The Movie Version
The events in Avatar are kicked off by a corporate expedition to mine unobtanium on a planet called Pandora. No one sees any problem with this plan, because nobody has even a sixth-grade understanding of etymology and the metal is valued at $20 million per kilogram.
The trouble for the mining company is that the main deposit of unobtanium is underneath the homes of the indigenous people, called Na'vi. What takes them from typical slash-and-burn capitalism into downright evil is their willingness to put assets over aliens: They are ready to use military force against a native population if that's what it takes to get at their objective.
The Real Version
The plot of Avatar is kind of a prototypical story about colonialism, so it parallels a lot of other stories about colonialism: Dances With Wolves, Pocahontas, Ernest Goes To Camp, etc. So it wouldn't be surprising to find out that an actual company did something like this a few hundred years ago. But it might be surprising that this kind of thing was still going down in the very modern era of the 1960s.
"We claim all this land in the name of England. Groovy?"
The story mirrors Avatar remarkably closely, only humans are shown to be even bigger assholes. A mining company, Rio Tinto, discovered a rich deposit of ore in a foreign land -- on Bougainville Island, then part of Papua New Guinea. And just as in Avatar, Rio Tinto displaced the Bougainvilleans to build a mine, gave them virtually nothing (0.5-1.25 percent of the profit) in return, and when they tried to stick up for themselves, Rio Tinto unleashed the military against them.
Why The Real One's Worse
Rio Tinto wasn't in control of a mercenary army. The army they sicced on the Bougainvilleans was that of the neighboring larger island of Papua New Guinea. While Rio Tinto was paying Bougainville virtually nothing, they were paying Papua New Guinea rather well. They pressured Papua New Guinea to secure the mine by force, and allegedly even supplied them with military equipment to do so. So rather than a skirmish in which the miners were either repulsed or the locals were subdued, Rio Tinto ignited a ten-year civil war between Bougainville and Papua New Guinea.
For an extra helping of terrible, it's important to note that the war went on so long and caused so much destruction that the mine has long been inoperable. Experts believe no one will spend the capital to modernize the mine, making this whole thing nearly pointless. Nearly pointless, that is, until the recent announcement by Rio Tinto that they are giving the mine back to the people: half of their controlling share to (now-independent) Bougainville and half to Papua New Guinea. There, now all that bloodshed was completely pointless.
Well, I hope you've learned a powerful lesson here: When it comes to being evil, your imagination isn't the limit. Things can get so much worse than we ever realize -- and if we just let history take its course, they usually do.
Aaron Kheifets is an occasionally-mustachioed comedian, writer, and director. You are allowed to follow him on Twitter.
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