James Cameron feels he 'walked into an ambush' in Argentine lithium dispute

Director James Cameron walks in Purmamarca, Jujuy province, Argentina, Thursday, June 8, 2023. The filmmaker arrived to Argentina to participate in a Sustainable Development Forum. (AP Photo/Javier Corbalan) (Javier Corbalan, Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

BUENOS AIRES – Movie director James Cameron says he feels he “walked into an ambush” this week during a visit to Argentina in which he believes there was an attempt to use his image as an environmentalist to give a positive spin to lithium mining operations despite Indigenous opposition.

Cameron, the director of “Avatar” and “Titanic,” said Friday he would now devote attention and money from his Avatar Alliance Foundation to support Indigenous communities opposing lithium operations in South America.

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“Ironically, the outcome of this is that I am now aware of the problem and we will now assist through my foundation with the issue of Indigenous rights with respect to lithium extraction,” Cameron told a group of journalists gathered in his hotel room in the capital of Buenos Aires Friday evening.

Cameron came to Argentina this week to speak at a sustainability conference in Buenos Aires on Friday.

“I believed that I was coming here to make a kind of motivational speech about environmental causes,” Cameron said.

As part of the visit, Cameron traveled to northern Jujuy province Thursday to visit a large solar power plant with Gov. Gerardo Morales and says he was never told lithium would be part of the discussion.

After Cameron’s visit, Morales wrote a message on social media thanking Cameron for the visit, writing that the province was looking to “transform the energy matrix” through projects such as the solar power plant and “lithium extraction.”

The director received a letter that a group of 33 Indigenous communities from the area had written to him a few days earlier asking him to either cancel his trip or meet with them so they could explain their long-held opposition to lithium mining projects they say affect their land rights and negatively impact the environment.

“I feel like I walked into an ambush,” Cameron told journalists after meeting with local environmentalists, saying he was unaware of controversy involving lithium projects. “I feel like I was put into an optic that had meaning that I wasn’t aware of.”

Although Cameron says he “doesn’t know the exact architecture” of how the “ambush” happened, he feels there was an effort to use his image not just because of his support for environmental causes but also because of the overarching message of “Avatar.”

“‘Avatar’ is the highest grossing film in history. It is about the conflict between an extraction industry and the rights of Indigenous people,” Cameron said. “If you could generate an optic where I appear to be approving of lithium mining, then you have a mandate of some sort or an approval of some sort.”

In their letter to Cameron, representatives of the Indigenous communities made a direct reference to “Avatar” to appeal for the director’s support.

“Jujuy is Pandora, and it is under the threat of the greed of the mining industry, and we are the Na’vi,” reads the letter, referring to the fictional world where “Avatar” takes place and its inhabitants who battle against colonizing miners.

Before leaving Argentina, Cameron met with Verónica Chávez, the representative of one of the Indigenous communities from Jujuy.

Argentina is the fourth-largest producer of lithium and is part of what is known as the “lithium triangle,” an area that contains a large share of the world's proven reserves of the metal and also includes neighboring Chile and Bolivia. Demand for lithium is soaring amid the transition to renewable energy around the world and the growth in electric vehicles that are powered by lithium batteries.

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