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Empowering communities fighting new mines: an interview with filmmaker Jessie Landerman

  • Local communities often suffer from environmental degradation and human rights abuses when mining companies move into their territories.
  • A new series of videos shows local communities that they are not alone by sharing stories of how other communities have combatted, with some success, mining giants.
  • The organization is screening the films for various impacted communities worldwide.

It is no secret that mining destroys environments and communities throughout the world. But, beneath the surface there are specific details that are not as widely known. Communities affected by mining sometimes suffer a myriad of human rights abuses. And communities often confront mining companies not knowing how other impacted communities have protected or supported themselves.

New Media Advocacy Project (N-Map) saw an opportunity to help communities stand up for themselves. N-Map is a non-profit organization that employs video-based storytelling to advocate for human rights. In its recent series “Beneath the Surface,” they highlight stories of communities that suffered from mining.

The goal is to use these stories as a tool to connect communities. Communities targeted by mining companies can screen these videos, get training, and turn screening sessions into action. This way they can get information before companies come in and break the cycle.

Jessie Landerman (left) interviews one of the local residents in Luhwindja, Democratic Republic of Congo, where people have lost their land and businesses because of the arrival of BanRo Gold Mining. Photo Credit: Megan Chapman.

For example, communities can see how Nigeria’s Bodo community collected baseline data to prove that two Shell oil spills caused significant environmental damage. Or how the Tacana community in Bolivia took control in negotiating an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) when a Bolivian oil company wanted to drill on their land. An EIA measures what impact a project will have on the environment, and outlines what the company will do to reduce this impact.

“We see communities have small successes. They are never as grand or perfect as you like them to be. They are often very painful,” Landerman says.

The stories show that unity and knowledge are extremely important in breaking this cycle. Targeted communities can see that “they do have options and should come together as a community to decide what is the best strategy for them and become active players in that strategy,” Landerman explained.

In an interview with Mongabay, Landerman discusses the impacts of mining, how targeted communities can advocate for themselves, and how New Media Advocacy Project uses video-based storytelling to advance human rights (watch the videos in English, French, Swahili, or Creole).

Contaminated water from BanRo’s gold mine outside Luhwindja, Democratic Republic of Congo in South Kivu. Nearby residents have complained of many health problems since mining operations began, and they believe it is linked to the contaminated water. Photo Credit: Jessie Landerman.


Caitlin Looby for Mongabay: Will you tell us about New Media Advocacy Project?

Jessie Landerman: New Media Advocacy Project is a non-profit that is dedicated to using storytelling to advance human rights. What that looks like is creating very targeted audience-focused media or videos that are aimed at supporting specific pursuits of human rights.

That could look like any number of issues. We don’t really narrow ourselves based on the issues. We have a very broad definition of human rights, and the same goes for geography…What we offer to people who are already working on the human rights challenge or a human rights campaign is to partner with them to strategically use video.

One of the first steps to our process is to identify who the target audience is – not necessarily for video, but for change in general – in order for there to be a just outcome for the human rights challenge. Sometimes that target is at the top of the power pyramid like a judge or legislature. Sometimes it is the base of the pyramid itself, like in “Beneath the Surface.” [This series] is about a community audience, and empowering them through legal and other tactical information about how to defend their human rights.

Mongabay: What led you to explore the issue of mining around the world?

Jessie Landerman: In part mining is a cornucopia of human rights abuses. Almost any type of human rights abuse is affiliated with mining…The reason we got interested is from working with partners who worked around the world, hearing the articulation of the problems related to communities. There are a lot of stakeholders you can focus on when it comes to abuses related to mining. We really liked the idea that you could focus on communities as the main stakeholders of mining.

The problem is communities are facing off against these multinational mining companies alone without access and support, and without knowledge of what other communities in their position have done before.

We saw a fantastic opportunity to use video-based storytelling to solve that problem for communities that were targeted for mining. That is what drew us to it – that sense of opportunity and demand. We are really a demand driven organization in terms of solving problems using video. In this case, there were communities out there that were extremely hungry for information about what these mining companies done in other places and what have other communities done to protect their rights.

When we started researching it more, we saw there is a playbook that companies play by when they go from community to community. They get what they want, and communities really get screwed. There was an opportunity to use video-based storytelling to provide information to communities in advance, and help them stand up for themselves and break that cycle.

Madeleine May of New Media Advocacy (right) produces a video shoot in Bodo, Nigeria, where residents of a fishing city were devastated by an oil spill from a Shell pipeline just off the coast. Because citizens collected environmental samples of soil and water before the spill, the community’s legal representatives were able to definitively prove that Shell had contributed to the massive pollution of the coastal ecosystem. Photo Credit: Andrew Maki.

