happening to (indigenous) communities in Ecuador is as real as it gets."

In the film, Pandora, a moon orbiting the planet Polyphemus, comes under threat when human beings decide to extract a mineral essential for energy supply on Earth from its surface.

Rebecca Tarbotton, acting head of RAN, compared Avatar’s story-line to the real-life drama of the struggle of Ecuadorean indigenous people who have brought a multi-billion dollar lawsuit for environmental damages against the oil giant Chevron.

After an email campaign last month, backed up by weblog columns and press releases, Tarbotton called on Cameron Sunday morning to make good the promise he had made to use the movie to inspire mass environmental activism.

But Avatar failed to win the Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture, taking awards only in three minor categories out of the nine for which it had been nominated, so Cameron never got a chance to deliver a speech during the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awards ceremony held Sunday in Los Angeles.

Cameron has also been swamped by other requests: Survival International, the movement for tribal peoples, for instance, took out an advertisement in Variety magazine asking him to help the indigenous Dongria Kondh people of India, who are struggling to defend their land against a British mining firm bent on extracting bauxite from their sacred mountain.

At any rate, Cameron need shed no tears over not winning the Oscar, as his movie has already raked in 2.5 billion dollars, making it the greatest box office success in the history of cinema.

What has really lost out is the environmental cause, even as the 16-year-long Chevron trial continues to crawl through the courts.

Speaking of records, this is the biggest class action suit ever launched against a transnational corporation: the indigenous communities of northeastern Ecuador, where the oil drilling took place, are demanding 27 billion dollars in reparations for damages.

The plaintiffs, some 30,000 indigenous people and mestizo (mixed ancestry) settlers, have accused Texaco, a company acquired by Chevron in 2001, of ditching 18 billion gallons of toxic waste water and spilling about 17 million gallons of crude into the rainforest during its operations in Ecuador from 1964 to 1990.

These illegal actions contaminated the soil, groundwater, rivers and streams in the area, causing cancer, congenital defects and abortions among the indigenous population, according to the plaintiffs.

At first Chevron refused to be tried before Ecuadorean courts, so the case was transferred to the United States. However, the U.S. courts ruled that Ecuador did have jurisdiction.

The changes in jurisdiction and various legal manoeuvres by the defence have dragged the trial out for over 16 years.

Since mid-February the new judge presiding over the trial at the provincial court in the northeastern province of Sucumbíos is Leonardo Ordóñez. He replaced Judge Juan Núñez, who Chevron alleged had taken bribes.

"All we ask of Judge Ordóñez is that he enforce the law transparently and impartially, and not allow Chevron to continue delaying the trial," said Pablo Fajardo, lead counsel for the Amazon Defence Coalition, in a statement.

The U.S. oil company’s manipulative strategies have included attempting to block the extension of preferential tariffs in the United States for Ecuador’s trade goods, as the former Ecuadorean foreign minister, Fander Falconi, confirmed in January.

According to Falconi, in 2009 Chevron’s lobby against the renewal of preferential tariffs for Ecuador was "one of the strongest and fiercest that Ecuadorean foreign policy has ever faced."

By hiring law firms and expert negotiators and engaging in intense action on the diplomatic front, the Ecuadorean authorities managed to neutralise Chevron’s political and diplomatic influence in Washington, Falconi said before leaving the post of foreign minister.

The import tariffs he referred to are granted by the United States for hundreds of products from Ecuador, Colombia and Peru, in exchange for cooperation in the fight against drug trafficking. Bolivia was also a beneficiary of the scheme until it was excluded last year.

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