Mine your own business
A new film on the 'dark side of environmentalism' exposes some of the myths used to block the building of mines and hold back development.
‘I could put you with a family and you count how many times in a day that family smile, if you could measure stress. Then I put you with a family well off, or in New York or London, and you count how many times people smile and measure stress… Then you tell me who is rich and who is poor.’
These are the words of Mark Fenn, World Wide Fund for Nature’s American representative in southern Madagascar, arguing that poverty-stricken people are often happier and more content than rich people. This jaw-dropping example of the low horizons informing the work of many environmentalists is captured very well in a new documentary, Mine Your Own Business, by Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney.
McAleer, a journalist from Northern Ireland, began to question his own environmentalist sympathies when posted to Romania by the Financial Times in 2000, especially when he investigated the campaign to prevent the opening of an opencast gold mine in the village of Rosia Montana in the Transylvanian mountains. I have also been to the village and my research on the proposed goldmine and the environmentalist opposition to it echoes many of the findings of McAleer’s film (see ‘If the gold mine doesn’t happen, our village will die’).
The film, which had its European premiere in London last week, is a welcome antidote to the increasingly one-sided, anti-development polemic one hears in debates over projects in the developing world. It investigates three mega mining projects in Romania, Madagascar and Chile. The film also manages to give the often environmentalist-led opposition to the projects enough space to argue their case, and as with Fenn, enough rope to hang themselves.
Fenn, in attempting to explain to Gheorghe Lucian, an unemployed Romanian miner, that Lucian didn’t really understand what poverty was, displays the often hidden and insidious side of the environmentalist worldview. Lucian, who lives in Rosia Montana, was flown to Madagascar and Chile by McAleer and McElhinney to confront environmental activists seeking to prevent development projects that could alleviate real poverty.
Fenn’s Madagascan hairshirt lecture comes soon after we are shown the building site for Fenn’s proposed luxury new house and his newly purchased £20,000 catamaran. But Fenn’s argument, that the proposed new mine would destroy the harmony and traditions of local village life and would have a detrimental impact on the environment, is not new to Lucian. This mantra is being used to halt the similar project in his village back in Romania.
Lucian knows all about those who romanticise poverty. The campaign against the mine in his village promotes a romantic and idealised view of the traditional ‘lifestyles’ of the community. In Mine Your Own Business, Françoise Heidebroek, a Belgian opponent of the Rosia Montana gold mine, argues that villagers prefer to use horses rather than cars, and prefer to rely on ‘traditional cattle raising, small agriculture, wood processing’ to live.
What she leaves out of her valorisation of village ‘lifestyles’ is the fact that there is 70 per cent unemployment in Rosia Montana, and average income levels are just one-third of the national average. Over one in 10 people survive on the equivalent of 85p per day. Two-thirds of local people have no running water and rely on an outside toilet in winters where the temperature can plummet to minus 25 degrees Celsius. This is rural poverty writ large. Yet for many of those opposing the mine and similar projects, as Mine Your Own Business shows, this ‘lifestyle’ is portrayed as preferable to the life realised from a working mine and billions of dollars of investment in the valley.
The film suggests that many of those opposing these projects don’t actually live in the villages they are trying to ‘protect’. Whilst true in most cases, in a sense it doesn’t matter whether they live there or not. These back-to-the-land advocates believe they know best and they are determined to prevent any development that can alter a lifestyle they wish to preserve in mud, if not stone.
Mine Your Own Business is also a timely retort to the film New Eldorado, directed by the Hungarian Tibor Kocsis. That documentary, filmed in and around Rosia Montana over a number of years, purports to let people in the area speak for themselves, as it makes its case against the mine.
Perhaps the most outrageous statement in New Eldorado comes from Françoise Heidebroek: ‘This region which is probably one of the last paradises in Europe, where we have wild animals, we have wolf, we have bears, extraordinary birds here, this place should be a natural park. All around the world everybody has [fallen] in love with his place and everybody comes here says I want to have a place in that incredible paradise.’
Rosia Montana is no paradise; it’s an area dependent on, and scarred by the mono-industry of gold mining. Such mining is exhausting and thankless work, and would hardly be anybody’s idea of an ideal job. Yet, the desire among the locals to see the mine opened illustrates their belief that this new mine is the last chance the village has to escape its imminent decline. The valley certainly deserves better than the travesty of the truth that is New Eldorado – and it’s got it with Mine Your Own Business.
For further information, visit the Mine Your Own Business website.
Kirk Leech is a freelance journalist, broadcaster, researcher and adjunct fellow with the US-based International Freedom Education Foundation (IFEF). Based in the UK, Kirk focuses on the battle for economic progress and personal liberty in the developing world. For more about his work in Rosia Montana, visit www.goldenmyths.com.