Mongabay: In “Beneath the Surface: The Impacts of Mining,” subjects mention that they were deceived. They thought that mining would be a “blessing.” How do mining companies convince communities to sign on?

Jessie Landerman: Based on the stories we have learned and read, companies offer all sorts of economic benefits directly and indirectly. They will often offer people jobs. They will often offer people direct money, saying they will get direct payouts. They say that they will have to relocate, and their new home will be a lot better than their old home. The idea is that people are offered development for their area; they are offered roads, schools, hospitals, and new jobs. And a sense that there is going to be a general rush of prosperity, which logically makes sense. When communities are aware that they have a valuable mineral, it is hard to imagine that you wouldn’t benefit from that. That mineral is under your house or your field. It is hard to think about all this wealth being extracted from where you live and not getting to see any of it.

No community that we met and talked to felt that those promises had been realized or that they were better off after mining. Every community that we talked to had suffered and were much worse off after mining. That includes communities that had sued for damages afterwards, and got cash payouts afterwards.

Mongabay: Do communities ever benefit? What about from artisanal mining?

Jessie Landerman: Industrial mining usually displaces artisanal mining. Also, as in the video from Ghana, if the community is not already mining artisanally, and a company comes in and starts finding indication that there are minerals people will come along before the industrial mine and start mining artisanally. This also has negative impacts on the social fabric and the environment.

Mongabay: Broadly, what are the environmental impacts of mining, both on local communities and biodiversity?

Jessie Landerman: One of the impacts of gold mining that we focus on the most is water. It is the most immediate and one of the most pressing problems environmentally that results from mining. Mining is bad for both the quantity and quality of water sources.

Gold mines use huge amounts of water in all of their processing. Communities have much less water than they used to. Also, water sources are very often contaminated by mining. Mercury and cyanide are frequently used in gold mining. People get very sick and there is tragedy after tragedy with people getting sick from contaminated water… Water [sources] can [also] be destroyed by oil.

One of the other cases that we looked at was diamond mining, and people [dying] from water-borne illnesses. Contaminated water is one of the deadliest and most serious impacts of gold mining, and other types of mining.

Mariana, an indigenous community leader in the Bolivian Amazon, reviews a summary of the Environmental Impact Assessment for a proposed oil and gas project in her community. Mariana and her neighbors fought hard against the project and forced the company to agree to specific environmental protections in their project plan. Photo credit: Jessie Landerman

Mongabay: In the second video, the project discusses the importance of collecting baseline data. Why is this so valuable?

Jessie Landerman: It gets people to recognize, value, and evaluate their own resources. If a company comes in, and says that they want to use your water you will react differently if you take it for granted than if you are actively engaged in valuing and thinking about all the ways to use that resource.

There is also a lot of policy-based processes, there are agreements that are signed and studies that are conducted. Communities are largely blocked from that process. It is very difficult for them to engage in part because it is to the benefit of companies to not engage communities. Getting communities confident and armed with their own data can really shift those scales. It can help them from getting steamrolled in a lot of these processes.

We also think the data that they collect is a tool that they can deploy at various points both before mining occurs and if it does happen and there is an accident, like contamination.

Mongabay: In “Beneath the Surface: Community Mapping and Resistance to Mining in Ghana,” it is mentioned that people become disconnected from their culture. How does mining do this? How is it impacting culture and society?

Jessie Landerman: The presence of outsiders. A lot of times mines are created in communities that are small and close-knit. The influx of outsiders, like workers at the mine can really devastate communities. Mining areas are very highly correlated with sex work and with drugs because there is a lot of transient migrant workers. Often times people working at the mines are not people from the community. When you have a large influx of outsiders, many of whom are migrant male workers, you end up with a lot of new dynamics in a community that can really change the social fabric.

Also, because mining is so damaging to land and to water, people often can’t farm anymore. When you disrupt an economic pillar of society everything else starts to shift. And what we see is that it doesn’t shift for the better.

Villagers in the Democratic Republic of Congo who were relocated to make way for BanRo’s Twangiza gold mine watch N-Map’s video The Impacts of Mining. The video features interviews with members of their community describing the suffering and unfulfilled promises caused by the company. Following the screening, the community engaged in a discussion about how it has been affected by the mine. Photo Credit: Jessie Landerman.

Mongabay: What are some of the challenges you face in producing videos like this?

