Environmental Science
articles by Will Kemp


The movie

On one level, Avatar is just more of the same mushy, melodramatic, commercial fare that Hollywood churns out all the time. However, the underlying plot is interesting in its portrayal of a scenario that has played out all over the Earth many times throughout history. It is a movie about colonization, the plunder of natural resources, and the dispossession of indigenous people.

The colonisers are portrayed as a mix of soldiers, scientists and miners. These characters are a divided up into “goodies” and “baddies”. Good scientists and good soldiers, bad soldiers and bad miners. The standard plot – baddie turns goodie, falls in love, nearly dies, and then kills the chief baddie and saves the world – is interspersed with a narrative of indigenous connection to the environment and their opposition to dispossession and environmental destruction, which loosely parallels the experiences of real indigenous people and their struggles for survival. However, in this movie, the indigenous people win and the colonisers go home – which is a scenario that is rarely seen in real life.

This movie could be seen as telling an important story about colonization, dispossession, and Indigenous connection to the land – however, the standard Hollywood treatment merely trivialises the issues and turns them into just another permutation of a standard Hollywood plot. It would be nice to think that Avatar could help raise people’s consciousness of the issues it covers, but it seems to me that it owes more to appropriation than an attempt to educate, and these issues will probably only have significance for people who already understand them.

Although the connections are fairly superficial, Avatar reminds me of two real life stories – those of the Nigerian Ogoni people’s fight against Shell Oil and the Bougainville people’s fight against the Panguna copper mine.

The Ogoni People

Approximately half a million Ogoni live in the Niger delta of south eastern Nigeria, mainly agricultural and fishing people. Their problems began in 1956, when Royal Dutch Shell discovered oil on their land. From then until they suspended production in 1993, Shell extracted more than five billion US dollars worth of oil from this area. The Ogoni received no benefits from this wealth, and saw only environmental degradation, pollution of waterways, and the destruction of their livelihoods (Obi, 1997; Fabig et al., 2001).

Most of the profits from the Ogoni oil went to propping up the military dictatorship, who, in turn, supported Shell and defended the company against the anger of the Ogoni people. In 1990, Ogoni people presented an Ogoni bill of rights and founded the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), with the aim of engaging in a non-violent struggle for their social and ecological rights. MOSOP appealed for international support, and took their case to a number of organisations including Amnesty International, Greenpeace, and the United Nations. MOSOP became increasingly militant and eventually forced Shell to stop operations in Ogoni country. They demanded compensation and an end to the environmental destruction (Obi, 1997; Fabig et al., 2001).

Military violence against the Ogoni began with the killing of peaceful demonstrators in 1993 and escalated soon after, resulting in hundreds of deaths. Shell, who suspended oil production that year, was later shown to be colluding with the government in these attacks on their opponents. In 1995 MOSOP leader, Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed after a sham trial. This sparked worldwide condemnation of Shell and led to boycotts and large scale shareholder action (Obi, 1997; Fabig et al., 2001).

In 2009, as a result of continued international pressure, Shell agreed to pay $15.5 million in compensation to the Ogoni people – but the environmental degradation caused by their operations is yet to be dealt with (The Economist, 2009).


Bougainville is the largest island in the Solomon Islands chain, not far from Papua New Guinea. It was a German territory until after the second world war, when it became part of New Guinea, which was administered by Australia. After failing to gain independence in its own right, Bougainville became part of Papua New Guinea on PNG’s independence from Australia in 1975 (O’Callaghan, 2002).

Copper was discovered on Bougainville in 1960 and Conzinc Rio Tinto started mining there in 1972 – against resistance from the Bougainville people, who had fought against the mine and were to receive no compensation for the appropriation of their land. (O’Callaghan, 2002; Kopel et al., 2004).

Land in Bougainville is traditionally owned by the women and the dispossessed landowners tried to stop construction – some of them laying their babies down in front of the bulldozers. But an entire mountainside was chemically defoliated for the mine site and by 1988, the open pit was 6 km long by 4 km wide and 30 km of river valley was severely degraded (Kopel et al., 2004).

On 1st December 1988, the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA), founded by Francis Ona, one of the dispossessed villagers, used explosives stolen from the mine to destroy the power line supplying the mine, which stopped production. The PNG defence force moved in to try and put down the rebellion and violence escalated. In 1990, the government of PNG lost control of Bougainville leaving the island under BRA control. They declared a state of emergency and blockaded the island using patrol boats donated by Australia. Thousands of people died as a result – mainly from lack of access to health care (O’Callaghan, 2002; Kopel et al., 2004).

More than two decades later, after many years of struggle and negotiation, complete stability is yet to return to Bougainville. It is now an autonomous area within PNG, with its own government, and it is on the road to complete independence sometime this decade. The mine is still closed (The Economist, 2010).

There are some similarities between Avatar and these two cases, but only on a superficial level. In real life, real people get killed – sometimes in vast numbers, conflict goes on for decades, outcomes are rarely clean and tidy, and there are no happy endings. The story is always considerably more complicated and drags on for decades or centuries. The environmental destruction does not go away, but sometimes the exploiters do get sent home!


Fabig, H., Wheeler, D., & Boele, R. (2001). Shell, Nigeria and the Ogoni. A study in unsustainable development: I. The story of Shell, Nigeria and the Ogoni people – environment, economy, relationships: conflict and prospects for resolution. Sustainable Development, 9(2), 74-86.

Kopel, D. B., Gallant, P., & Eisen, J. D. (2004). Firearms possession by “non-state actors”: the question of sovereignty. Texas Review Of Law & Politics, 8, 2, 373-436.

Obi, C.I. (1997). Globalisation and local resistance: The case of the Ogoni versus Shell. New Political Economy, 2, 1, 137-148.

O’Callaghan, M.L. (2002). The origins of the conflict. Accord: an international review of peace initiatives, 12, 6-11. Retrieved from: http://www.c-r.org/resources/weaving-consensus-papua-new-guinea-bougainville-peace-process on 14/7/14.

The Economist (2009). Spilling over; Shell in Nigeria. The Economist (EU), 391, 8635, 43.

The Economist (2010). Halfway to freedom; Bougainville’s new president. The Economist (US), 395, 8686, 47.