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France's Na'vi: Liberty, Inequality, Catastrophe

By Peter Hulm

(This remains a draft. It has no comment from the French authorities or material from individual interviews yet. By the way, Dirty Paradise shared the Festival Grand Prix.)

The millions of us who bought those premium tickets to see Avatar, James Cameron's 3-D Wild West in Space extravaganza, the eager audiences who made it the best-selling film in history, we all wanted the Na'vi to win and flourish, surely?

France has its own Na'vi, the Wayana of French Guiana. They inhabit the largest French commune (18,360 km2), near the border with Brazil. But they fear they are doomed by clandestine gold panning that is dumping methylmercury in their water.

There are measurable effects on their children (five times the WHO norms), their rivers are fouled and their forest is off-limits because of the gun-toting gold diggers. A French health worker who has been measuring the mercury levels in children's hair describes their future as "the chronicle of a death foretold" (the title of a famous film about legal assassinations).

No reply from Sarkozy

In contrast to the Na'vi, no-one in the French government seems to ready to do anything useful to protect their rights. French President Nicolas Sarkozy flew over the region when looking for votes from the overseas territories, but he doesn't seem to be answering the Wayana's letters.

Unlike the Na'vi, however, the Wayana are not looking for an American avatar to free them from the deadly trap. Five of them came to Geneva in the week of 8 March 2010 to talk to people about a film documenting the threats to their existence (Dirty Paradise) and to speak to the UN about making a claim against the French government for allowing the pollution to their environment.

And the film makes clear that the Wayana are not simple innocents (as if indigenous people ever were, outside Hollywood).

Daniel Schweizer's documentary shows them as astute as any political commentators you'd find on news talk shows, but with a solid sense of their own lives. Difficult to capture on film without being condescending (see my associated blog) but Daniel Schweizer managed to do it. They may not have electricity or radios in their villages but some young Wayana have produced a reggae about the mercury poisoning, which you can watch online, with its plea: "We want to live like before. We don't want to live in filth anymore. Our lives are at risk. Don't you see that?"

Fewer rights than a settler

France has not signed the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (C169), 1989, which guarantees rights to indigenous people, and particularly land rights in Article 14. Maybe it has something to do with the official French mythology that anyone who holds a French passport cannot be inferior to anyone else: liberty, equality, fraternity etc. But the Swiss documentary maker told some 100 local schoolchildren who came to see his film at the Grütli centre: "They have no rights to the land where they live and do not own it. They have fewer rights than someone from the Savoie who goes there and settles."

As a result, motorized pirogues seem to pass frequently up the Tampock river taking gold panners to forest camps where they sluice the soils with mercury to leach out the gold from the sandy mud. It takes 1.5 kilos of mercury to separate out 1kg of gold. The dangerous waste then goes back into the river and concentrates in the fish on which the Wayana depend. The gold prospectors shoot at the Indians if they go into the forest, so they can no longer balance their diet with tapirs, small animals, birds or plants. The gold panners' noise also scares away game.

'We are obliged to eat the poisoned fish'

The health visitor from Solidarité Guyane found one young girl who did not like fish. Her hair indicated a very low incidence of mercury poisoning, but with little else to eat she was not getting enough protein, he warned, and she seemed listless on camera. The health worker also notes a high level of conjunctivitis among the children from the contamination of the river. "Your eyes itch," says one child after playing in the water.

"NGOs come regularly to warn them of health hazards particularly because of methyl mercury dumped into their river for ten years as a result of gold prospecting," Schweizer reports." For the Wayana this seems academic." One Wayana mother explains: "We are obliged to eat what we find." Fish are easy to catch and easy to digest for children who are still teething.

One elderly Wayana named Parana told the students: "If I did not have fish to eat, I don't know what I'd do."

Parana the Little Indian

Parana is the key to the film about their plight. He was the star of a phenomenally successful children's photobook by the French photographer Dominique Darbois that appeared in 1952: Parana, the Little Indian (cover). Schweizer, now nearing 50, remembered the book from his childhood and took his camera team in search of Parana and the Wayana when he heard how clandestine gold panning was pushing them off the land and destroying what looked like paradise in the children's book.

Filming took six years. Schweizer, whose earlier films include a documentary on skinheads and another on Swedish Neo-Nazis, was able to get panners, local authorities and soldiers on camera as well as the Wayana. He was able to get them to talk because he went into the region every day and reassured people there he was not a journalist. The Wayana themselves told him not to make a news report but to help them film their way of life.

Shooting digitally, the team was able to get immediate feedback. "We showed film in the evening to the Wayana," Schweizer points out. "When they saw the destruction of the forest and the diversion of rivers, they were very shocked. They could not imagine what was happening."

Rocketing gold prices

This has all happened in the past ten years and the pressure on the Wayana is accelerating. The area was officially closed to all but ethnologists and the local inhabitants until 1993. Then gold prices began to skyrocket. One English-speaking panner with a Caribbean accent told Schweizer he knew of gold in the region several years ago but the price was not high enough to make it worth his prospecting.

"The price is right now. $26 per ounce and 96% purety," he proclaims. On the Geneva markets, just so you know, you pay $1100. Today Schweizer estimates there are over 10,000 gold panners in the region, ten times as many as the Wayana. The village chief Mlanie says she fears their way of life is doomed. "It is difficult for us to follow the way of the world outside," observes another Wayana. They have kept to their traditional ways despite 200 years of contact with others.

Apparently descendants of the fiercely independent Caribs found all along meso-America, the Wayana were once respected and feared. But they gave up using their guns and bows as weapons. "No arrows. No coshes," says one Wayana in the film, discussing how to resist the invasion. "We do have some machetes."

The Wayana's openness to the outside world and the remoteness of their villages (there are no roads) makes its very difficult for them to claim their rights. The film shows a French Wayana woman married to a Wayana from (Dutch) Suriname trying to get a French passport for her son. The official behind the glass-protected counter tells them indifferently the person they need is not around and they will have to come back another day.

Sweeps are 'a joke'

The French police and army make sweeps of the region for illegal camps of what the Wayana call the "Brazilians" (though the tribe itself is reported to have come from Brazil in the 18th century). But the actions are announced by radio and the camps are usually found empty when the soldiers arrive.

"There's no follow-up," says one bitter Wayana. "It's a joke. I think someone informs them, That's why the police cannot find them. I think it is the Whites."

The Geneva high school students at first seemed abashed and overwhelmed at coming face-to-face with a group of strangers whose future seemed so dismal and predictable. But soon they were asking questions:

'A form of genocide'

"The Wayana disapprove of searching for gold themselves because they believe gold holds the earth together and without it the earth will disintegrate," Schweizer points out. "They know they cannot see or taste the mercury. It is hidden in the fish like an evil spirit."

The film shows a man and his son discovering a skull in the mangroves. The father says it must be a 'Brazilian': "The gold creates lots of conflict."

Jean-Pierre the healthworker says that with the mercury poisoning, conjunctivitis and now rampant malaria, "if nothing is done about the source, it will be a form of genocide."

Appeals to the authorities have gone without a response, observes Schweizer. "Why doesn't France show any interest in these Indians of Europe?" #

You can watch an excerpt from Dirty Paradise in QuickTime format online.

Schweizer notes that since the French Arte channel is a co-producer, viewers in Europe can expect to see the film on their screens within a year.


11 March 2010