Rare (2021)

Catherine de Jaroueh
Diana Attanasi
Video art on the environmental justice case of Bayan Obo, the biggest Rare Earth Elements mine in the world, located in Mongolia.

Presented at the International Degrowth Conference in The Hague in August 2021

Link to the video: https://youtu.be/CCJWHdGiEFs

The Old Woman and the Sea - A tale about extractivism

Once upon a time, there was an Old Woman who lived in a little wooden house close to the Sea. The Woman was so old that even she could not remember how many years she had. Not that she cared. The Old woman would always wear the same dress, a long piece of cloth that changed colour depending on the hour of the day. In the morning, as soon as the Old Woman woke up, it would be of a bright emerald green, and in the evening, just before she went to bed, it would take nuances of a brick red colour. The only moment in which the dress would be white, however, was when she took it off to wash it, or to go swimming. The Old Woman went swimming every day. Just after coming back from picking up a fruit from the near Forest, she would take off her dress and leave it on the beach next to the fruit. Thereafter, she would swim.

When she was underwater, she’d speak with the Sea. They’d have long conversations, while the Old Woman caressed the seabed with her wrinkled hands and the Sea wrapped her with long multicoloured seaweeds. She wouldn’t decide how long she’d stayed: sometimes she swam for hours, sometimes for minutes. When she’d be back on the beach, after wearing her white piece of cloth again and eating her fruit, she’d be happy. And she would always be back from her swim with an answer to a question.

Questions for the Sea weren’t hers but came from the inhabitants of a nearby village. Everybody there highly respected the Old Woman, and there was a really long waiting line to ask her to pose a question to the Sea. Not just because it was considered to be an attraction, a ritual, a gossip. But also, because the Old Woman used to gift, together with the answer, a pearl she would find during her swim. “Look after it carefully” she would add at the end of the answer. “This pearl is inseparable from your answer. If you part from it, you’ll lose them both.” There was just one rule: during the course of their lives, each inhabitant could pose only one question.

Sometime ago, when the Old Woman was already Old, but the village was just born, people were really careful not to lose the pearl and treat it like a precious personal object. However, as time passed, they understood that they could trade it to obtain something they valued more: money, tools for their work, nicer clothes. That’s how they started trading with the villages next to them and started becoming a richer and more prosperous city. A lot of people would come to try their luck there, and they would often begin by going to visit the Old Woman.

The only person continuing with its usual life was the Old Woman: she continued to play with the Sea, to give answers, to feed on fishes that lost their lives on the little island that appeared during low tide. She continued collecting herbs, she continued grinding seeds to make oils, she continued fermenting mushrooms and drying flowers. Sometimes she’d go swimming more than once, she’d hug the Sea again and ask him about her Sisters living on the other side of the World. If it was a really lucky day, she could also connect with those who were not in the Sea. She loved to hear the stories of Sisters who could find answers in the Forest, in the Mountain, in the Height and in Poetry.

One day a King from a near village came to the house of the Old Woman. He never posed a question before. “I want an answer to this problem,” he said, and then whispered something to her ear. “And come back with a big pearl.” There was a lot of wind that day, and the Sea was stormy. The Old Woman took off her piece of cloth, jumped in the Sea, and the came back one hour later, holding a big pearl in her hands. “It’s not enough. I want another one” said the King, who hoped to take advantage of the Old Woman to dominate over nearby villages. “I can’t provide two answers to the same person: it’s the only rule” complained the Old Woman. “I’m sure you can.” The sea was calming down. The Old Woman dived in again and came back some hours later with a pearl in her hands. “Again, I want another one.” He was smiling, sure to have found an infinite wealth. By now it was nearly night. The sea was really calm, the sky plumbeous. The Old Woman looked the King in the eyes, speechless. She turned to the Sea, and slowly started walking with her arms opened toward the horizon.

At dawn, the Old Woman was nowhere to be seen. But as soon as the Sun appeared in the sky, this happened: all the pearls that were found by the Old Woman disappeared from the World, together with all the goods with whom they had been exchanged for. Massive houses collapsed on themselves, beautiful dresses turned into rags, precious jewellery transformed into sand. The King, without his sceptre, covered by only a rag, sharpened his incredulous gaze towards the Sea. On the little island appeared with the low tide, there was a fruit that seemed freshly picked. To its side, a long piece of white cloth.

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