Avatar Opens a Pandora's Box > Nick Chesterfield

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 Avatar Opens a Pandora's Box Reminiscent of Papua > by  Nick Chesterfield

“The smell was of death and dying.  Everywhere was black and my people were crying.  Our sacred trees were falling, brutal alien men were driving massive yellow machines through our land and waters, taking our trees,  we were being herded out... Soldiers were firing at anything that moved, as helicopters were flying over what was left of our home, sending sheets of fire to burn everything... My mother died, my father died.

“All I have left is a memory of my home, and my sister alongside me today in this limbo... So of course I must go back and fight.  I was born as a warrior, even if I die early as one, I am still fighting for my people’s grandchildren.  These Garudas will eat every last one of us unless our poison arrows go for the heart of their greed. We must drive those aliens out, and remind them that THIS IS OUR LAND.”

Is this a key scene James Cameron’s much talked about epic Avatar?  No, it is a description from a refugee student (let’s call him Melkias for his safety), of the situation that forced his flight from the Pandora of this planet, West Papua.  Interviewing him in a PNG border camp in May 2006, Melkias was describing to me what happened when a logging company, backed and run by the Indonesian military, started clearing out local people from the Boven Digul border area.

“They destroyed their Earth, so now they are coming destroy ours, “Melkias said in an eerie allegory to the undercurrent to the Avatar story.  Papua was one of the last areas of paradise forest left on our planet, but just like Pandora it is home to natural resources that those who want it will stop at nothing to get.

Not vastly different from the meme of unobtanium, the new energy source of plantation oil palm is being heralded as the green saviour for the over consuming West, but ironically, chopping down the forest to grow it may be the last straw that destroys it.  Looking at the damage of oil palm on the ground,  or even from Google Earth, it doesn’t leave any observer with too much hope.

So seeing Avatar was for me intensely powerful and inspiring, grounded in my personal experience working alongside indigenous Papuans in resisting human rights and environmental abuses.  Most of this has been with working directly with communities who are at the frontline of the greatest landgrab in the southern hemisphere since Australia was invaded.  I am sure by now everyone knows the story, but watching the entire audience rooting for the Na’vi was something worth experiencing, with the same feeling one gets during popular uprisings (when you are on the side of the people).

Avatar can be seen as a highly accurate analysis of the interaction of tribal peoples with European colonialism, or more accurately western based systems of resource exploitation economies and their collateral environmental destruction.  There are so many parallels that this film could easily be set in West Papua; and it is not just tribal people who love their Land resisting “corporate whores” (as Sully so gracefully described) who cannot comprehend that indigenous people do not like being massacred for shiny metal or sticky liquid.

It is not just the forests being destroyed (and yes they do glow in the dark in the old growth).  As Jake Sully first arrived into the planet of Pandora, he flies into RDA’s mine site with its giant planet-ripper super shovel filling the screen, in evocative simulacra of the giant planetfucking Freeport Grasberg mine, half owned by Rio Tinto.  This is a hole that can be seen clearly from space.  Maybe the Na’vi should be seeing this. (attach the Freeport photo) This planet’s biggest and richest gold (and copper) mine, surrounded by people who lands it destroyed and is ever encroaching into, it is also an entity under siege.

Just like the fictitious RDA on Pandora, Freeport is ultimate enabler and foreign legitimiser of all the human rights abuses and violence committed upon West Papuan people by the Indonesian security forces.  IT has been exposed repeatedly at US regulator level for paying the Indonesian military over US$35 million per year for protection, providing all their accommodation and vehicles.  Like the CEO of RDA, Freeport also has a shameless shiny metal obsessed Selfridge (or rather two):  Jim-Bob Moffat and Richard Adkerson, who are directly implicated in major human rights abuses on West Papuans.

Since the ongoing shootings against Freeport , which mysteriously continue even though the shooters were arrested months ago (apparently), Adkerson and Moffat have requested Detachment 88 troops to conduct security sweeps across eight regencies (districts) surrounding the mine.  Significant abuses  like village burnings, forced relocations, arbitrary arrest and summary executions have always been credibly reported by several international organisations during this sweep, which is still ongoing.

For many years, the National Liberation Army of West Papua (Tepenal or TPN-PB) had been conducting a low level resistance against mine infrastructure and economic interests, but has quite publicly condemned the shooting of civilian mine workers.  

The Papuans are a people deeply connected to their land from which their blood spring and on which is spilt.  In fact, about the only difference between traditional warriors in West Papua and the Na’vi is their looks, especially their height (the forest is pretty unforgiving to tall folk; said with experience).

Like the Na’vi, the OPM have organised traditional fight back.  But like the Na’vi their poisoned arrows, they are useless against the armour and sheer brutality of Papua’s equivalent of the Skypeople – the Indonesian military mafia and their neocon corporate masters.

A unity is developing in Papua, as any Avatar fan would expect, but it focussed on non-violence.  It is growing exponentially in its scope and capacity, and is creating a direct threat the corporate interests run with the Indonesian military.  It is also attracting a lot of allies from the occupying culture.

It will be interesting to see how the Indonesian government will react to Avatar’s reception in West Papua.  There is a strong danger for the Indonesian military in allowing this film to go ahead in West Papua,  as it can easily and quickly inspired indigenous people to rise up.  It is with great pleasure that the most technologically advanced film to be made so far is at its core anti-colonial and tribal people’s activist film…

I am not sure if my friend from the border  has seen the film, but I am sure a copy will find its way into the forest with tech savvy locals.  Melkias heard the call of his people to fight, and returned into the jungle to join the Indigenous resistance, fighting against the colonial invaders.  Coming from a tradition of forest warriors, he is shooting an powerful yet non-violent arrow of exposure to the heart of Indonesia’ most vulnerable point:  video based accountability for its systemic brutality against indigenous people.

Appropriating the invaders’ technology, guided by his connection to the forest from which he came, Melkias is unified with many in organising to  achieve something akin to the final scene in Avatar:  the complete and total withdrawal of those who will destroy Papua and Papuans.  Let us hope that he has the same success enjoyed by the Na’vi  and Jake Sully to free his people and his land.


The is article originally appeared in HELO online magazine.