Director: Marc Wiese (Germany, Ecuador). Year of Release: 2022
The film starts with opening titles telling us that when the left-winger Rafael Corea was voted president of Ecuador in 2007, most Western countries withdrew credit from his country. This caused Corea to do a deal with China, offering them mining rights. The resulting mines damaged to the environment and displaced indigenous people. This film looks at some of the opposition which has developed to these policies.
Some activists are in a car, rushing back to a blockade which has been set up outside one of the mines. They are overtaken by several police cars and an armoured vehicle. On the hilltops, we see local villagers, some of them wearing masks. They look down, trying to work out what is going on. A stone is thrown as well as a couple of ineffective balls of fire. The police reply with tear gas, and come in heavy handed. It is clear where they stand on the protection of profits for big business.
As the film proceeds, we are introduced to three men. Paúl Jarrin and Hernán Galarza are indigenous activists, who have played a leading role in the protests. Fernando Villavicencio is a journalist whose articles led to the prosecution of Correa for corruption and dirty contracts with the Chinese mine owners. We follow all of them in their battle against the intervention of Chinese neoliberal imperialism at the expense of the environment and traditional ways of living.
The protestors are victorious in the short term, and manage to get one of the mines closed down. But they are wary of celebrating too hard, reminding the cameraman that there are 832 other mines in the country, many of them under the control of Chinese capital. Presumably this is why it is important for the film makers to move onto Villavicencio, who was able to take on Correa, and his government, in the courts.
Having watched it through, it is difficult to know whether Mein gestohlenes Land is a left-wing or a right-wing film. It shows demonstrators battling over-zealous police, and declaiming that they are prepared to used violence to protect their environment if no other means remain. This certainly feels left-wing. But the film’s focus on the individual protestors and journalist deprives it of its political context. I’m not sure whether this is a deliberate editorial decision.
We have already learned from the opening titles that Correa was a socialist, part of the pink tide of left wing Latin American leaders who won a series of elections at the beginning of the century. As he took office, he cancelled debt, increased health spending and reduced the poverty level from 37% to 22%. Correa was Ecuador’s only president who could actually speak an indigenous language, and passed laws which did bring real gains for the indigenous population.
This is why, like his contemporaries in Venezuela and Bolivia, he was faced with right wing coup attempts. He also faced the ire of successive US governments. One of his first acts was to close down a US military base, and it was the Ecuadorian embassy which offered asylum to Julian Assange. His right wing opponents did not object to the encroachment of environment-damaging mines, but they were appalled that the profits were being sent to China, not the USA.
At the same time, and again like his fellow leaders of the pink tide, he found it hard to implement many of his promises. The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) had an ambiguous relationship with him, welcoming his support for indigenous rights, but showing frustration at his inability to deliver reforms. To a degree this was the unavoidable result of the fall of oil prices, but also came from his attempt to find a kinder, gentler form of neoliberalism.
It is unclear which part of Correa’s rule the film is criticizing. It is quite possible that his rule included some corruption, but it is unlikely that there was more than from his predecessors, or the current Ecuadorian president – the neoliberal banker Guillermo Lasso. But because the film concentrates almost entirely on Correa’s individual corruption and his contracts with China, it fails to identify a systemic problem which also implicates his political opponents.
No space is afforded to look at the strategy of the locals in their noble battle against the disruptive mines. They see mine workers as being just as much the enemy as the mine owners, so do not even consider uniting against a common enemy. Some of the home-made placards that they carry overstress the fact that the mine owners are Chinese, as if Ecuadorian or US-American owners would be any more benign. The film does not attempt to challenger their mixed consciousness.
How important is this? To a degree, the strength of a documentary film is the extent to which it shows things as they are, not as you would like them to be. But by its very existence, this film is an intervention – an active part of a discussion in which neoliberals are trying to discredit the real reforms which have been made in Latin America. In this sense, yes it does matter if people leave the cinema merely thinking that Correa was corrupt and US mine owners would have been better.
Nonetheless, this is a very well made film, which addresses a serious subject. And to the extent that it shows the limitations of the left wing governments in Latin America, it provokes a useful debate. We are also made all the more aware of the potential and ongoing destruction of the environment by the gorgeous film of the local landscape and wildlife, which may not survive for too much longer.
Go and see the film to become aware of a very real contemporary problem, but don’t leave your critical faculties at the door.