Last week I saw a movie in a movie theater.  Well insignificant news for some, this is significant for me for two reasons: 1-it’s the first time I’d been to the movies in a loooong time and the first time with my husband since we got married and moved to the same country more than a year and a half ago, and 2-it’s the second movie we’d ever been to together (the first one we saw with a friend in El Salvador in 2008).  Anyway, I got a text last Thursday asking if I wanted to go see a movie, since he’d gotten free tickets, so I quick skimmed the review on, it looked good, and we went.  We don’t have cable, so I don’t see previews/ads regularly and I didn’t really know what to expect–except that we were going out to the movies.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

We had tickets to see “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” starring Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt, and Amr Waked.  “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” based on the novel by Paul Torday, is about

Dr. Alfred Jones [who] feels at odds with his orderly life as a London fisheries scientist and husband to the career-driven Mary, with whom he shares a coldly dispassionate relationship. Just as Mary departs for a protracted assignment in Geneva, Alfred gets consulted on a visionary sheik’s scheme to introduce salmon, and salmon-angling, to the country of Yemen. Alfred is deeply skeptical (salmon are cold-water fish that spawn in fresh water; Yemen is hot and largely desert), but the project gains traction when [Mrs.] Maxwell, the prime minister’s director of communications, seizes on it as a PR antidote to negative press related to the Iraq war. Alfred is pressed by his superiors to meet with the sheik’s real estate rep, the glamorous young Harriet, and embarks on a yearlong journey to realize the sheik’s vision of spiritual peace through fly-fishing for the people of Yemen.

The film was a fictional, light comedy/romance, but what I want to address today is the fact that the film touched on several different development issues.  “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” touched on everything from where an idea comes from and why an idea gets picked, to why projects fail, in spite of having an endless supply of experts and finances.  I think the lessons that can be shared are actually quite universal in the development field.

The sheik was incredibly wealthy and felt that if he could share his love for salmon fishing with the Yemeni people, their lives would be enriched.  Initially this enrichment just consisted of being able to enjoy fly fishing as much as the sheik himself did, later on in the film the sheik admits that it would have changed the whole river valley: it would be green, the people could plant and harvest, they would be less dependent on others for their food sources.  This project was something the sheik decided to do to benefit his people.

Unfortunately, because the people the sheik wanted to benefit had not been involved in the process of making these huge changes to the region and their future lifestyles, they were fearful of what was happening, uncertain about the sheik’s ideas, and [spoiler alert] ultimately sabotaged the project.  As has been proven over and over again, a lack of community consult often ends problematically–or at least with hard feelings, which was the case in the film.  The sheik had started his project by building a large dam above a  dry river bed, that they could fill so that the fresh-water salmon would survive and have an appropriate habitat (if I recall correctly, the movie compared the Yemeni desert night-cold to northern-/mid-California).  It’s not that the project hadn’t been thought out by the sheik–it had been, he had the dam constructed before Dr. Jones even entered the picture.  He had not thought about getting the rest of the community involved, interested, and on board though.  Once the project is sabotaged, Dr. Jones decides to stay and rebuild–and he makes light of the fact that the people must be involved in order for the project to be successful.

In my work in Central America, especially with the anti-mining campaign, I have seen this issue play out (among several others).  In Guatemala, the people who live around the Marlin Mine were told that a machete factory was going to be built that would bring jobs and boost the economy.  So of course they were unhappy when they learned that was actually being constructed was an open-pit gold mine that would use cyanide and other chemicals in the mining process.  As mostly indigenous farmers, they know the dangers that putting the natural environment out of balance can entail.  COPAE (the Pastoral Commission on Peace and Ecology of the San Marcos’ Catholic Diocese) has been supporting community consults taking place under ILO 169.  Community consultations in San Marcos and other Guatemalan departments have almost overwhelmingly said “no” to mining, yet the mining continues.  In my own mind, it is not true development unless it is development for the benefit of the majority, instead of economically improving the situation of the few, but what will it take for us to get everyone involved in their future?  Once everyone, or almost everyone, has “bought in” to the system, won’t we be in a better position to move forward together?

Community Consult: "No to mining, Yes to life!"

In “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” like in real development projects, money often talks.  It often talks louder than it should, but it should always be in conversation with the people whose lives will be directly affected.  I know that that is not a perfect horizontal model to follow, but I don’t think “money talking” is going to change in the near future.  People with money have ideas, louder voices, and often a greater ability to achieve their goals, but money doesn’t result in success, just the opportunity to try.  Even when money is connected with experts, success is not a given, unless the whole community is on board–which often means that the whole community benefits.  The sheik admitted that the river would change the ecosystem of the Yemeni desert, offering people a chance at agriculture they’d only before dreamed about–but until the people knew that this would be a “perk” of the project, they wouldn’t be on board.  In the case of the Marlin Mine in Guatemala, people know that all but 0.5% of the income from the mine will leave their municipality; all but 1% of the mine’s earnings will leave Guatemala.  They have no stake in the project (except for their losses in other areas: homes, agriculture, potable water) and cannot be expected to jump on board, unless they will benefit somehow.  Currently, however, Goldcorp, Inc.’s benefits do not extend to the community members and the “development project” known as Marlin will continue to be a test of wills for the company and the community.