In Rosia Montana, Romania, George grew up in a one-bedroom apartment with seven other family members. Two thirds of the people in his village have no running water. They venture outside in brutal negative temperatures just to use the bathroom. Many of them, George included, hope a planned gold mine will bring jobs and a taste of modernity to a town long-ago abandoned by state-owned mines and gainful employment.
Almost 500 miles away, from her home in the prosperous, modern capital city of Bucharest, Belgian environmentalist Francoise Heidebroek says of Rosia Montana's poverty, "It is part of the charm of Rosia Montana and this lifestyle. You know, people will use their horse and cart instead of using a car. They are proud to have a horse."
In Fort Dauphin, Madagascar, a tiny harbor town in one of the poorest countries on Earth, Rasou Nirina Odette is waiting on a job in a new ilmenite mine planned for the area.
"I would use the money for school fees for the children and I would buy something at a low price and resell it at a higher price for a profit."
Many miles away from Fort Dauphin, in the regional capital of Tulear, World Wildlife Fund's Mark Fenn plans for a beachfront home and sails his catamaran. He has different priorities for the people of Fort Dauphin.
"In Madagascar, the indicators of quality of life are not housing. They're not nutrition, specifically. They're not health in a lot of cases. It's not education. A lot of children in Fort Dauphin do not go to school because the parents don't consider that to be important… People are economically disadvantaged, people have no jobs, but if I could put you with a family and you could count how many times in a day that that family smiles…then you tell me who is rich and who is poor," Fenn said.
In Pascua Lama, Chile, Eduardo Ayolo is one of 27,000 residents who have applied and trained for a job in a planned gold mine in his area.
"I'm not asking for much. Just a normal job," he said.
Another Pascua Lama resident said, "There are a lot of poor people who need opportunities to make their dreams come true."
Thousands of miles away in London, Roger Moody, an environmentalist active in blocking the Pascua Lama mine, explains his objections, despite never having visited Pascua Lama: "A large part of indigenous reality has to do with spiritual connection to the earth with specific plots of earth, with specific hills or mountain tops and so on."
The distance between the communities "defended" by environmentalists against development and the communities themselves is often large, both philosophically and literally. Filmmakers and journalists, Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney have made a documentary that highlights these environmental battles and the exaggerations, fibs, and sometimes outright lies that keep some of the world's poorest cultures from developing. "Mine Your Own Business" is an entertaining, moving and sometimes humorous look at a side of the environmental movement we don't often see—the dark side.
McAleer traveled to Rosia Montana, Romania several years ago to cover a story for the Financial Times—the story of Toronto-based mining company Gabriel Resources forcing people from their homes, planning an environmentally destructive mine, and ruining the pristine countryside of that remote Romanian village, all against the wishes of its residents. Only, when he got to Rosia Montana, he found a different story.
"I pretty much found that everything the environmentalists were saying was either false, exaggerated, or just a plain lie," McAleer said in a telephone interview Monday.
Residents told him they had sold their land for good money. Mining company representatives told him they planned to clean pollution left by now-deserted state-run mines that were built before environmental standards were in place and modernize housing and plumbing for residents. Locals told him the pristine rivers were actually running with cadmium and zinc.
Environmentalists claim that 80 percent of the people of Rosia Montana are opposed to the building of the mine. When McAleer and his wife toured the streets and homes of Rosia Montana, they found many who spoke in favor of it, and who wondered why so many outsiders were interested in stopping it (a letter signed by the people of Rosia Montana is here).
After their discoveries in Rosia Montana, McAleer and McElhinney recruited George, a 23-year-old unemployed miner, to travel with them to proposed mine sites in Madagascar and Chile to interview locals.
They also interviewed the environmentalists who oppose the mining projects. The results were revealing, condescending, and sometimes tinged with racism.
"They look at a mud village and they see something worth preserving. They think these people are poor and happy," McAleer said.
"They naively idealize a past that never existed. They don't know what it actually is to live in the past," McElhinney said. "We talked to mothers in Madagascar that don't want their children to die before they're 5. We want the people of Madagascar to enjoy their relatives into their 90s. That's what big business has done."
Many of the filmmakers' critics cite their ties to big business—the mining company proposing the Rosia Montana mine, in particular—as reason to discount the film. Gabriel Resources funded much of the film, but McAleer and McElhinney—both self-proclaimed, proud "European liberals"—said they only agreed to do the film if the mining company was given no editorial input whatsoever. Much to their surprise, Gabriel Resources agreed, and didn't see the film until the day it was finished. McAleer said it's the first film he's worked on that wasn't altered by the funders.
When asked why he agreed to the deal, Gabriel Resources representative Alan Hill said, "The project itself stands up. It's a damn good project," adding that the company had met all of the environmental standards required by the EU.
"Mine Your Own Business," has opened in New York and Washington, D.C., both times to objections and protests from Greenpeace and other environmental groups.
"We're just saying things that environmentalists don't like. Journalists have always given environmentalists an easy time," McAleer said. "They've never been questioned. So, when they get questioned, they get very upset, and that's when you get words like Neo-Nazis and pornography," both of which they say have been used by opponents to describe them and their work.
Outside the National Geographic theater, a small group of environmentalists gathered to protest the film, carrying signs condemning it as "corporate PR." One protestor, wrapped in a warm synthetic wool coat braved the 40-degree weather to protest the construction of the mine in Rosia Montana. A representative of NoDirtyGold.org, she said the mine will only contribute to the economy for a mere 20 years. She suggested "sustainable development" for George and his family such as subsistence farming and the promise of tourism for this remote community.
She compared the poverty in Third World countries to that of her own hometown in Colorado and economically-disadvantaged parts of Washington, D.C., explaining that the people of Rosia Montana can get other jobs and that they have clothes and shoes to wear.
"All you people talk about is jobs, jobs, jobs. There's more to the world than mining," she said while debating moviegoers.
Thousands of miles away in much colder climes and more dire economic conditions than either Colorado or Washington, D.C., George's sister Ella had this to say, from the film:
"I think the people who are against the mine, the project, they are rich people. They have money. They don't need a job. They don't need a job to live. They are not here like us. They are living there and they have a job, they have a house, they have anything. I know is beautiful here, but we can't live with that. We have to eat. We have need jobs and we have to work. We can't just live looking at the beautiful places here. It's not—it's not living like that."
There are environmental concerns associated with any type of mining or big development, the dangers of which businesses have learned to mitigate as mining practices and environmental regulation has evolved. There are water supplies and birds and rare breeds of squirrels to protect. But there are also people to think of. "Mine Your Own Business" tells their story.
Environmentalists would do well to pay attention. McAleer and McElhinney have given them the opportunity to do so while sitting on their couches, watching their HD TVs in developed Westernized cities, far from the people they're trying to protect. Just the way they like it.