WASHINGTON—One would think only a crazy couple would declare war on environmentalists by presenting them on film as snobs, hypocrites and enemies of the poor. Luckily for those of us who think one-sided debates are boring, Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney are just crazy enough to question the environmentalists’ opposition to mining projects in poor countries in a documentary—“Mine Your Own Business”—that is gaining attention.

McAleer, an Irish journalist who covered Romania for the Financial Times, and McElhinney, his wife and co-producer, look at three mining investments: a gold project by Gabriel Resources in Rosia Montana, in Romania’s Transylvania region; Rio Tinto’s ilmenite project in Fort Dauphin, in Madagascar; and a vast Andean operation undertaken by Barrick Gold in Chile’s Huasco Valley.

In the movie, many of the critics who claim to live in the affected areas are less than honest. One, a Swiss environmentalist who leads the opposition to mining in Romania, actually lives in the sort of town to which many of the impoverished peasants of Rosia Montana want to move.

The activists are adamant that the locals should preserve their “pristine” environment. A Belgian environmentalist says the people of Rosia Montana would rather use carts and horses than pollute the air with cars. “She says this to get noticed,” counters a Romanian peasant who looks totally bewildered.

Half a world away, when confronted with the argument that denying the people of Fort Dauphin a chance to obtain jobs would keep them poor, the leading critic of the ilmenite project and the owner of a luxurious catamaran pontificates to Gheorghe Lucian, an unemployed Romanian traveling with the film’s crew: “I could put you with a family here and you can count how many times people smile ... and I can put you with a family that is well-off in New York and London and you can count how many times they smile, and then you can tell me who is rich and who is poor.”

You can imagine what this esoteric interpretation of wealth sounds like to Lucian, the Romanian who graduated from Rosia Montana’s Technical College and is desperate to find a job. Two-thirds of his fellow villagers lack running water and use outside bathrooms even in freezing winter. For him, as for the other 700 prospective employees of the mining project back home, the choice is literally “between having a job and leaving.”

The film crew also traveled to the Chilean Andes to find out who was leading the fight against Barrick Gold. It turns out—as one local villager explains—that those who oppose the investment are mainly rich landowners who don’t want the peasants working on their lands for a pittance to flock to the mines for twice their current wages.

McAleer tells us that the claim the mining project will displace three glaciers that provide irrigation for local agriculture is false. The glaciers will not be affected and the company will build a reservoir to guarantee that local farmers have a decent supply of water.

Will this industrial progress in Romania, Madagascar or Chile pollute the environment? Well, the alternative is much worse. Communist-era gold mining, which was technologically backward, bureaucratic and unaccountable, turned Rosia Montana’s river into disgusting filth. In Madagascar’s Fort Dauphin, slash-and-burn agriculture—the sort the rural poor resort to in order to survive—has destroyed the rain forest.

It would be naive to think these mining companies are in it for altruistic motives—they obviously want to make a profit. But the truth—one that Lucian, the unemployed Romanian, discovers as he ventures beyond his country for the first time in his life—is that progress involves hard choices. The wealthy nations of today were themselves “pristine” environments in which people gradually gave up traditional ways of life to improve their living conditions. Who are we to deny the poor of today the chance to do well for themselves when an opportunity arises if they decide to take it?

Yes, moving from the traditional to the modern way of life involves costs. But as one British professor at Kent University says: “People need to be trusted to work these things out for themselves.... Environmentalists feel they have the moral authority to tell them what to do.”

Not all nongovernmental organizations are as elitist and unfair to poor people as the many this film exposes. Not every mining project is as respectful of local choices as the ones depicted in this film. But this documentary speaks volumes about the Manichean vision that many bleeding-heart Americans and Europeans have of the dilemma between tradition and modernity in the developing world.