JOHN FUND ON THE TRAIL
Make Up Your Own Mine
An impoverished town strikes gold. George Soros and foreign environmentalists say, leave it in the ground.
Tuesday, August 21, 2007 12:01 a.m.
The recent tragedy in Utah has brightened the spotlight on mining, already under assault by environmental and anti-globalization activists world-wide. These activists have produced several documentaries, and the anti-mining campaign has attracted the attention of billionaire George Soros and actress Vanessa Redgrave--and enough charges of greed or hypocrisy to fill a mine shaft.
Tonight, PBS will air "Gold Futures," a film by Hungary's Tibor Kocsis. The film focuses on residents in Romania's Rosia Montana, a rural Transylvanian town, who are divided over the benefits of a proposed gold mine. It also features Gabriel Resources, the Canadian mining company trying to convince them to relocate so it can dig for a huge gold deposit estimated at 14.6 million ounces, worth almost $10 billion. PBS describes the film as a "David-and-Goliath story."
While the film gives time to supporters and opponents of the mine, it leaves unsaid that half of the villagers voicing opposition have now either sold their homes or will not have to move, because they live in a protected area where the village's historic structures and churches will be preserved. Viewers who see pristine shots of the Rosia valley won't realize the hills hide a huge, abandoned communist-era mine, leaking toxic heavy metals into local streams--or that while the modern mining project will level four hills to create an open pit, it will also clean up the old mess at no cost to the Romanian treasury.
The other side to the controversy is told in a new film that will never be shown on PBS, but is nonetheless rattling the environmental community. "Mine Your Own Business" is a documentary by Irish filmmakers Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney. They conclude that the biggest threat to the people of Rosia Montana "comes from upper-class Western environmentalism that seeks to keep them poor and unable to clean up the horrific pollution caused by Ceausescu's mining."
Mr. McAleer, a former Financial Times journalist who has followed the mine battle for seven years, says he "found that everything the environmentalists were saying about the project was misleading, exaggerated or quite simply false." He produced his film on a shoestring $230,000 budget largely provided by Gabriel Resources, but says he was given complete editorial control.
The Gabriel funding caused environmental groups to label the film "propaganda" and demand the National Geographic Society cancel plans to rent its Washington, D.C., theater to the free-market Moving Picture Institute for a screening. The Institute notes opponents rarely challenge the film's facts. As for Mr. Kocsis's documentary, his Flora Film corporate Web site lists as its partners Greenpeace, the Hungarian Ministry of Environment and the George Soros-backed Energy Club of Hungary, all of which oppose the Romanian project on either environmental or nationalistic grounds (Transylvania used to be part of Hungary).
High-profile mine opponents such as Ms. Redgrave (who hasn't visited Rosia Montana), have declared undying opposition to the project: "Our planet is dying and we have no right to destroy an ecosystem." In April, Mr. Soros, the chairman of the Open Society Institute and a large funder of groups opposing Rosia Montana, wrote to Wayne Murdy, then CEO of Newmont Mining, the Denver company that owns 19% of Gabriel Resources. He urged him not to invest in "a dubious project such as Rosia Montana," citing "the social costs involved in involuntarily resettling hundreds of people" and "the potential for disastrous environmental impact." Mr. Soros did not respond to an interview request.
Opponents of the mine claim that Rosia Montana residents agree with their stance. "Local opposition to the mine is strong and organized" says a statement signed by 80 environmental groups in January. In his letter, Mr. Soros cites a recent poll organized by some members of Romania's parliament that "found 90% of respondents rejecting the project." But the poll turns out to be an unscientific Internet survey, and one of the environmental groups Mr. Soros funds urged people outside Romania to participate in it. What is clear: Two-thirds of Rosia Montana's people have accepted Gabriel's voluntary offer to buy their homes at above market rates. Most will move four miles away to a less polluted area.
On the other side, Rosia Montana Mayor Virgil Narita supports the mine because it will create 700 permanent local jobs. He was re-elected with 80% of the vote this year. And in late 2004, the Council of Europe sent Eddie O'Hara, a British Labour Party member of the European Parliament, to Rosia Montana to file an official report. Opposition to the mine, he said, was "substantial," but it was "very much fueled by outside bodies, presumably well-meaning but possibly counterproductively. It seems in part at least exaggerated." Mr. O'Hara concluded the opposition "do not take account of modern mining techniques and in fact the Rosia Montana project will help to clear up existing pollution." He also warned that not allowing the mine "would remove any chance of local development for some time."
And there's the rub. Rosia Montana needs a cleanup and development. Three-quarters of its 600 families lack indoor toilets, unemployment tops 70% and the only truly viable crop is potatoes. In "Mine Your Own Business," Andrei Jurca, the local dentist, tells Mr. McAleer "we don't need foreign advocates. We are smart enough to take our own fate in our own hands." Other villagers note that concerns about Gabriel's use of cyanide in gold mining are misplaced. Seven out of nine existing gold mines in European Union countries use cyanide and the allowable limits in Rosia Montana will be lower than all of them.
Perhaps local unemployed miner Gheorghe Lucian says it best: "People have no food to eat. . . . I know what I need--a job." Mr. Soros's Romanian Open Society Foundation is touting "alternative economic activities such as organic agriculture and eco-tourism," unrealistic at best. Stefania Simon, legal counsel for the anti-mine group Alburnus Maior, has no answer for Mr. Lucian. "Unemployment is a problem, but it will not be solved by mining," she told Britain's Guardian newspaper. Noting that Gabriel has only a 17-year lease to mine, she says, "This is a solution for the short term." But right now, even non-permanent jobs and any cleanup of the existing pollution looks like a good deal to people like Mr. Lucian.
"Mine Your Own Business" also contains interviews with leading environmentalists opposing other mining projects who display smug indifference to bettering the lives of poor people. In Madagascar, Mr. McAleer finds Mark Fenn, country director for the World Wide Fund for Nature, who argues that the poor are just as happy as the rich because they smile more and that if Madagascar locals (who now earn $100 a month) get more money "they'll buy cases of beer, invite their friends, they'll throw a party . . . three, four days the money's gone." He then shows off his new $35,000 catamaran.
Mr. McAleer tells me such encounters should wake up people "who, like myself, unquestionably believed environmentalists were a force for good in the world." He still considers himself a liberal but, "it's sad that my fellow left-wingers and environmentalists who often come from the most developed countries are now so opposed to development."