It's pretty evident from the film Avatar, that James Cameron is an environmentalist at heart. But it is unlikely that the movie tycoon ever imagined he would find himself in the middle of one of the biggest environmental battles in history.

Yes, it seem James Cameron has been reborn as a front-line activist and like his own hero Jake Scully, he has chosen a side. As the front page New York Times story described this week, Cameron has been accepted by the indigenous people who live in the Amazonian jungle, and they are looking to this unlikely 56-year-old white guy to save their threatened rain forest.

It probably seems it should go without saying that keeping a lush tropical rain forest alive and healthy requires a LOT of water. The Xingu is one of several major branches of the Amazon River that supplies water via thousands of trickling streams and gushing tributaries to enormous tracts of the Amazon jungle.

The Xingu waterfalls are legendary and the body of water supports one of the most biodiverse regions on Earth — and it also supports dozens of indigenous native peoples. For these reasons, the area was the first in Brazil’s history to acquire national park status.

But the Brazilian government has its eyes on all that rushing water. According to the government, a massive dam could generate 11,000 megawatts of “clean energy” (roughly the equivalent of seven medium-sized coal plants). But there are many catches ...

First, the proposed Bel Monte dam would only produce that much power during the rainy season. In the dry months it would handle only about 10 percent of capacity, so in effect the project would only provide an annual average of about 6,000 megawatts (or four coal plants' worth).

Second, it would displace 20,000 indigenous people who would be forced to relocate, despite the fact that much of their land is protected under law and that their cultural survival is inextricably linked with the region.

Third, in order to make the project successful, many other rivers and streams that feed the Xingu would have to be dammed and altered as well. It would be one of the largest earth-moving projects on Earth, larger than the Panama Canal, and it would divert more than 80 percent of the river.

Fourth, it comes at an almost incomprehensible price tag — on the order of $15 billion — to build. And far, far greater than the monetary costs come the inestimable damage to the ecosystem of the Amazon. Huge swathes of the jungle could dry up in a region which the entire world depends on for carbon sequestration with untold species that would become endangered or extinct as a result.

You can read James Cameron’s letter to the President Lura of Brazil.


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