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Green vs. gold

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A new documentary has stirred debate about a proposed mining project in Romania, one of several conflicts around the world that pit environmental activists against poor communities desperate for economic development.

several conflicts around the world that pit environmental activists against poor communities desperate for economic development.

Groups opposing the project say the proposed mine would hurt the environment and threaten buildings of cultural and historical significance near the 2,000-year-old mining village of Rosia Montana.

The mine's proponents say the project offers the community its only hope of economic development, and that the mining company would clean up the environmental damage from thousands of years of uncontrolled mining and preserve historic buildings.

"Mine Your Own Business," a film produced by New Bera Media in association with the New York-based Moving Picture Institute, exposes what it calls "the dark side of environmentalism."

In impoverished villages in Romania, Madagascar and Chile, filmmakers Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney, both fellows of the MPI, encounter environmentalists who want to stop proposed mining projects. Many villagers who appear in the documentary say the mining projects would bring much-needed financial resources into their economically deprived regions.

Left-wing groups have called the film propaganda, noting that it received significant funding from Gabriel Resources, the company trying to begin mining operations in Rosia Montana. The filmmakers acknowledge the funding at the beginning of the film, saying they agreed to produce the film on the condition of complete editorial independence.

Rob Pfaltzgraff, executive director of the MPI, called it a "sign of transparency" that the film included information pertaining to its relationship with Gabriel Resources. "There was no editorial control whatsoever, and everyone who has met these filmmakers knows how stubbornly independent they are."

The documentary portrays environmental organizations as opponents of economic development that want to preserve what they call a quaint way of life where people drive horses rather than cars.

Stephanie Roth, a 2005 recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize, works with the nongovernmental organization Alburnus Maior to stop the Gabriel Resources mining project. Ms. Roth, who initially came to Romania to stop an amusement park from replacing an old oak grove, represents a group of locals who are opposed to the project. The documentary and the mining company say that despite her vocal opposition, the majority of locals want the mining project.

"I'm not interested in being the majority," said Ms. Roth, whose Goldman Environmental Prize footage appears in the documentary.

Ms. Roth said the mining company will destroy the old churches in Rosia Montana. Kathy Sipos, director of investor relations and corporate communications for Gabriel Resources, said the company would preserve all 41 buildings designated as historically significant by Romanian government agencies. She said six churches in the Rosia Montana valley will be preserved, while two others will be either moved or replaced according to the wishes of the congregations.

"For all [Ms. Roth's] supposed concern about the churches, what would happen if she prevails, Gabriel leaves, and unemployment goes to 100 percent?" asked Ms. Sipos. She referenced a church in a nearby village, Geamana. "It too had a state-run mine that simply closed. The villagers left. The church is abandoned. It is being slowly flooded."

Ms. Roth rejected the notion that Rosia Montana is monoindustrial and said small businesses and farm subsidies from the European Union were promising options for economic development. "We believe in development from bottom up and not from top down," she said.

She said economic activity has been stagnant since 2002 because the area is reserved for mining. "If Rosia Montana today is economically deprived, it is because of Gabriel Resources," she said.

"It's false to claim there's a law against starting new businesses in Rosia," Ms. Sipos said. "The industrial zone is limited to four of the 16 sub-comuna that make up Rosia village. Areawise, it is also approximately 25 percent. That leaves 75 percent of the village where anyone is free to open up a new business."

Ms. Sipos said Gabriel Resources, as a public company, is more accountable to regulators, shareholders and the public than Alburnus Maior, "which as an NGO is not regulated nor accountable to anyone."

"It is inappropriate for Ms. Roth to convey the reality of Rosia Montana and speak for the villagers who live in complete poverty and desperately need hope for their future when she herself has grown up in a very privileged lifestyle — quite a contradiction to the poverty she has no problem leaving the local community in," Ms. Sipos said.

The Goldman Environmental Prize threatened legal action because of footage that appears in the documentary. "They did come to us to get footage, but they came to us under false pretenses," said Lorrae Rominger, deputy director of the Goldman Environmental Prize. "We would never grant permission to someone who was going to use it in a negative way."

Ms. Rominger called the film "complete propaganda," but asked attorneys to drop the issue. "I didn't want to give their film any more credence," she said.

"We are delighted that the Goldman Foundation has discovered the First Amendment," Mr. Pfaltzgraff said.

Ms. Rominger said recipients of the Goldman Environmental Prize are vetted by four staffers who spend six months researching candidates. She said the staffers interviewed about 20 people about Ms. Roth and were aware of the opposition to Alburnus Maior.

She said the balance between saving the landscape and saving money sometimes involves a trade-off, but "what often happens with a drilling project" is that the choice is between "jobs that put food on the table" and stopping harmful emissions. "We're an environmental group," she said. "You have to decide what's more important to you."

Patrick Moore, chairman and chief scientist of Greenspirit Strategies in Vancouver, British Columbia, criticized the Goldman Environ- mental Prize.

"In many cases, it's been given to people who perpetuate poverty in the developing world. I think people should get awards for helping to bring win-win solutions." Mr. Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace, also criticized parts of the modern environmental movement. "They romanticize poverty, as if it were some sort of a more desirable state of affairs. They help perpetuate people remaining in these conditions."

Among those interviewed in the documentary is World Wildlife Fund representative Mark Fenn. He argues that a proposed mining project would threaten the "quaintness" of a small village in Madagascar, and says smiles are a better judge of quality of life than health care and education.

The MPI has dubbed the film into Spanish and is distributing it worldwide. Mr. Pfaltzgraff said the film exposes the hypocrisy of environmentalists.

"They want people with no cars, no indoor heating, no plumbing, while they themselves live in the creature comforts," he said. "These are people who think poor people are a cancer. Their thinking is responsible for keeping millions of people in Africa, Latin America and Asia mired in poverty and misery."