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The campaign to stop mining

By Jennifer Marohasy - posted Wednesday, 15 November 2006


Across the world too many people still live in poverty. A new feature-length documentary by former Financial Times journalist Phelim McAleer explains how environmental activists are part of the problem.

Mr McAleer visits controversial mine sites in remote Madagascar, Chile and Romania and interviews local young men who want the jobs and opportunities offered by the mines, while media savvy western environmentalists campaign to stop development and save the environment and the “quaint” lifestyles of the poor villagers.

Mine Your Own Business largely side-steps the issue of environmental impact and instead focuses on the opportunities that have historically come with big industry.

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The film by the Moving Picture Institute premiers next week in Australia with screenings in Sydney, Melbourne, Hobart and Perth sponsored by the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA).

The Melbourne based think-tank has been a frequent critic of environmental activists and former IPA Executive Director, Mike Nahan, was something of a lone voice in defence of US based mining giant Newmont when it was accused by environmental activists of polluting Buyat Bay in northern Sulawesi, Indonesia.

New York Times journalist Jane Perlez championed the case for the activists in a feature “Spurred by Illness, Indonesians Lash Out at US Mining Giant” in which she suggested the waters of Buyat Bay had been polluted by the gold mine with villagers developing “strange rashes and bumps”.

The article relied heavily on an interview with a member of a team of public health doctors flown in to investigate. Dr Jane Pangemanan was quoted claiming symptoms exhibited by the local villagers were consistent with mercury and arsenic poisoning.

Another key accusation in the New York Times article is that Newmont Mining was illegally and inappropriately disposing of the mines tailings into Buyat Bay and a police report showed mercury contamination.

Shortly after the New York Times article was published, six of Newmont Mining’s most senior executives, including an Australian Phil Turner, were thrown in jail on the basis they had knowingly polluted Buyat Bay.

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The same day the New York Times published its feature, the World Health Organisation published a detailed technical report (pdf 4.01MB) which concluded that Buyat Bay was not contaminated by mercury or cyanide and that levels of mercury among villagers were not high enough to cause poisoning and that the health effect of mercury and cyanide poisoning were not observed among Buyat Bay villagers.

This was the first of several reports, including a detailed report (16MB) by Australia’s CSIRO and another by the Indonesian Ministry of Environment, which directly contradicted the Indonesian police report and found the bay to be unpolluted.

Of the six executives initially incarcerated, only the president of Newmont Mining in Indonesia, Richard Ness, was eventually charged. His son, Eric Ness, established a website dedicated to the trial, and in October last year reported that under cross examination, Dr Jane Pangemanan denied she ever told the New York Times that the illnesses observed in the villagers were caused by arsenic or mercury poisoning.

Last Friday, as part of the post trial phase the prosecution asked the court impose a three-year jail term on Richard Ness. Activists demonstrating outside the court were demanding 10 years. It seemed incredible to me that the case is proceeding at all. Then again, as Mr McAleer documents in Mine Your Own Business, unsubstantiated accusations from environmentalists can appear compelling. Their claims may be false, but they command the moral high ground. Yet sadly in the end, by hindering or stopping development, they condemn the world’s poorest to a life of subsistence.

Richard Ness will be back in court in Indonesia on December 5 and the final judgment is likely to be handed down some time in January. This trial is about more than the destiny of one man, it represents the struggle as described by Phelim McAleer in Mine Your Own Business between development and poverty - the struggle between opportunity and radical environmentalism.

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About the Author

Jennifer Marohasy is a senior fellow with the Institute for Public Affairs.

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