I confess I haven’t seen “Avatar.” The PG-13 rating it got in Brazil put it off limits for my children, despite their determined campaign on its behalf, and my wife and I prefer to use what limited consumer power we have to support independent cinema when out on our own.

But I did see the trailer (while taking my daughter to “High School Musical 2,” if you must know) and the plot and imagery immediately pricked my interest, as a long-time follower of ways the Amazon gets represented in popular culture. “Avatar” may be set in the future, but it draws on an old tradition of Romantic representation of nature in general and rainforests in particular, with an equally hoary Garden of Eden metaphor at its center.

In fact, “Avatar” is the perfect title, pressing down hard on the two hottest buttons in the Californian psyche — a hi-tech reference combined with a subliminal ping on the sound and scan of Amazon, nature incarnate.

So it was with a sinking heart but not exactly with surprise that I saw in the papers that James Cameron, the director of “Avatar,” was in the Amazon, visiting the area where a new hydroelectric dam (Belo Monte) is meant to be built — and then popping up in Brasília lobbying against the dam. I admit it made me angry, not because I disagree with the cause (see below) but because Cameron’s trip to Brazil was such unspeakably dumb tactics.

Behind the episode there are serious points about the relationship between celebrity and advocacy. How can celebrities productively engage a cause?

First things first. Belo Monte is a controversial project. If it is built (still far from certain), it will be on a river, the Xingu, whose annual fluctuations in waterflow guarantee that there will only be enough water to keep the turbines humming at full capacity for something less than half the year.

Factor in the construction and transmission costs (remembering that much of the electricity will be consumed at the other end of the country, so this is rather like building a huge dam in Colorado to service New York) and the economics are very murky, one reason the project’s been on the drawing board for three decades now.

That’s even before considering the environmental and social implications. The dam is being built on one of the largest tributaries of the Amazon. Assessing its impact is difficult for the simple reason there is so much biodiversity in and around the river that the gaps in our knowledge are more significant than what we know. Add in the fact that the Xingu river is the heart of the largest complex of indigenous reserves anywhere in the Americas, and you have a perfect storm of reasons for why Belo Monte is the most controversial building project in Brazil.

But the central issue in the political battle to ensure Belo Monte never gets built is the fact that it will do little to solve Brazil’s very real energy problems.

The way to do that is smaller and cheaper hydroelectric projects closer to the centers of industrial and residential consumption in southern Brazil, combined with much greater attention to improving energy efficiency in Brazil’s transmission grid, now reduced to the point where a stray treefall or lightning strike can knock out electricity to most of the country, as has happened twice over the last year.

This, combined with the negative environmental impacts and the fact there’s a presidential election later this year, makes now the perfect time to mount an effective campaign against Belo Monte in Brazil, hammering away on the economic case against and presenting an alternative course of action.

So what happens? An American celebrity comes down to Brazil to campaign against it, with no Portuguese or any knowledge of the history and background to Belo Monte other than that filtered through the organization chaperoning him…which is also American.

That’s the one thing that can be guaranteed to unite all shades of uncommitted opinion in Brazil behind Belo Monte.

Imagine the average American’s reaction if  Pelé were to come to the United States and fulminate on television and in the papers against some large and controversial American project — say, the proposed wind-farm in Nantucket Sound.

Most would feel, first, what’s Pelé doing sticking his nose into something up here that doesn’t concern him, and second, why should we take seriously anything Pelé says about Nantucket? And so the other way round. Cameron’s trip was a political blunder and backward step for those trying to stop Belo Monte.

So the question arises: how can celebrities who genuinely want to help productively involve themselves in advocacy?

Celebrity is a bright flame that shrivels as well as illuminates. It can set advocacy back more than it advances it, especially as celebrity support of social and environmental causes tends to move from the United States and Europe to the tropics, and is thus overlaid by inherent political and cultural tensions when viewed from the receiving end. Think of all the ambiguities created for those working on child poverty in Africa by Madonna in Malawi, for example.

Fortunately, for the Amazon, James Cameron has a celebrity predecessor who can serve as a model for productive engagement: the British rock star Sting.

For over 20 years now, Sting has been a case study of how to go about doing the right thing. He first visited the Xingu in the 1980s, when it was altogether a different place, in a Brazil only recently emerged from military dictatorship, indigenous areas still being fought for, and even Belo Monte, then as now, on the drawing board but looking a lot more likely to be built.

Sting made mistakes at first, getting himself quoted in newspapers and lending ostentatious public support, being swindled and let down by “collaborators” in the early days, but he very quickly corrected himself. He spent a lot of time talking to people who knew the areas and issues.

