John Adrian Cowell was an award-winning British documentary filmmaker. His work highlighted disturbing environmental and social issues, prompting remedial action from government and non-governmental organisations, ‘putting right the wrong’. He concentrated on two fields of investigation: the effects of industrialisation and migration on indigenous peoples of the Amazon region and the global politics of opium cultivation in Southeast Asia.
Cowell filmed in Brazilian Amazonia for over fifty years. He began by filming an expedition to find the geographical centre of Brazil led by the Villas Boas brothers (the famous pioneering anthropologists of Brazil) and went on to film their attempt to make first contact with the Panará tribe in The Tribe that Hides from Man. During this time, he became aware of the effects of deforestation on both people and the environment. His landmark series, The Decade of Destruction, filmed throughout the 1980s in Brazil, revealed the tragic and often fatal impact deforestation had on the indigenous peoples of the Amazon. He continued to make films about the environmental, socio-economic and political issues of this region until 2005.
In Southeast Asia, he covered, over a thirty-year period, the equally complex story of the opium trade and its relationship to the liberation aspirations of the Shan people (the largest hill tribe in Burma). Shan guerrilla forces struggled for independence from the Burmese throughout the long period of the country's military dictatorship, supporting their efforts by taxing the opium crop. Cowell’s two series, Opium (1978) and The Heroin Wars (1996), followed ‘the opium trail’ from the poppy fields of the Shan State to the dealers, addicts and policy makers in the United States.