Jessie Landerman: Mining is often done in very remote areas. It is a challenge to plan a video production that is several days long in a remote place where you may not have electricity. One of the cases that we highlight in the series is filmed in Bolivia, and it is about an Environmental Impact Assessment. To get there took at least three days. Flying from New York to Lima, flying to the Peruvian Amazon, getting on a boat to the Bolivian Amazon, and your boat breaks down. Then someone from the community shows up with their small boat, and you put all your equipment in it. Every night you are charging your batteries on a generator at someone’s house. You have to bring all of your food and water with you.

One of the other challenges is if a community has already been affected by an industrial mining company there is a level of distrust and trauma of outsiders who come in with an agenda. Not only to hear their stories, but to partner with them is a commitment.

At New Media Advocacy Project’s core is a commitment to partner with communities, civil society organizations, and NGOs. We would never show up in the Bolivian Amazon with our gear and try to solicit their testimony. We spend weeks and months building relationships with people explaining what we want to do and why, and also learning from them how it can be a reciprocal process. Sometimes knowing they are sharing their story with others is very valuable to communities. A lot of times the video itself is a tool that they can use to sustain their goals or for their own advocacy.

Mongabay: What stories in this series will you be producing next?

Jessie Landerman: We have two forthcoming videos in this series that we just filmed. One is from the Philippines that is a resistance movement that has a lot of strong female leadership. That is one angle that we wanted to focus on: the role of women in community-based human rights defense and organizing.

Mongabay: Do you ever reach out to the miners or companies, like Shell and Azumah, involved in destroying these environments?

Jessie Landerman: In the scope of this project, no. That is really not our goal because there is so much need in addressing mining abuses and human rights we had to be more rigid on where we focus our energy. We are focused on communicating with communities and between communities, and connecting them with each other. There is temptation to do that. There is a role for advocacy to these companies. That is not our role in this particular project. But, I recognize that it is an important part of human rights advocacy to mining.

Mongabay: What are the best methods for communities to resist mining companies from coming in? What can they learn from other communities who have successfully repelled mining companies?

Jessie Landerman: One of the biggest lessons is somewhat abstract, but it has to do with unity and communicating and information sharing within the community. Divide and conquer is one of the rules of the playbook for mining companies. If communities fall prey to that it is going to be very difficult for them to recover and implement any other tactical strategy. Whether it is doing a baseline water survey or creating a community-based organization in order to speak with one voice, the first step is unity and communication within the community itself.

Mongabay: Can areas recover from mining? If so, how long does it take for an ecosystem to recover?

Jessie Landerman: We haven’t researched thoroughly what happens after a mine closes. I know that it is still a huge problem area, and in many aspects after a mine closes the water system doesn’t support the community anymore. There [are] abandoned materials and pits scattered all over the globe.

One of the biggest and uplifting success stories has been the continuation of the story in Bolivia. A community was getting an oil and gas project forced on them and in order to fight back they took a very active role in all of the institutional processes around the mine, like permitting and studies that were conducted. Those are conversations that very often happen at the higher levels of government and the mining company, and people on the ground are left out. They seized the opportunity to insert themselves into that process. As a result, they were able to negotiate specific protections into the project plan that were so inconvenient for the project that the project was abandoned.

We see communities have small successes. They are never as grand or perfect as you like them to be. They are often very painful. These communities are in pain. But, there are these successes, but they are much more complex and nuanced. That has been a huge learning experience for me because as a video storyteller sometimes we seek these ideal, grand stories. The stories are grand, but they are also very complicated.

At a workshop with New Media Advocacy, community organizers in Northern Haiti view N-Map’s “Impacts of Mining” video and plan how to use the “Beneath the Surface” series to educate and empower their own communities. Photo Credit: Karen Heredia.

Mongabay: What is the big take home message you want a viewer to walk away with?

Jessie Landerman: Our strategy for distribution of the films is to provide projection equipment and training to community advocates so that they can screen the films in their own communities. We’ve identified partners in several target countries where there is an interest in mining.

We provide them with equipment for a battery powered screening for up to 200 people. We provide them with a projector, a speaker, a screen, and the videos in the appropriate language. And most importantly, customized training and support on who their audiences are, how to gather those audiences, and how to facilitate a discussion. Essentially, how to turn a video screening into community-based action.

In that sense, the target audiences are the communities themselves. We want them to walk away with a sense that their unity matters. They do have options and should come together as a community to decide what is the best strategy for them and become active players in that strategy. Rather than having far away elected representatives in the capital city decide on their behalf.

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