Two films underscore threats to environment

Tales of sand pirates and fracking

BRATTLEBORO — The phrase “sand needs more respect” isn't likely to be on the top of anyone's list of sand-related thoughts, but by the time you've finished seeing eco-thriller Sand Wars, a 2013 documentary from French director and writer Denis Delestrac making ripples worldwide, you might have second thoughts.

Sand, along with air and water, is one of the top three most used of Earth's natural resources. Not just for the beach, sand is a vital ingredient in the construction of concrete buildings, roads, and electronics. It is not possible to make electronic chips without sand. Without sand, cell phones, computers, credit cards, and bank machines could not exist.

The world consumes about 15 billion tons of sand per year. Sand is disappearing quickly. It is not a sustainable resource. Nor is all sand suitable for construction or electronics, and some - like sand found in the Sahara and other global deserts - is off limits.

Illegal dredging and distribution of sand takes place daily in the world's oceans and rivers in the U.S., Dubai, India, the Maldives, and Morocco, and their surrounding Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific oceans. The film shows “sand pirates” loading beach sand onto donkeys in the middle of the night, as well as larger-scale theft. Fancy resort beaches in Mexico and Morocco have had to close when their sand was stolen overnight.

Delestrac shows us there is hope: We can produce sand substitutes, and there are some alternative options for certain concrete uses. People around the world are interested in finding legal and peaceful solutions to the sand wars.

The surprising and sometimes-shocking facts create strength and momentum in Delestrac's film. They might make you angry enough to want to help.

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Showing along with Sand Wars, the documentary Unearthed, by celebrated South African director and cinematographer Jolynn Minnaar, shows the deceptive public-relations spin used worldwide to sell the public on the safety of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to release natural shale gas.

South Africans and Americans affected by this process, as well as experts and energy-company executives, share their points of view.

The director handily bursts the public-relations themes that “the technology is 60 years old” and proven safe (when, in fact, current technology has only been used for about 10 years) and that “there are no documented instances of air or water contamination from fracking.”

Pay particular attention to the general manager of Shell in South Africa as he carefully chooses his words about possible air and water contamination. And watch for the diagrams that explain the difference between fracking (which takes place several hundred feet below the earth), and the entire process (which includes fracking, the above-ground drilling, and the concrete work used to prevent leaks).

Minnaar's film posits that documented instances of contamination are lacking because people sign non-disclosure settlement agreements with energy companies in order to obtain badly needed clean water, substitute housing, or health care. When talked about at all, contamination is usually blamed on bad jobs or faulty cement work.

But the film offers rare testimonials from people who explain how the very process is to blame for homes, health, and lives destroyed. One woman tells of so much gas in the water that her neighbor's water well exploded.

Unearthed won the Green Award at its worldwide premiere in 2014 at the U.K.'s Sheffield International Documentary Festival, and Minnaar was named Woman of the Year: Change Agent by the South Africa edition of Glamour. She will be available via Skype for audience questions and answers after the movie, which starts at noon on Saturday, Nov. 8, at the Latchis Theatre in Brattleboro.

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