TCS Daily


Thank Goodness for Crazy Filmmakers

By Alvaro Vargas Llosa - September 10, 2007 12:00 AM

One would think only a crazy couple would declare war on environmentalists by presenting them on film as snobs, hypocrites and enemies of the poor. Luckily for those of us who think one-sided debates are boring, Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney are just crazy enough to question the environmentalists' opposition to mining projects in poor countries in a documentary -- "Mine Your Own Business" -- that is gaining attention.

McAleer, an Irish journalist who covered Romania for the Financial Times, and McElhinney, his wife and co-producer, look at three mining investments: a gold project by Gabriel Resources in Rosia Montana, in Romania's Transylvania region; Rio Tinto's ilmenite project in Fort Dauphin, in Madagascar; and a vast Andean operation undertaken by Barrick Gold in Chile's Huasco Valley.

In the movie, many of the critics who claim to live in the affected areas are less than honest. One, a Swiss environmentalist who leads the opposition to mining in Romania, actually lives in the sort of town to which many of the impoverished peasants of Rosia Montana want to move.

The activists are adamant that the locals should preserve their "pristine" environment. A Belgian environmentalist says the people of Rosia Montana would rather use carts and horses than pollute the air with cars. "She says this to get noticed," counters a Romanian peasant who looks totally bewildered.

Half a world away, when confronted with the argument that denying the people of Fort Dauphin a chance to obtain jobs would keep them poor, the leading critic of the ilmenite project and the owner of a luxurious catamaran pontificates to Gheorghe Lucian, an unemployed Romanian traveling with the film's crew: "I could put you with a family here and you can count how many times people smile ... and I can put you with a family that is well-off in New York and London and you can count how many times they smile, and then you can tell me who is rich and who is poor."

You can imagine what this esoteric interpretation of wealth sounds like to Lucian, the Romanian who graduated from Rosia Montana's Technical College and is desperate to find a job. Two-thirds of his fellow villagers lack running water and use outside bathrooms even in freezing winter. For him, as for the other 700 prospective employees of the mining project back home, the choice is literally "between having a job and leaving."

The film crew also traveled to the Chilean Andes to find out who was leading the fight against Barrick Gold. It turns out -- as one local villager explains -- that those who oppose the investment are mainly rich landowners who don't want the peasants working on their lands for a pittance to flock to the mines for twice their current wages.
McAleer tells us that the claim the mining project will displace three glaciers that provide irrigation for local agriculture is false. The glaciers will not be affected and the company will build a reservoir to guarantee that local farmers have a decent supply of water.

Will this industrial progress in Romania, Madagascar or Chile pollute the environment? Well, the alternative is much worse. Communist-era gold mining, which was technologically backward, bureaucratic and unaccountable, turned Rosia Montana's river into disgusting filth. In Madagascar's Fort Dauphin, slash-and-burn agriculture -- the sort the rural poor resort to in order to survive -- has destroyed the rain forest.
It would be naive to think these mining companies are in it for altruistic motives -- they obviously want to make a profit. But the truth -- one that Lucian, the unemployed Romanian, discovers as he ventures beyond his country for the first time in his life -- is that progress involves hard choices. The wealthy nations of today were themselves "pristine" environments in which people gradually gave up traditional ways of life to improve their living conditions. Who are we to deny the poor of today the chance to do well for themselves when an opportunity arises if they decide to take it?
Yes, moving from the traditional to the modern way of life involves costs. But as one British professor at Kent University says: "People need to be trusted to work these things out for themselves. ... Environmentalists feel they have the moral authority to tell them what to do."

Not all nongovernmental organizations are as elitist and unfair to poor people as the many this film exposes. Not every mining project is as respectful of local choices as the ones depicted in this film. But this documentary speaks volumes about the Manichean vision that many bleeding-heart Americans and Europeans have of the dilemma between tradition and modernity in the developing world.

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10 Comments

PBS
PBS refused to view "Mine Your Own Business" as a counter to the recently aired "Gold Futures", an anti-mining, pro-poverty piece, funded by Soros. Soros actually commented that the impoverished people of Rosia Montana should "take up organic farming and eco-tourism." Easy for him to condemn a people to eek out a living by gardening in **** and selling trinkets and putting on skits for the tourists. His "progressive" way is the modern equivalent of the moneyed going to the zoo. A "Marcell, look at the indigent farmers toiling in their fields!" kind of moment.
Keep them poor, keep them chained to the field. This is how Lords of old treated their serfs.

