Monday, September 17, 2007

Making the Greens see Red
Monday 17, September 2007

When Tyrone journalist Phelim McAleer first left Northern Ireland, he took a job as the Romania and Bulgaria correspondent for the Financial Times. Not a central position, but one that led him to cover Romania's gold mining industry.

A catastrophic cyanide spill from a goldmine in 2000 had wiped out almost all life on a Danube tributary and there was a mounting campaign against Europe's largest open cast gold mine, which was being developed by a Canadian mining company called Gabriel Resources.

Vanessa Redgrave became the opposition figurehead, billionaire speculator George Soros, its financier.

What McAleer found shocked him. Not the mile-wide pits cut into the Transylvanian countryside or the gold mining industry's cyanide poisoning record, but the attitude of bourgeoisie western environmentalists, who felt that they spoke for the local population in opposing the mine.

For McAleer, they were depriving the local peasants of jobs while trying to preserve 'quaint' poverty-stricken lives.

After writing an article claiming that there was not as much local opposition to the gold mine as the environmentalists suggested, Gabriel Resources managers almost fell over themselves in orgasmic delight.

They asked McAleer to write a brochure for the company. He declined, but instead made Mine Your Own Business, hailed as the world's first anti-environmentalist documentary.

Recently, the New York Times described the film as the most controversial yet released by the innocuous sounding Motion Picture Institute, a right-wing foundation that promotes largely conservative films. Predictably, much of the funding came from Gabriel Resources, while the Motion Picture Institute helped bring the film to festivals and campuses.

On that point, McAleer seems to have rote-learned a response - that he had complete independence and Gabriel Resources weren't even allowed into the editing room after he told them off for interfering.

"It's the most independent film I've ever made," he repeats several times during the interview.

But surely, when a mining company puts up the cash for a film made by a pro-mining journalist, they are not doing so with the hope of producing a balanced documentary that might criticise open-cast mining?

The film is not balanced because the debate is not balanced, he says.

"Every documentary now is about how big business is bad, environmentalists are good and there is very little debate. This is the first documentary to really question a happy little story that doesn't really add up."

The funding allowed him to travel to Chile and Madagascar to see other mining operations, again claiming that environmentalists were interfering with the wishes of the local people.

Here, he may have some justification - one member of an environmental group I spoke to opposed IMF funding for the Cameron-Chad oil pipeline, insisting that the people of Chad should build their economy on renewable energy - ironic given that he and his supporters lived in affluent Georgetown in Washington DC and all drove cars.

In Mine Your Own Business, McAleer finds his own cringe-inducing example: a World Wildlife official who shows off his generous coastal home and $$30,000 sailing boat while hoping to preserve the 'quaintness' (poverty) of the local people.

But these are minor arguments compared to global warming, river poisoning and destruction of natural habitat that come with mining and on those issues, Mine Your Own Business is silent.

I ask McAleer is there something else going on with this documentary - that maybe he is not fully acting from conviction but is, instead, a shrewd media operator who has spotted a huge potential market for right-wing documentaries?

"The documentary came from finding out the truth," he says bluntly. "If I wanted a niche in the market, I should make a documentary about how wonderful environmentalists are.

"Taking on environmentalists, especially in documentaries, is a quick way to unemployment."

He insists that his documentary was fuelled by simple journalistic curiosity. "In Romania, I discovered that everything the environmentalists were saying was exaggerated, a misrepresentation or just lies.

"I thought it was a great story for a journalist because once I realised people were lying, my journalist's antennae shot up."

He shows real flashes of anger at the west, which has replaced its vast deciduous forests with farms and motorways and now expects the developing world to save its natural habitat.

"Why should the people of Chad be the guinea pigs for our hysteria?" he declares. "Why are we allowed to cut down our forests and change our landscape unrecognisably?

"New York used to be an oak forest! Why are we saying to people in the developing world that they have to sacrifice?"

Because the west may be utterly hypocrital. But that does not write away the fact that the orangutan will likely be extinct in the wild in 20 years and the chimpanzee in 60 years and we owe our nearest relatives better than this.

McAleer doesn't miss a beat.

"The biggest threat to the orangutan and the chimpanzee is the poverty of the villagers who live beside them. Make the villagers rich, give them a job. Poverty cuts down rain forests, not big corporations. Once you give them a well paying job, they will want to preserve the forests for recreation, they will want to preserve it for tourism. You have to give them a standard for living."

On that point, I tell him, the UN and the international community accepts that Indonesian farmers are burning out the orangutans for the sake of giant palm oil plantations and logging companies.

"Thirty million farmers looking for agricultural land will cause far more damage than one logging company. It's nice to say that the biggest threat to the forest is the big, evil corporation. It's not, it's the impoverished farmer," he says.

He recalls his school days in Tyrone, when he was told that the Earth was about to enter another ice age, which didn't happen, whereas now we are being scared into believing the world is heating up.

On RTE's Primetime, McAleer shouted down the Republic's Green Party Environment Minister, Eamon Ryan, claiming angrily that global warming is " junk science".

Now, however, he admits he went too far and is careful to distance himself from pro-capitalist pseudo science.

"What I said to Eamon Ryan was during a heated debate," he says. " On reflection, I would say that global warming is not junk science but it is junk politics.

"If global warming exists, why are we sure that the only to stop is to reduce consumption and the living standards that made us healthy and happy?

"Why not handle it with innovation and technology? Why go backwards to windmills, a 500 year old technology. It's junk politics, it's junk policy."

I remind him of an article he wrote for the Daily Mail in which he castigated the Irish Green Party for their bourgeois dinner parties and wine tasting sessions. He accused them of not wanting the poor to enjoy the Irish economy's new wealth.

He admits that the portrayal was 'crude' but is adamant that his view of environmentalists is not a stereotype.

"They do go to their wine tasting and they have their dinner parties in Dublin 4 and that's where they all live and where they all hang out."

McAleer, who previously worked for the Irish edition of The Sunday Times, enjoys getting liberals riled, such as an article in The Spectator in which he claimed that East European women are not being coerced into prostitution in the west and that most of them are eager to travel to the UK to earn extra money.

I suggest that he definitely likes to go against perceived wisdom. It draws his sharpest response of the interview.

"Well, you're wrong!" he says. "I don't like to go against the grain ? If people want to do journalism by consensus and write little fairy stories about Little Red Riding Hood being abducted in the forest and being sent into prostitution or whatever the latest, they're welcome to it."

McAleer and his wife, Ann McElhinny, have done some celebrated documentary work in the past, as when they explored the case of a young boy who was left at an Indonesian orphanage by his adopted Irish father, an accountant who felt the adoption "wasn't working out".

(Even here there is the recurring theme of western liberal hypocrisy, a minute study of the themes McAleer would expand in Mine Your Own Business.)

Here, though, his effort appears to have come unstuck. Mine Your Own Business has yet to get a US distributor and is still languishing in Republican college showings and conservative think tanks, pursued occasionally by Greenpeace protestors and TV talk shows.

For McAleer, escaping the clutches of liberal control of the documentary world has proved extremely difficult, because it's difficult to argue with their message.

"It's a very comfortable story, the environmentalist one," he says.

"Who is going to argue with saving the planet?"

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