Then he helped to set up (and still funds) an organization, Rainforest Foundation, that is a model of strategic support for the indigenous cause in the Amazon, and which taught me much about how $20,000 applied by people who know what they’re doing is worth more than $2 million applied by people who don’t.

Sting developed close links with the most competent Brazilian organization supporting indigenous groups in the Xingu, the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), and through that ISA developed experience in the productive mobilization of celebrity on the Xingu’s behalf, most recently through the support of Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen, best known to Americans as wife of Tom Brady, quarterback of the New England Patriots. Sting was also back in the Xingu a few weeks ago and did a concert in São Paulo, but you heard a lot less about him in the Brazilian media than about James Cameron.

There is a moral here: there is an important role for celebrities in advocacy, but only when they handle themselves intelligently. The secret: get good advice.

The process  has to begin with the celebrities themselves, who almost invariably have to recognize their own ignorance and step out of their bubbles with the humility to learn. Especially when they don’t speak the language or know the politics of the country they’re involving themselves in, they need to recognize the likelihood their involvement will be used by unscrupulous opponents to set back their cause through smearing it by association with an ignorant foreigner. Celebrities can’t help being foreign, but they can do something about their ignorance and political innocence.

A final tip for any celebrities reading: think hard about associating yourself with those who present themselves as direct channels to the place or cause you want to support.

James Cameron was a classic case: he came to Brazil chaperoned by an American organization with no presence on the ground in Brazil and without the political smarts needed to mount an effective campaign there. To small campaign organizations like these, an A-list Hollywood celebrity is a godsend. The advice they give is always going to be filtered through the over-riding need to keep the celebrity happy.

If, as was the case here, the way to use the celebrity most effectively was to keep them physically away from Brazil and use them strategically in the United States instead, helping them channel financial support to the right organizations in Brazil, they’re not going to say so in the face of the celebrity’s all too understandable but objectively counter-productive desire to go.

I don’t doubt Mr. Cameron’s sincerity or goodwill. At present, unfortunately, he’s set back rather than advanced his cause. But there’s time to correct course. He should spend some of it talking to the many independent U.S.-based experts who know the Xingu in American universities and research institutes. He should call the Rainforest Foundation. And most of all, Mr. Cameron, call Sting. I’m sure he’d be delighted to help, having already, in every sense, been there.

(Image: James Cameron. Image credit: Dave Malkoff/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

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  1. The moratorium on deforestation for soy production ended July 2009. Since then the deforestation has remained slower thanks to the global financial crisis and a new minister of the environment in Brazil. There are so many issues all over Brazil including the dam project, but it seems like we have an opportune time (reduced commodity demand and favorable minister)to take steps to put a new deforestation moratorium in place. If demand kicks up or the minister is replaced we may have lost the best opportunity we could ever hope for.

  2. In his blog “James Cameron, Celebrity, and How Not to Save the Amazon” David Cleary asks how celebrities can productively engage in a cause. He uses the current example of James Cameron’s advocacy for the rights of indigenous Peoples in Brazil as an example of what not to do, asserting that Mr. Cameron blundered into Brazil without the proper background and knowledge to guide him. According to the author, Mr. Cameron’s support of the grassroots movement to stop the Belo Monte mega-dam on Brazil’s Xingu River and his efforts to shine a spotlight on this highly controversial project has backfired.

    In fact, the author’s own ignorance of actual events and their repercussions is not only embarrassing, but does a disservice to the efforts of Brazilian groups fighting Belo Monte, such as the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), a group the author extols in his article. Had Mr. Cleary bothered to ask members of ISA about Mr. Cameron’s two visits to indigenous villages in the Xingu River basin, he would have learned that representatives of this organization were there with him every step of the way, briefing the director on the dam’s impacts and providing him with the accurate information he needed to effectively advocate on behalf of the thousands of people who will be affected by Belo Monte.

    Quite contrary to the author’s speculation that Mr. Cameron had his reality filtered by a US-based NGO with the “the over-riding need to keep the celebrity happy,” this same NGO, Amazon Watch, made sure their guest continually engaged with local people endangered by the project, key Brazilian social movements and NGOs such as the Xingu Alive Forever Movement, and leading political figures, like Green Party presidential candidate Marina Silva. In his visits to Arara and Xicrin Kayapo villages in the Xingu basin Mr. Cameron was not spared hearing the brutal reality from indigenous leaders whose way of life will be sacrificed if the Belo Monte dam in built.

    Another baffling omission of Mr. Cleary’s blog is the significance of the international media interest that Mr. Cameron’s visits to Brazil generated. The front-page story run by the New York Times generated a series of articles and op-eds in leading Brazilian media outlets that may have never materialized without first having gained such important exposure abroad. The impact of this reporting has greatly raised the profile of this controversial issue and has had a positive effect on Brazilian public opinion. While the predictable backlash to his engagement has been notable, the spotlight Mr. Cameron’s celebrity continues to shine on this critical issue tremendously outweighs his detractors.

