In Swahili, a small piece of land west of Mombasa, Kenya is known to the locals as Dongo Kundu or “Red Earth.” But what has caught the eye of a Canadian mining company are different colors entirely. They see white, the color of the titanium ore that Tiomin Mining Company of Toronto plans to extract from the sand deposits found throughout the region, most of which will be used in manufacturing white pigments for paints, plastics and paper. They see green, in the tens of millions of dollars the company stands to reap from the deposits, estimated to be about 15 percent of the world’s titanium supply. And they see black, in the faces of the thousands of poor rural Kenyans who can be paid about $50 each to be displaced from their ancestral homeland into “relocation camps” for 21 years while their homes, schools, churches and farms are razed, their land strip-mined 40 feet down and their entire way of life vanished.
In sub-Saharan Africa, as in much of the Third World, such bald-faced colonialism by Western mining firms has long been business as usual. But half a world away, two postal workers and an independent videographer from Missoula have heard the Kenyans’ pleas for help via the Internet and, through an artful blend of social activism and low-budget guerrilla filmmaking, have set out to stop the mining company dead in its tracks.
For Gene Bernofsky, an 18-year veteran of the U.S. Postal Service, this is hardly the first blood drawn with the mining industry. For years, Bernofsky has been using his non-profit organization, World Wide Film Expedition, for projects that expose the abuses of the mining industry, from the threat of titanium extraction in the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia to the proposed ASARCO hard rock mine beneath Montana’s Cabinet Mountains. The Tiomin project, however, may be his most formidable battle to date.
“One of the things this mining project will do is drive these rural people off their land and into the cities,” says Bernofsky. “Then they become prone to the drugs and the drunkenness and the AIDS, and they just don’t know what to do with themselves. These people will all wind up living in huge slums, where people are literally dying in the streets.”
About a year ago, Bernofsky was contacted by an engineering professor from Nairobi University who had seen his web site and was very concerned about what Tiomin was up to in his country. Over the next few months, the two communicated almost entirely by e-mail, and plans were made to document the project on video before work began. Bernofsky then solicited the help of fellow postal employee Jim Kinsey and long-time Missoula videographer Ken Furrow. By February the three were on the ground in Africa for a month, shooting footage, interviewing villagers and Kenyan activists, and chronicling the extent to which the Tiomin project will disfigure Kenya’s physical and cultural landscape.
The more they investigated, the larger and more invasive the project seemed to be. In order to extract the titanium ore, Tiomin will need to barge massive quantities of sand offshore for refining. Since the barges require about a mile of deep water just to turn around, the company plans to dredge wide swaths of underwater reefs and marine parks in two regions: Shimoni (which Furrow, an avid diver, calls “the jewel of tourism on the coast of Kenya”) and Dongo Kundu near the town of Tzunsa, whose fishermen depend upon the mangrove swamps and nearby fisheries for their livelihood.
The deepest impact of the Tiomin project will be felt by the 10,000 or so villagers in the Kwale District southwest of Mombasa who are slated for relocation. In this region where material goods are few but communal life makes subsistence farming and fishing preferable to the abject poverty of the cities, hundreds of villagers have already sold their ancestral land rights, signing one-page contracts that most cannot even read.
Under Kenyan law, an independent Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is required for projects of this scale, but because of Tiomin’s relationship with the Kenyan government, the company hired its own firm for its EIA. When scientists and activists at Nairobi and Kenyatta universities complained and had their own independent EIA performed, it revealed that the mining process would unearth tons of radioactive material that will eventually render the entire region uninhabitable.
Needless to say, the video team was concerned for their own safety while in Kenya, since, as Kinsey notes, “it wouldn’t take much for three Americans to just disappear in Africa.” Since their return to Missoula, rumors have been spread in Kenya, presumably by the mining industry, that the filmmakers are wanted felons in the United States. Knowing the history of mining in Africa, the three recognize the lengths to which mining companies will go to protect their investments, which, in Tiomin’s case, already exceeds $20 million.
Bernofsky, a long-time union activist, remains unfazed. “I’d tell them [Tiomin] this: You fuck with a federal postal employee, that’s a felony,” he says, laughing. With the video in post-production and a release date targeted for the end of May, the filmmakers are looking to raise another $10,000 to buy satellite time and distribute 1,500 copies of the video worldwide for free. Says Furrow, “The best thing about this story is that it hasn’t happened yet.”
“These countries need development. But this kind of colonial approach to development has got to end. It must end,” says Bernofsky. “People will welcome responsible, honest development. But not this bullshit. Enough is enough.”
For more information on the Tiomin mining project and upcoming video, visit the World Wide Film Expedition website at www.ism.net/~wwfe.