|Avatar Opens a Pandora's Box Reminiscent of Papua|
|Written 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 everything 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 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 these 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), and 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 with an eerie similarity to the Avatar story. Papua is one of the last areas of paradise forest left on our planet, but just like Pandora, it is home to great natural resources which those wanting, will stop at nothing to get.
PALM OIL AGRICULTURE - SAVIOUR OR DESTROYER?
Not vastly different from the meme of unobtanium, the new energy source of plantation palm oil is being heralded as the green saviour for the over-consuming West, but ironically, chopping down the forests to grow it may be the last straw that destroys the earth. Looking at the damage of palm oil plantations 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 experiences of working alongside indigenous Papuans in resisting human rights and environmental abuses. Most of this has been working directly with communities who are at the frontline of the greatest land grab in the southern hemisphere since Australia was invaded. I am sure by now everyone knows the story of Avatar, and 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 depiction 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.
THE RIGHT OF MIGHT
It is not just the forests being destroyed (and yes, they do glow in the dark in the old growth). When Jake Sully first arrives on 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. This planet's biggest and richest gold (and copper) mine, surrounded by people whose lands it has destroyed, and is ever encroaching upon, 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, both of whom 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 (supposedly) arrested months ago, Adkerson and Moffat have requested Detachment 88 troops to conduct security sweeps across eight regencies (districts) surrounding the mine. Significant abuses such as village burnings, forced relocations, arbitrary arrest and summary executions have always been credibly reported by several international organisations during these sweeps, which are 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 springs and on which it is now 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 from experience). Like the Na'vi, the OPM have organised traditional fight-back. But also like the Na'vi, their poisoned arrows are useless against the armor and sheer brutality of Papua's equivalent of the Skypeople - the Indonesian military mafia and their neocon corporate masters.
A REASON TO HOPE
A unity is developing in Papua, as any Avatar fan would expect, but it is focused on non-violence. It is growing exponentially in its scope and capacity, and is creating a direct threat to the corporate interests operated 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 threat of danger to the Indonesian military in allowing this film to be shown in West Papua, as it can easily and quickly inspire 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 a 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 via tech savvy locals. Melkias heard the call of his people to fight, and returned to the jungle to join the Indigenous resistance fighting against the colonial invaders. Coming from a tradition of forest warriors, he is shooting a powerful yet non-violent arrow of exposure to the heart of Indonesia's 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 others in his attempt to achieve something akin to the final scene in Avatar - the complete and total withdrawal of those who would destroy Papua and Papuans. Let us hope that he has the same success to free his people and his land as that enjoyed by the Na'vi and Jake Sully.
First Published: Dancing Turtle Media.
Nick Chesterfield, Mar-Apr 2010
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