Mine Your Own Business


Increasingly, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are one of the major forces to be reckoned with in the mining industry worldwide. Such is their clout that they can completely derail new mine construction, or cause such lengthy legal delays that exhausted companies have little choice but to walk away.

NGOs' strategies include organizing groups of locals who don't want mining in or near their communities, citing environmental disturbances, and digging up obscure laws with which to erect roadblocks.

Some of our readers may think that this is a good thing, that NGOs are helping protect the environment and the rights of indigenous populations.

However, there is another side to the story. NGOs' members, nearly always outsiders who don't actually live in the affected areas, tend to be true believers in their cause. And unfortunately, like all zealots, they sometimes betray the folks they "represent," operate with clear conflicts of interest, bend the truth, or outright lie.

Such are the conclusions of a fascinating and dramatic new film called Mine Your Own Business, the first documentary to take a hard look at the dark side of environmentalism. Mine Your Own Business is the work of young Irish filmmakers Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney. It is available from www.mineyourownbusiness.org, and should be of interest to anyone invested in, or simply curious about, mining as it exists today.

McAleer, a self-described "liberal European journalist," came to the project with little prior knowledge of the mining industry, outside of the articles he'd written for the Financial Times on the international protests over Roşia Montana. With his strong left-wing worker bias, forged on the bloody Belfast streets of his youth, he was not someone likely to become a corporate shill.

Rather to his surprise, then, he was approached by Gabriel Resources, which was (and is) embroiled with NGOs over reopening a gold mine in Roşia, a tiny community in the Transylvanian hills of rural Romania. Gabriel wanted him to write up their side.

McAleer proposed instead to make a film. Under one condition: he was to have absolute editorial control. He would tell the truth as he found it, and let the chips fall where they might. Again to his surprise, Gabriel agreed.

When McAleer went to Roşia Montana, what he found was a hamlet of some 600 families, and a mine. The mine has been producing gold continually since the days of the Roman Empire, 2,000 years ago. It is basically the sole reason for the town's existence.

Under Romania's former Communist government, the Roşia Montana mine was worked without any thought to environmental protection. It created a terrible mess. As one of the pre-conditions for Romania's entry into the European Union, the country was required to shut down all such state-owned polluters. Roşia Montana was closed.

But where some saw a worthless piece of real estate, Gabriel saw opportunity. It bought up property, with the intent of reopening and operating Roşia Montana, using the pollution-control technologies that modern mining companies must employ if they are to get permitted, financed and insured. Further, Gabriel offered to clean up the mess left behind by the Communists. And it promised to create jobs that would breathe new life into a town that was just barely hanging on.

In order to do that, Gabriel would have to raze some of the older homes in the area. So, by way of compensation, the company pledged to preserve the historical district, in addition to building new housing nearby for residents. Uh-oh. That got radical environmentalists' panties in a bunch, and they began staging protests in Bucharest and elsewhere, designed to "save Roşia Montana."

At the forefront was a Swiss-based NGO called Alburnus Maior, which filed suit against Gabriel on environmental grounds, and succeeded in obtaining a court order shutting down the company's drills, which had been granted preliminary approval to start turning.

None of Alburnus Maior's leaders lives in the town it wants to "save," but still they claim to speak for the majority of the people there. They depict Roşia Montana as a pristine, quaint, even "magical" place, which evil Gabriel has set out to destroy.

On the ground, McAleer finds a rather different reality. The land has been severely degraded, the rivers running a sickly yellow with pollution. And everyone he encounters is an enthusiastic supporter of the new mine. The people would like their waters restored. They want jobs, they want money, they want hope for the future. Without the mine, they feel the town is doomed.

The NGOs believe they know better than the area's inhabitants. The people could do very well, the outsiders contend, by sticking to traditional farming, and by promoting that modern panacea for all ills, tourism. Roşia Montanans also have no need for cars, the world is told; they prefer to get around by horse-drawn cart.

Those contentions are quickly turned to nonsense by the locals. Farming? They point to an infertile, stony soil that simply can't produce enough to support much of a population. As for tourists, why would they make a journey to the middle of nowhere, to a place in which most homes don't have running water and whose major attraction would be an abandoned mine?

The horse cart vs. car argument? The residents of Roşia Montana laugh themselves silly over that one. They love cars; whoever can afford one, has one. Not to mention that there isn't enough indigenous fodder to support more than a few horses, anyway.

Another thing that Alburnus Maior and other groups claim is that Gabriel is forcing people from their homes. McAleer found the exact opposite. Many residents happily sold, and relocated to better housing with their first indoor plumbing. Others preferred not to sell, with some expressing regret that they didn't make a deal before Gabriel was shut down. Still others sold but didn't move. Since Romanian law prohibits evictions by private companies, some merely took the money and stayed where they were. Gabriel hasn't forcibly removed anyone from his or her home.

Ironically, the film alleges, the same is not true of at least one of the "environmentalists" fighting Gabriel. Her company is involved with the modernization of the Romanian railway system, and it does engage in the government-backed forced expropriation of private property.

Lies, hypocrisy, patronization - these are what McAleer found among the anti-mining forces in Romania. But Roşia Montana is of course not alone in having a mining project in limbo. Are things the same elsewhere?

They are. The remainder of the film is taken up with McAleer's travels to two other sites where NGOs are fighting mining projects - first, Fort Dauphin, Madagascar, where Rio Tinto has been trying to launch a start-up for fifteen years; then to a Barrick Gold project in Pascua Lama, Chile.

In one of the film's most revealing moments, an NGO lobbyist unashamedly admits that he has bought waterfront property in Fort Dauphin and fears that development will mean the loss of the town's "quaint" (i.e., unprosperous) nature. In another, a Chilean community organizer reports that the NGO opposition to Barrick is heavily financed by wealthy local landlords, who don't want to lose their $9/day captive labor to better-paying mining jobs.

Most people in the West, the film asserts, live comfortable lives, with no threat of abject poverty hanging over them. They want to do something for the disadvantaged, and so they give money to various NGOs, in the belief that they are thereby helping to provide food, clothing and medical help to the world's poor. The organizations that take their money, they think, are like the little old ladies who operate soup kitchens.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Modern NGOs are vast bureaucracies, with mega-budgets and enormous clout across the globe. When they want a project blocked, they have the means to hire top-flight legal help.

In the end, the film reaches the inescapable conclusion that these NGOs don't really care about the people who live in the areas impacted by their efforts. They have a view of reality that they bend and twist until it conforms to their personal agendas. They are so commitedly anti-growth that they would rather see high rates of unemployment, and people continuing to live in poverty, than endorse the kinds of industrial development that bring prosperity.

Mine your own business, indeed.

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Posted 08-21-2007 10:45 PM by DougHornig