Letter from James Cameron to President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva

April 8, 2010

Your Excellency, President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva,

I am writing to you as a concerned citizen of the Earth and on behalf of my children and future generations all over the world. I am not a political or business leader, I am a film maker whose last two movies have been the two highest grossing films in history. The most recent, "Avatar" has made US$ 2.7 billion so far at the box office, almost a billion more than my previous "Titanic." As you may know, "Avatar" is a film about the destruction of the natural world by expanding industrial interests, and the consequent impact to Indigenous populations. The film asks us all to examine our values, and to reconnect with each other and with the natural world. Its unprecedented success indicates the extent to which people, all over the world, are thinking about these issues as never before. In fact "Avatar" is the highest grossing film ever in Brazil, as well as many other countries.
I know that the people of Brazil are deeply concerned about preserving their wondrous rainforest and protecting the indigenous people who inhabit it. And historically you have led your country in initiatives to limit deforestation and protect Indigenous rights.
You have a great opportunity, as a world leader, to take decisive action in the immediate short-term to demonstrate Brazil's commitment to these vital issues. I am referring to the Belo Monte Dam project, which will undergo bidding on April 20. I believe strongly that this project should not go forward, and I appeal to you on the basis of logic and compassion, to intercede to prevent its progress.
You may question my standing on this matter, as a non-Brazilian, but I believe the issues affect all of us, around the world. Also, as the author of "Avatar", which has become a lightning rod for many NGO's dealing with these issues, I feel I have a duty and responsibility to lend my support to the Indigenous people whose plight my film symbolizes.
I traveled to Brazil recently, and visited the Volta Grande area of the Xingu River, to see for myself the potential impact of the Belo Monte Dam project. After a thorough briefing by experts from several Brazilian NGO's who have studied this project intensely, I believe I have an understanding of the impact of Belo Monte at a regional and global level. In addition, I met with 80 leaders representing 13 different Indigenous communities that are directly or indirectly threatened by the dam in the Lower Xingu. These leaders had traveled for up to five days by boat to meet at an Arara village on the Volta Grande, and I was privileged to hear their concerns first hand. They deeply fear the impact this dam will have on their lives, and are certain that it will end their way of life. They are prepared to do whatever they can to fight the dam, including lay down their lives if necessary. It was a highly emotional meeting, and I felt compelled, from that moment on, to do what I could to prevent the dam from being built.
There are many logical arguments against this dam. The Belo Monte dam will inundate over 500 square km of land, and divert nearly the entire flow of the Xingu through two artificial canals to the dam's powerhouse. This alone will leave Indigenous and traditional communities along a 100 km stretch of the Volta Grande without water, fish, or a means of river transport. The lowering of the water table would destroy the agricultural production of the region, affecting Indigenous and non-Indigenous farmers, as well as water quality. In all probability, the rainforests in this region would not survive. The formation of small, stagnant pools of water among the rocks of the Volta Grande will be a prime environment for the proliferation of malaria and other water-borne diseases. Communities upstream, including the Kayapó Indians, will suffer the loss of migratory fish species that are a crucial part of their diet.
In addition to these devastating impacts to the Volta Grande, an estimated 20,000 people will be forced from their homes, including inhabitants of the city of Altamira, which will be partially flooded. While in the region, I also met with community leaders in Altamira, including lawyers, environmentalists, academics and even the Bishop of Altamira, Dom Erwin Kreutler. I heard their heart-wrenching concerns. The people of Altamira will face displacement due to flooding of their homes, a rise in disease from stagnant water, and an influx of one hundred thousand workers without the infrastructure to support them.
The Belo Monte Dam will generate only 20% of its installed capacity during the months when the Xingu is low. It will only deliver its full potential if additional dams are built upstream to regulate the river's flow throughout the year, and the impact to the entire Xingu region of these later dams will be devastating, both to Indigenous populations and to the rainforest. Belo Monte is only the first of a series of dominos which will condemn the entire Xingu basin.
The Belo Monte Dam is being financed and subsidized by the Brazilian taxpayer, and yet little of its power goes to the general public. Most will be consumed by nearby aluminum smelters, who employ very few people relative to megawatts of consumed power, and whose corporate proceeds will mostly go offshore. I believe the Brazilian public is not aware of this, and sees the dam as a project designed to directly benefit them. In fact Brazil's energy needs are better met by investing a fraction of the cost of these mega projects in higher efficiency and renewal alternatives like wind and solar. A WWF-Brazil study published in 2007 showed that by 2020 Brazil could cut the expected demand for electricity by 40% through investments in energy efficiency. The power saved would be equivalent Belo Monte hydroelectric plants, and would save Brazil around R$33 billion in the process.
Brazil sits at the tectonic interface between the modern technological world and the besieged natural world. I believe that, as a world leader, you have an unprecedented opportunity to take a stand and be perceived as a hero for the 21st century, by guiding Brazil toward a sustainable vision of the future. Belo Monte is a dinosaur project, based on 20th century solutions. Viewing the rivers of Brazil as liquid energy is an obsolete paradigm. If the rivers are Brazil's life-giving arteries, then dams are like blood clots, which cause heart attacks and strokes. A dam like Belo Monte is far from clean energy, in an age of global warming. Its flooded areas will release massive amounts of methane, which is 20 times as potent a greenhouse gas as CO2, contributing more to global warming than coal fired power plants of equivalent power rating.
Brazil sits astride the equator and thus has far more solar flux than countries like Germany which are, ironically, leaders in solar power. Your nation could be an example to the world for how a rapidly growing economy can be expertly balanced with environmental responsibility. I also believe that the rest of the industrial world needs to assist Brazil, financially, with the conservation of its rainforests. North America is 3.5% of the world's population using 25% of its energy, with the corresponding contribution to global climate change. North America must take responsibility for its share of warming, and help out financially, under a carbon credit treaty like REDD, or some other mechanism. This is a global problem, and all leaders of conscience must cooperate in the solution. I will use my influence in media to promote this idea, as part of a comprehensive solution to global warming and conservation. But Brazil must take the moral high ground for this idea to be accepted.
I have given a few of the logical reasons against the dam, but the most compelling reasons are emotional. We all want our children and future generations to inherit a world that is survivable. To do that we must change the old ways, and make compassionate decisions based on a sustainable vision of "progress." The Indigenous people live with little negative impact to their forest world, and we must learn from their ancient wisdom. We must ask ourselves "what kind of ancestors do we want to be?"
I suspect you will consider me a meddling outsider who does not understand the political realities of your country. But I care deeply about the future for all of us, and feel compelled to speak, nevertheless. It would be my great honor to be able to discuss these issues with you directly. I am returning to Brazil to promote the DVD release of "Avatar", which is a global entertainment event, from April 10 to 14. If you have a moment in your schedule, I will come to Brasilia instantly.
Regardless, I hope this letter has not offended, but merely added one more voice to your conscience.
With greatest respect,

James Cameron

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