Avatar in the Amazon

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If there were ever a place that came close to the magical world of Pandora in James Cameron's new film Avatar, it would probably be the Amazon. There may not be butterflies that look like flying squid, but in the Amazon can you eat giant worms and lemon flavored ants for dinner in a forest that is home to both the jaguar and the pink dolphin. Reporter Melaina Spitzer joined a group of indigenous leaders from the Amazon in Ecuador's capital Quito, to see Avatar on the big screen in 3D.

MARCO WERMAN: People around the world watching the movie Avatar have been noting parallels with their own lives. But if any place comes close to the film's magical world of Pandora, it's probably the Amazon jungle. It's got a similar look, and then there's the issue of the indigenous people fighting off an attempt to exploit their land. Well, recently a group of indigenous leaders from the Amazon took a six hour bus ride to Quito, Ecuador to see Avatar in 3D. Melaina Spitzer went along with them and sent this report.

MELAINA SPITZER: The Supercines Theater is on one of the busiest streets in Quito. On this afternoon it's filled with indigenous leaders bussed in from the Amazon. They are decked out in their plumes, feathered crowns, and jewelry. Some of them look a little overwhelmed. But that's not too surprising. These women say this is the first time they have ever been to a theater. Some have never seen a movie. As we pass into the theater a few look confused as ushers hand out thick, dark 3D glasses. The seats fill up so people sit on the steps and in the aisles, and then the lights go down. The movie tells the story of a planet called Pandora, home to the blue-skinned indigenous Navi. They are fighting to protect their forest from a company set on mining a rare mineral called Unobtaneum. When it's over, I speak with Mayra Vega. She is 24 years old and the head of the Women's Association of the Shuar Nation. She says Avatar hit home for her people.

INTERPRETER: It left a huge impression on us. It felt almost real. It makes us think a lot because the indigenous are defending their rights. We had an uprising, we had a confrontation. It's the same as what we just saw in the movie.

MELAINA SPITZER: Vega says just like in Avatar, the Shuar are fighting to protect their land from mining companies. They're not the only ones. Another case involves the Waorani. Beneath their territory, in Yasuni National Park, lie 846 million barrels of oil. Yasuni is a biodiverse hotspot that's often referred to as a grand lung of the earth. It's also one of the few places left on the planet where uncontacted indigenous groups live in isolation. Ecuador's President, Rafael Correa, has offered to forego drilling in this pristine environment if the international community will pay Ecuador more than three and one half billion dollars, about half the value of the oil. But Correa recently questioned the deal, causing an uproar at home. Marlon Santi is President of the National Indigenous Confederation of Ecuador. At a reception after the film, Santi says he hopes the President will ultimately bow to public pressure and keep his commitment to preserve Yasuni. He thinks Avatar could help with that.

INTERPRETER: Honestly, this is the first time I'm seeing this movie and it's reality, what's happening now, just in another dimension.

MELAINA SPITZER: Others say there was at least one thing in the movie that veered from their reality. Achuar leader, Luis Vargas says it's where the white guy sweeps in to the rescue. But, he says, that's to be expected.

INTERPRETER: This is a Hollywood movie, so it's practically a given that non-native comes to the defense of the people and leads them to triumph in the end.

MELAINA SPITZER: Still, he liked the film. His fellow Achuar Leader, Ernesto Vargas, says he hopes another group will get a chance to see it.

INTERPRETER: Think of how much better it would be if we showed this film to people who actually want to exploit petroleum resources. I think it would serve them very well, even more than us.

MELAINA SPITZER: As for Ecuador's President, Correa, he saw the movie with his children the day after it premiered in Ecuador. No word yet on what he thought of it. For The World, I'm Melaina Spitzer, in Quito, Ecuador.

MARCO WERMAN: Melaina also sent us a video and pictures to go along with her story. Amazonian Tribal Chiefs in all their finery watching Avatar with their boxes of popcorn, only at the world dot org.