Unsustainable Environmentalism

Environmental activists use the term “sustainable development” to convey the notion that they’re not merely knee-jerk anti-business zealots and that they are all in favor of eco-friendly economic development.

That term is put to the test in a new documentary entitled “Mine Your Own Business.”

Made by Phelim McAleer, a former Financial Times correspondent, and wife Ann McElhinney, a fellow at the nonprofit Moving Pictures Institute, the film spotlights the efforts of environmentalists to block economic development projects in Eastern Europe, Africa and Latin America.

The film starts out in the remote and desolate Romanian village of Rosia Montana, home to a most eco-unfriendly state-run mine. Gabriel Resources, a Canadian Mining Company, is trying to open a new gold mine that meets or exceeds strict European Union standards, but it runs into opposition, not from local villagers, but from first-world non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as Greenpeace.

The NGOs, who don’t seem particularly bothered by the poorly-operated state-owned mine, take the position in the film that the poverty-stricken residents of Rosia Montana don’t need any economic opportunity and, instead, are willing to settle for being “poor but happy.”

The film then moves to Madagascar where another development project is opposed by the World Wildlife Fund. In an interview that must be seen to be believed, the WWF spokesman defends his opposition to the project by noting that it would only bring stress to the lives of the local population. According to the WWF spokesman, the locals would rather sit around and smile than be burdened with economic progress, or in the alternative, would simply fritter their newfound wealth away on first-world decadence like beer, stereos and jeans.

The film winds up in Chile where NGO activists point to local opposition to a proposed mining project. But “Mine Your Own Business” exposes this local opposition as nothing more than nearby landowners who don’t want to lose their employees to the higher-paying jobs created by the mining company.

The power of the movie’s message is such that Greenpeace tried to block its Washington, DC premiere by pressuring the National Geographic Society to deny the Motion Picture Institute use of the Society’s movie auditorium.

Environmentalists have criticized the movie as being a propaganda film funded by Gabriel Resources. But while the idea to do a movie about sustainable development was the brainchild of Gabriel Resources CEO Alan Hill, filmmakers McAleer and McElhinney only agreed to do the movie if the company had no editorial control over the film.

If anything, “Mine Your Own Business” only scratches the surface of the problem; the film depicts but a microcosm of the tyranny exercised by NGOs over the developing world.

NGOs, for example, have recently acquired the ability to veto third-world development through their influence over first-world banks.

Many banks have signed on to the environmentalist-promoted Equator Principles, which ostensibly are guidelines to ensure that third-world development projects occur in an “eco-friendly” manner. In practice, however, the Equator Principles, serve more as a means for NGOs to stop most economic development projects.

Banking giant Citigroup, for example, has implemented the Equator Principles, much to the detriment of the developing world. According to a 2005 Citigroup report, the bank denied financing to 54 of the 74 projects reviewed according to the Equator Principles – projects worth as much as $75 billion in financing and that are economically sound.

Not only do the Equator Principles deny first-world funding to developing nations, they also drive desperately poor nations to seek financing from alternative (and less desirable) sources like China – which is not known to apply first-world environmental standards to the projects it finances.

In another example, NGOs stopped what would have been the largest-ever sustainable forestry project in Tierra del Fuego, Chile. The Washington state-based timber company Trillium Corporation purchased 800,000 acres in Chile and Argentina in 1993. Although Trillium could have clear-cut the forest at the time, it instead tried to work with NGOs to develop its sustainable forestry project of which it was rightfully proud.

The NGOs spent the next nine years blocking the project. One of Trillium’s key lenders fell into financial difficulty and had to auction the loans that were secured by Trillium’s land, allowing Goldman Sachs to swoop in and buy the notes, foreclose Trillium’s mortgage and then donate the land to the Wildlife Conservation Society – a controversial use of shareholder assets that has been criticized by myself and others.

Needless to say, the Tierra del Fuego land won’t be developed, Chileans won’t be employed and the world was deprived of a much needed example of the ever-elusive “sustainable development.”

Though I have looked, I have yet to find a significant development project anywhere in the world that environmentalists and their NGO allies support as “sustainable.” “Mine Your Own Business” is a terrific effort at documenting that fact.