Avatar is little help to indigenous people

By Sun Yuqing (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-01-09 07:41
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The movie, Avatar, can be seen as portraying the victory of an indigenous people who try to maintain their identity amid the threat of so-called civilization, anthropologists who advocate cultural diversity in times of globalization, and to some extent religion over science. It may sound an alarm for policymakers, too, urging them to choose a sustainable development model.

The economic growth of human society, particularly the unquenchable desire for minerals, wood, water and land, poses a threat to the resources on which indigenous people or minority groups make their living and build their identities. In most cases, these physical resources are essentially the source of unique cultures, religions, customs and social relations, developed over hundreds or even thousands of years.

In Avatar, the Na'vi people live on a fictional moon called Pandora, worship trees, treat animals as life-long partners and have their own value system on issues such as death or the relationship between human beings and nature. Unfortunately, a modern person may see all this as uncivilized or underdeveloped and would ardently but wrongly want to liberate them. The film is set in 2154, when humans invade Pandora to mine a rare but very precious mineral that the indigenous people show no signs of exploiting.

The "civilized" have always conquered the "primitive" across the world. The Sami people in North Europe, the indigenous people in Australia and the Indians in the United States all paid a heavy price when colonizers changed their lives irrevocably under the pretext of development. If this is difficult to understand, think about the experience of people relocated unwillingly for the construction of commercial and residential buildings in China's big cities. Think about the fact that some Chinese still regard a handful of soil from their hometowns as the most valuable gift.

The relationship between nature and humans can never be simplified or rationalized as "give and take". Following this approach, science alone does not seem to depict the complex interactions between the mental and physical worlds. In the film, scientist Grace Augustine even claims to see Eywa, mother goddess of the Na'vis, before her death. Does this represent a retreat or self-reflection of reason-based thinking in front of "primitive society" - a concept that could originate in ethnocentrism or cultural chauvinism?

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The victory of Na'vi people's bows and arrows over the satellite-guided warplanes of the invaders is simply an imagination. In reality, this is neither possible nor practical for alleviating the suffering of indigenous peoples in the real world whose land is not untouchable like Pandora's box containing all the ills.

One group of people's desire for material prosperity at the expense or sacrifice of another will continue to cause conflicts. An appreciation of cultural diversity or love of "the other" can at least make the process more harmonious. This principle is not only necessary for formulating economic policies that do not benefit one group and harm another, but also is fundamental in dealing with relationships among ethnic groups.