Thursday, March 8, 2007

MYOB wows PDAC


Environmental fascism – Mining facing misinformation and downright lies from anti-mining NGOs
Lawrence Williams
'07-MAR-07 08:00'
TORONTO (Mineweb.com) --In an interesting initiative at this year’s Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) meeting, the organisers invited film makers Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney to show their film – Mine Your Own Business. Following the showing the flimmakers fielded questions about the film itself, as a part of a debate as to how the mining industry should face up to the problems it faces from NGOs who mislead the public with anything from deliberate misinformation to downright lies about the benefits or otherwise that the industry brings to local populations.

The two Irish documentary makers were invited initially by Gabriel Resources, currently trying to develop Romania’s Rosia Montana gold project against strong environmental opposition. McAleer and McElhinney agreed to do this provided they had totally independent editorial control of the film they would produce. Indeed Alan Hill of Gabriel felt initially that he would have preferred a different type of film altogether.

McAleer, takes on the role in the documentary of devil’s advocate looking at the claims and counter claims of the miners and the NGO opponents. In person it is apparent that he now feels extremely strongly from a personal front about what the NGOs seem to be trying to do in stopping mining where it promises, not only to provide jobs and income to poverty-stricken locals, but in Rosia Montana’s case actually help clean up a horrendous environmental legacy of poorly-controlled state mining operations at the site.

He claims to have absolutely no interest in mining per se – his background is journalism with London’s respected Financial Times newspaper – but does have a strong interest in what a developing industry can do for jobless locals living in horrendously primitive surroundings. Thus he and his colleague have ended up producing a Michael Moore-type documentary highlighting the hypocrisy and damage being done by some anti-mining NGOs in their fight to kill new mining operations in various parts of the world.

He admits that the NGOs may believe deeply that what they are doing is justified, as may the people who fund them, but that they are perhaps more than just misguided and that their actions actually harm the people they are supposedly setting out to protect.

At Rosia Montana, for example, the NGOs paint a picture of an idyllic mountain village where villagers live on good income generated from agricultural and sheep raising income, and that the locals almost unanimously oppose the big mining project. In fact it seems to be the reverse that is true. The locals are almost unanimous in their support for the new mine, while the local ground is too poor to support an agricultural alternative. Living conditions in the village are extremely primitive and the mine offers not only jobs, but new modern housing.

The filmmakers did not just rest their case with Rosia Montana – they also looked at two more projects being set up in extremely poor areas of the world – Rio Tinto’s titanium sands mining project in Madagascar – the world’s third poorest country – and Barrick’s Pascua Lama gold mining project high in the Chilean Andes. They found that NGO’s operating largely from a western viewpoint that the locals would obviously prefer living a poverty stricken existence and maintaining their indigenous cultures, when in fact the opposite is true.

In Madagascar the prospective mine life is 60 years, and the project would involve building a decent port there – which would be the seventh largest in Africa and provide long term benefits to the local community that they could currently only dream of. In Chile, the NGOs are supported by local landowners who do oppose the project, but primarily because if the mine is built they will have to compete with the mines for local labour which is currently paid below subsistence level wages.

Here too one of the leading lights in the anti-mining campaign turned out to be an environmental activist living in one of London’s wealthier suburbs who had never been to the Pascua Lama site, yet felt qualified to speak supposedly for the locals who he had never met!

It was apparent from the question and answer session that the two filmmakers both felt that the NGOs seemed, in all three studies examined, in a ‘conspiracy’ to keep the poor in continuing poverty, with all the problems that brings in terms of poor health, poor life expectancy, high infant mortality and the ‘pleasure’ of continuing to live in horrendous conditions.

What is also interesting is what this writer terms environmental fascism. There have been attempts to suppress this film and prevent it being shown. The filmmakers have even received death threats because of it. Documentary TV channels and film festivals won’t screen it, although will happily carry works which try to paint the opposite picture.

What can one do about this. In the subsequent discussion at the PDAC one has to say that not much came to the fore in realistic ways of attacking the problem faced by miners. There wasn’t any real opposition to the findings – but then the film was shown to a highly supportive audience. There perhaps was a consensus that the industry should perhaps be more proactive in putting its case and that the film should be made available to educational establishments – although whether they would actually show it is perhaps another matter.

Phelim McAleer himself, who has inherited a very jaundiced viewpoint about the activities of the NGOs during the making of the film, even feels that mining should not even try and work any of the NGOs at all, although one speaker from the floor did urge caution and pointed to some significant cooperative work between Rio Tinto and some environmental groups.

Combating NGO misinformation is something the industry will continue to have to deal with. Whenever a prospective mine springs up nowadays, special interest groups will almost automatically oppose it. While often local people and politicians will ultimately ensure that the projects do go ahead for the benefits they bring to the local communities, getting to this stage can be a long and costly process for the mining company. Perhaps the McAleer approach of trying to bring the NGOs to account has a lot of merit, but whatever is done, the industry itself has to remain squeaky clean in its dealings and operations so as not to give opponents further sticks to beat it with.

The NGOs, like terrorists, do not seem to abide by the rules of the game. They do need to be brought to account in some way or other, because misinformation and lies once promulgated in the media tend to be considered as fact by the general public – even though they may be withdrawn at some stage in the future. The question is haow can the industry achieve this. The debate continues.