“I have malaria,” said one of the haggard figures that emerged from the dense tropical jungle. “I need medicine.”
It was 1996. We gave him what we had. Our tiny plane had just landed on an impossibly small runway littered with the remains of several less fortunate aircraft. As our time in the jungle wore on, it became clear that the people there needed our help. We them gave what we could, even the shoes off our feet.
Such was my introduction to exploring for gold in the emerald rain forests of the Amazon. Modern mining firms are a force for good in the world, welcomed and needed by many poverty stricken local populations. People in the industry know this, as do the various indigenous people groups I have encountered.
The makers of Avatar apparently disagree. The biggest grossing film of all time has cast an evil mining company as its sociopathic villain that remorselessly lays waste to the idyllic jungles of Pandora and its innocent inhabitants.
But why the fuss? Every decent Hollywood blockbuster needs a diabolical and unstoppable villain. Maybe it’s just mining’s turn to play the bad guy. The problem? Audiences are being told that Avatar is not just a movie.
The Avatar plot is as far from mining reality as Star Trek is from NASA. Real astronauts don't beam down to the surface and real geologists don't go in locked-and-loaded, hot-and-heavy, armed to the teeth. Everyone gets that, right?
Wrong. "Avatar is Real!" screams one blogger. "This is not fiction. It's happening already in the tropical forests and mountains of Peru, Colombia, Brazil,...where big mining, oil, etc...are invading the ancestral lands of Indigenous peoples and stealing their cultures..." Environmental groups have wasted no time jumping on the Avatar “stop-the-evil-miners” bandwagon.
The Avatar message is hardly new. Anti-corporate conspiracy theories are everywhere (see my earlier blog post "Corpophobia"), fuelling a bevy of action scripts. Avatar's ruthless miners take their place among Hollywood's new pantheon of corporate bogymen. Rogue banks, evil defence contractors, greedy oil cartels, shadowy media cabals, and any foe that can be described as "multinational" or "global" are taken down, against all odds, by today's savvy heroes, who are suddenly on a crusade to root out unethical business practices.
But Avatar goes further than your average kill-the-rich script. Avatar wants to save your soul. Move over Scientology, Hollywood’s got a new religion: the earth-cult I have dubbed Environtlogy.
Accept it. You (especially if you cut down trees, extract oil or mine stuff) have sinned against the earth. To be saved, you must believe and follow the teachings of Avatar. But what exactly is Avatar preaching?
Nothing new, really. It’s a mishmash of the usual new-age bafflegab about universal energy and connectedness and a mysterious life-force emanating from mother earth. What makes Avatar different, aside from the mind-blowing special effects, is that it is the most blatant admission to date that new-age religion and environmentalism have effectively merged.
Scientology, to its credit, admits it is a religion. The Scientology movie, Battlefield Earth, starring John Travolta, was financial bomb and made Scientology followers look silly. Disturbingly, on the other hand, no one admits Avatar preaches a religion, its box office haul is off the charts, and with the save-the-earth tie in, it makes its adherents look super cool.
But wait a minute.
I have been in the Amazon rain forest looking for gold and I can tell you that Avatar is not real. First of all, if there is gold there, local small miners will have already found it. Using environmentally disastrous methods (such as mercury extraction), hard working but often destitute local miners work in horrifically unsafe conditions to typically extract barely enough to survive. Malaria is rife.
Governments realize that they cannot prevent the extraction of precious metals, as it is impossible to police the vast expanse of the tropical forest. However, they can encourage mineral resources to be extracted in an environmentally responsible, safe and economically efficient manner.
This is why mining companies, of which a huge number come from Canada, are the good guys. Often at risk of life and limb (try landing a small plane on a skinny airstrip below the canopy) and certainly at huge financial risk, geologists and exploration people are often on the front lines of dealing with poverty and illness in developing countries.
In reality, mining is one of the great but untold feel good stories. It’s about a special breed of people doing extraordinary things in faraway places.
The stuff of a Hollywood movie, perhaps? Not a chance. A script like that would never sell.