"Trinkets and skits"
Mr. Prospector, you have a keen understanding of the plight of poor peoples kept in "cages" by western elitists for their own temporary delight. Trinkets and skits are indeed de-humanizing and sap the dignity and culture of proud people. The skills and training learned at a modern mine or other development are transferable and desirable in all corners of the world, whereas, the low-skill of servicing tourists are purely colloquial.

God bless the Irish!
Enough said.

crazy hypocritical liberals
Another great article pointing out how these spoilt wealthy western liberals like to keep poor country peoples in a sort of museum of rural romanticism. And this is while they themselves lives in the lap of luxury in NY and London, etc. I'm sure Soro's ancestors were Hungarian peasants too, so why doesn't he live there, like that? I challenge any of these effete snobs to live the way their ancestors did, or even the way their own parents did.

subsitence farming
Wasn't it our own roy, who a year or so ago, was waxing eloquent about the benefits of subsitence farmers in Mexico?

He was quite insistent that subsitence farming, for them, was the best of all possible lifestyles.

Crazy ? Filmmakers
I am not aware of the other projects, but I did see the show about Rosia Montana. The locals all want the project, just as the Eskimo's want the ANWR project. They want jobs, progress & a few of life's luxuries. I have seen it easy for those with, to deny those without.

At one time I looked at a cartoon that depicted these issues so very well. It showed a poor African farmer who toils daily behind an oxen driven plow, to cultivate enough land to grow enough food to feed his family. Bad weather, bugs, whatever & his family eats poorly, if at all. If all goes right, they have "just barely enough for his family to live.

The cartoon showed an environmentalist watching this poor exhausted farmer toiling behind this oxen driven plow & the enviro said, "Isn't that quaint? This is the life these people want and were meant to live!"

My immediate reaction was, we'll give you just enough acreage to plow with an oxen driven plow you can work behind & a mud hut to live in no matter the weather, with no running water, outside facilities, etc., and let you live that way for a year or two.

Bet that experiment would result in a lot less babble about how "quaint" of a lifestyle it is!

Every local said, "We want the development. We want the mine, factory, whatever. Please get these people out of here & let me do for my family. Their idea's are killing us! Why can't we have all of the things they have? Why must we live like this, when they live in luxury?"

Gold Futures
Whe you say "PBS refused to view" this work, do you mean they didn't air it?

Are we living in a world where the independent stations that run PBS material are all supposed to stop what they're doing and substitute someone else's work for their own programming? This doesn't seem to be the way broadcast television works.

As it happened, I actually saw the program-- which I'm assuming you didn't. It was on Wide Angle, and presented a balanced view of the mining operation. Meaning both sides. It presented the fact that the locals were living in a backward part of Europe with great physical beauty but no amenities and little access to anything money can buy.

It brought out that they had no say whatsoever in any plans to chew that world down to the subsoil, create a number of jobs and transform the area into a giant lawn once it was re-seeded. Which is true-- they have no say at all in how their world is to be.

It pointed out that many young people will either stay to compete for those few jobs, or to move away and seek their fortunes elsewhere-- while a handful of traditional old people will try to remain living in the rubble, in the hope they can be buried in the same graveyard their grandparents were. But they know that's only a distant hope, as their history is removed around them by the shovel full.

Time moves on, and things change. Some of us believe the world will be the poorer for it when the entire surface is digested for the extraction of its valuables... while others take the practical view that what counts is jobs and money, now, and we'll just have to struggle with whatever comes after. Included in this view are a number of young Romanians.

Both views were well represented. You should try to actually see the program. See "Gold futures":

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/wideangle/watch.html

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/wideangle/shows/romania/resources.html

Getting ahead vs. living well
"Wasn't it our own roy, who a year or so ago, was waxing eloquent about the benefits of subsitence farmers in Mexico?"

That's not for me to say. Nor for you. It's strictly a question of personal taste.

But I do happen to know a number of those kinds of people. And what they mostly want is access to jobs and cash out in the modern world, plus a refuge where they can come back home to one day to live in peace.

Very few Greeks, Mexicans, Africans or indeed any other kind of country people I've ever met want to live the rest of their days in some US city. To them (and to me as well) that's not living. It's just a place to make a buck.

Like the most successful among them, I've retired and now live in the country.

I'm proud to be counted in their o'numbers,
especially when they undermine Lemming Mule's pals.

The trouble with environmentalism
Just from reading this article, it reiterates for me how some environmentalists, in the name of protecting the earth, have no problem keeping humans poor. The earth was created by God for us to live on. We are to be wise stewards of the earth. But that does not mean leaving His children, our fellow humans, to lives of misery.

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