    Celebrity involvement in any cause can be a challenge and has to be carefully thought through. Mr. Cameron is keenly aware of this reality, and met with Sting and his wife Trudie Styler, co-founders of the Rainforest Foundation, immediately after returning from his first trip to Brazil to discuss their ongoing support of indigenous peoples from the Xingu. It is worth mentioning that Sting publicly renewed his criticisms of Belo Monte in a press conference he held in Venezuela, shortly thereafter.

    Finally, while Mr. Cleary rightfully praises the Rainforest Foundation, he then follows the regrettably ill-informed pattern of this blog, unknowingly disassociating the NGO from Amazon Watch, Mr. Cameron’s guide in Brazil. In fact, the Rainforest Foundation and Amazon Watch are partners in an international coalition campaigning to stop Belo Monte. Mr. Cleary has clearly failed to learn the facts before launching in public attacks. As the director of conservation strategies in South America for The Nature Conservancy, the author’s unfortunate finger-pointing and erroneous suggestions beg the question: what has The Nature Conservancy done to support the Brazilian movement fighting this project? Rather than spending his energy detracting from the work of organizations dedicated to this struggle and attempting to undermine the positive contributions of Amazon Watch and James Cameron’s advocacy, he might consider lending a hand.

    Christian Poirier
    Brazil Program Coordinator
    Amazon Watch

  3. David Cleary’s put-down of James Cameron seems to have provided him with so much more fun than attacking the real problems of the Amazon Basin.Well, goody for David. It’s great that Amazon Watch responded but I’m afraid that few people will read their follow-up comment to the original article. And by the way, the gratuitous slamming of AVATAR and the mock aw-shucks-I’m-such-a-regular-guy of going to see High School Musical 2, is such an old intellectual trick that it’s disappointing to see it used on this worthwhile site.

  4. I am happy to see that Christian posted comments regarding Cleary’s blog. Cameron isn’t typically one to delve into any matter without study and education. Perhaps Cleary should read up more about James Cameron. What stood out more in this article was certainly Cleary’s put down (as commented on by Seymour). I doubt that Mr. Cameron has set back the cause because of his efforts, at least there are efforts. Cleary needs to stick to the issues and matters…which is not necessarily reporting the fall out of celebrity advocacy.

  5. Apologies for the delay in getting back to Christian’s post; I was out of the office for a couple of days. I’m afraid it unconsciously illustrates several of my points. It is the case that ISA accompanied the Cameron delegation and that Rainforest Foundation is part of a coalition of NGOs with Amazon Watch campaigning against Belo Monte, but that is not the same thing as endorsing Cameron’s visit or thinking it was a good idea. I’m glad Mr. Cameron talked to Sting, but only doing so after he got back rather took the option of Sting advising him not to go off the table. The citing of the publicity generated in the NYT would be sad, if Christian weren’t being serious. Seeing the NYT covering Belo Monte on the front page is exactly the kind of media coverage that reinforces nationalist opinion in its determination to build Belo Monte, since if the Americans are against it, in those minds, it must be a good idea. If Amazon Watch had an office in Brazil they might have noticed the cover and very negative report on Cameron’s visit in Exame a couple of weeks ago; Exame, something like a Brazilian version of the Economist, is much more widely read by Brazilian decision-makers than the NYT. That and much similar material was the more politically significant coverage the Cameron visit provoked when viewed from Brazil. The idea that Brazilian journalists needed the NYT and other international coverage of Belo Monte to discover the issue when it has been a major story here for years is another example of Amazon Watch’s ignorance. It’s offensive to the many Brazilian journalists who were doing a great job of making the public aware of Belo Monte and the issues associated with it long before Amazon Watch came along. And as for what I’ve done to help – well, I haven’t set the cause back through my naivety and amateurism, and made it just that little bit more likely that Belo Monte will be built.

    As for Seymour, I don’t recall ever coming across him during the many years I lived in the Amazon fighting the good fight.

  6. “Exame, something like a Brazilian version of the Economist, is much more widely read by Brazilian decision-makers than the NYT”

    aren’t the ‘decision makers’ in brasil the ones trying to build the damn anyway? so they probably would show Cameron in a negative light in order to promote the continuation of the project..?

    just wondering, i am doing a report on the topic of how the media portrays nature (and then how society reacts) and stumbled across this article…

  7. Great job sir! Cameron was guided by radical people that fail to see the corruption in the indigenous institutions behind it.

    If someone could translate to english, here is a good and simple explanation about Belo Monte.


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