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The Refugees of the Blue Planet

New documentary shows the plight of refugees

By Jocelyn Bell

The Refugees of
the Blue Planet
Directed by Hélène Choquette
and Jean-Philippe Duval
(National Film Board of Canada)

Back in 2003, the United Nations made a startling announcement: For the first time in history, the number of environmental refugees had surpassed the number of refugees related to war and political unrest — by two million people.

This fact forms the backbone of The Refugees of the Blue Planet, a well-crafted documentary that makes global statistics palpable and personal anecdotes memorable.

The film opens with an aerial view of Kandholhudoo Island, Maldives. From the airplane it looks like a tropical oasis. But as a boat, carrying an old woman named Soraya, pulls up to the shoreline, it is clear that the island has been destroyed by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. “This is our house,” Soraya says through tears as she picks through rubble in search of her possessions. “This is what happened to our house.”

The world’s 25 million environmental refugees include those displaced by natural and global warming-related disasters. But they also include people — mostly farmers —forced from their land to make way for agri-business.

To illustrate the latter, the documentary travels to Brazil, where pulp-maker Aracruz Celulose has planted eucalyptus trees as far as the eye can see. According to the film, the company bought out 100 villages to make way for its monoculture. Some of the former inhabitants migrated to city slums. Others stubbornly held fast to their land, but now struggle to survive alongside the water-sucking, pesticide-laden trees.

Just when the viewer starts thinking, “Thank God I live in Canada,” the filmmakers pop up in Alberta, where Big Oil is encroaching on the livelihood of cattle farmers by drilling sour gas wells near farmland. Sour gas, which contains highly toxic hydrogen sulfide, can be deadly if it leaks into the ground or air.

Ironically, environmental disasters in North America provide the only source of hope in the documentary. “If everyone is a victim, everyone will take action in the end,” asserts one of its experts. If not, the UN predicts our blue planet will have 150 million environmental refugees by 2050.

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