New Internationalist

Avatar for real

Issue 446

In Avatar, James Cameron’s 2009 film, the blue skinned inhabitants of Pandora, a lushly forested distant moon, have to deal with humans in search of a precious mineral. Though fantasy, the movie’s theme reflected the experience of indigenous communities as outsiders try to sow division among them. But in the real world, indigenous people are organizing, using the law and international solidarity, to fight corporate might. Here are a few examples from around the globe:


In India, the Dongria Kondh people took on mining giant Vedanta – and won. Responding to vigorous protest, the Indian government’s environment ministry denied the London-based company permission to mine in the Nivamgiri Hills, Orissa. Vedanta has lodged a court appeal. However, several shareholders have disinvested a total of $40 million from Vedanta in protest over the company’s human rights and environmental record.

Find out more: Survival International


Dario Novellino / Survival
Dario Novellino / Survival

In the Philippines, the struggle of the Palawan people against the MacroAsia Mining Corporation took a complex twist in June this year when 30 ‘fake’ tribal leaders went to Manila to show support for the company. The main indigenous organization, ALDAW, is accusing both MacroAsia and the national Commission of Indigenous Peoples of using highly manipulative strategies to crush opposition. The Palawan people are shifting cultivators, who survive by growing highland rice. Hundreds of mining applications have been made by companies seeking nickel and chromite from their lands. Open pit and strip mining would devastate the mountains and forests, pollute the rivers and the sea, and destroy the Palawan’s burial sites and spiritual places.

Find out more: No to Mining in Palawan


Sofia YU / Survival
Sofia YU / Survival

In Malaysia, a small group of Penan hunter gatherers have scored a victory of sorts over a giant oil palm firm, Shin Yang. The company had been clearing a forest area to which the Penan people were due to be resettled, to make way for the Murum dam project. But after protests, the Malaysian oil palm giant announced that it was halting work ‘pending verification from the authorities’ that the land had been designated for the Penan.

Find out more: Survival International


Ingetje Tadros
Ingetje Tadros

In Australia, aboriginal people set up road blocks to prevent Woodside Energy starting work on a liquefied natural gas processing plant at James Price Point, Kimberley (see picture). The A$30 (US$ 30.9) billion scheme has divided local aboriginal communities; in May this year traditional owners voted 60 per cent in favour of the gas hub. But the vote was taken under threat of compulsory acquisition and many families were excluded from the process, which some say was hijacked by the government of Western Australia. Local artist Charmaine Green is urging fellow indigenous Australians to open their eyes to ‘Mr Mining Man’ before it’s too late. ‘I just think the mining companies… have been quite dirty in their tricks: they’ve been wining and dining Aboriginal people… they’ve buttered people up and given them “lollies” to sign on the dotted line.’

Find out more: Save the Kimberley;;


In Canada, three indigenous First Nations – Athabasca Chipewyan, Beaver Lake Cree Nation and Enoch Cree – recently won a Federal Court ruling protecting woodland caribou who are threatened with extinction due to tar sands exploration in Alberta. This is a significant victory in the struggle against the destructive exploration of tar sands on indigenous land and could affect several leases. Despite the efforts by major oil companies such as BP and Petro Canada, a growing number are now joining the indigenous-led opposition to tar sands. For example, 61 First Nations have united to oppose a 1,170 km pipeline that would carry Alberta’s tar sands to the west coast.

Find out more: Indigenous Environmental Network; UK Tar Sands Network


Akintunde Akinleye / Reuters
Akintunde Akinleye / Reuters

In Nigeria, after years of denial, Shell finally admitted liability for two massive oil spills that devastated the environment and ruined the livelihoods of the Niger Delta’s Ogoni people. Compensation is expected to run into hundreds of millions of dollars.

However, the struggle continues for the Ogoni people, who are resisting plans to build a military complex on their lands in the Niger Delta. Activists suspect the plans are part of a government drive to further militarize the area in defence of Shell’s oil drilling activities.

Find out more: Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People;


In Chile the Mapuche people are mobilizing to resist the ‘legal theft’ of their genetic heritage following the Senate’s adoption of the International Convention for the Protection of new Plant Varieties (UPOV91), the so-called ‘Monsanto Law’. This law would prevent indigenous communities from saving seeds and would threaten their traditional free and collective exchange of plant varieties. Instead, indigenous communities will be exposed to the products of corporations like Monsanto, which already holds most of the world’s plant species patents. Mapuche poverty will deepen if they become reliant on hybrid or GM seeds and other expensive agricultural products sold by multinationals. Some 150 Mapuche community leaders have signed a declaration against the law.

Find out more: Mapuexpress;


The Republic of Congo has become one of just two countries in Africa that provides legal protection for its indigenous peoples. The other is the Central African Republic. Congo’s new law, passed in February 2011, had been almost seven years in gestation.

The country’s indigenous people, some of whom are known as Pygmies (see picture below), constitute a tenth of the population and the law’s aim is to counter their chronic marginalization. Currently, they are excluded from the education system and lack access to whatever state health services are available.

But there are serious gaps in the new law – it does not, for example, include the right to ‘free, prior and informed consent’ on developments that affect them.

Find out more: Rainforest Foundation UK

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  1. #1 kelly Campion 10 Nov 11

    Not only is it, nor should it be only indigenous populations around the globe fighting the mighty corporate machine. We (all humans)need, to take a leaf from the book of the indigenous and get back intouch and reconnect with the earth that we live on and share with each other and many many animals and insects etc, and realise its real/true value. The earth is not replaceable! Nor are any of its inhabitants, be they human or otherwise, land, air or water dewllers!

  2. #2 Bill S 12 Mar 12

    Without knowing ALL the details it seems to me that large corporations are gobbling up Earth resources and caring less about the humans living on that land. The corporations are doing absolutely nothing to help assist the humans to adjust, apparently, money talks and these humans are the true waste.

  3. #3 fredrodriguez 01 Nov 12

    It is rather sad that real communities of individuals face the same issues that are portrayed in movies like Avatar. As mentioned in this blog, these communities are faced with real environmental issues brought about by commercialization and globalization. Once environmental problems strike a community, neither engineers nor consultants will be able to undo these problems and restore the environment in its previous condition. The damage is done. Hence, the government or authorities should regulate and be stewards of the environment, rather than allow multinational companies destroy it for profit.

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This article was originally published in issue 446

New Internationalist Magazine issue 446
Issue 446

More articles from this issue

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  • Film review: Tomboy

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  • Peru's dam busters

    October 1, 2011

    Vanessa Baird discovers why the Asháninka people of the River Ene are taking a hard line against dam builders – and others.

New Internationalist Magazine Issue 436

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