It has now been three years since The Human, Earth Project was born, and what a ride it has been.
The first year took me back to Asia to begin the search for my trafficked friends M and P.
The second year was a phenomenal success, as I located both M and P in far-flung regions of China, and supported P through her return home to Vietnam.
Oh, and I also completed an epic 40,552-kilometre (25,198-mile) overland journey through Asia to raise awareness of human trafficking (that’s longer than the circumference of the Earth).
I had big plans for the third year – then things turned sour.
I’ve told very few people what actually happened last year with The Human, Earth Project and, for the first time, have decided to share the story publicly.
It will be a long story – it was a very long year – but it is an important one.
My trafficked friends M and P came originally from a Hmong village near Sapa, in the mountains of northern Vietnam.
Over the years I’ve spent quite a lot of time in Sapa, and have made some very good friends there.
Some of my friends in Sapa run an ethical trekking outfit, which does a lot of good work in assisting the local communities.
Last February, these friends found themselves attacked in a most disgusting way by a larger and better-established rival organisation, whom I’d previously respected.
When I spoke out publicly in defence of my friends, my own work was attacked by the same organisation.
At that time, I was shocked, but not particularly worried.
I had no way of knowing then just how low this organisation was willing to stoop, and how dirty its little game would get.
For two years, I had dedicated all of my time, energy and money towards raising awareness of human trafficking.
I had endured prolonged hardship, risked my life on numerous occasions, and had achieved more than anyone could have hoped for.
The results of my work spoke for themselves.
The organisation in Sapa was locally very powerful, internationally very well-connected and, as it turned out, utterly without morals.
I had done nothing against this organisation – in fact, I had worked with and assisted it on several occasions.
Out of malice and greed, it was now doing all it could to destroy my work.
It began spreading lies about my work and its effect on the local people of Sapa.
All of its claims were utterly untrue, but that didn’t matter – they had the desired effect.
The Human, Earth Project relies on international support and, for the first time, that support began to wane.
The American Hmong communities in particular had been extremely enthusiastic about my work.
With vicious rumours circulating online, they and others began to withdraw their support and turn against me.
My subscription list and Facebook page began to haemorrhage, as people began to unsubscribe, unfollow and unfriend myself and the Project.
When I attempted to discuss these attacks with the organisation in question, it refused to acknowledge me.
I had no defence but the truth, and several times explained the unfolding situation via my blog and Facebook page, hoping to shame the organisation into silence.
Each time I exposed its ugly little games, however, it only stooped lower.
I expected it to reach a moral limit, but it had none.
Assisted by an Australian troll, the attacks that had begun via the organisation’s official Facebook page continued from personal pages, including multiple fake profiles, then spread to the streets of Sapa.
The organisation began searching out and deceiving my local Hmong friends, many of whom had been involved in my work, and some of whom were survivors of human trafficking.
My trafficked friend P had returned from China only five months earlier.
After her return, I’d spent two months assisting P in reconstructing her life.
At the time I left Sapa, she had a steady job, a place to live, and numerous connections who were able to support her in various ways.
By her own declaration, for the first time in four years, P was happy.
She remained, however, an emotionally vulnerable recent survivor of human trafficking with known trust issues.
For a full year, I had followed and filmed P’s story for my feature-length documentary, Sisters For Sale.
My intention was to raise awareness of the regional human trafficking crisis, to prevent other young women of the area being abducted and sold as brides or prostitutes, in the same way that P had been.
The organisation that had been attacking my work soon located P in Sapa.
It convinced P I’d exploited her for my own gain, and had made a phenomenal amount of money doing so.
It claimed that I had also put her in physical danger – a ridiculous and easily disprovable claim – and convinced her to withdraw her support for my documentary.
In doing so, this organisation themselves deceived and manipulated P, exploiting her for its own ends, and severely disrupting the new life she’d created.
Its intention was clear: to block the release of my documentary, shooting it down before it even left the ground, and destroying the very core of my work against human trafficking.
With everyone involved having given their written permission, I had all the paperwork I needed to legally complete Sisters For Sale – however, this organisation did succeed in destroying the trust I’d built in Sapa over a period of five years.
It destroyed the friendships that formed the basis for my film, which were my very reason for founding The Human, Earth Project in the first place.
After all I’d given to the Project, and to assisting P in particular, it was an extremely heartless thing to have done.
I severed ties with the very individuals and communities that had inspired my anti-trafficking work, including P and others I’d counted as good friends.
With my motivation gone, I found it very difficult to continue work on the documentary, and came very close to shutting down the Project altogether.
Friends told me if I was no longer working for the sake of these girls, then I should simply continue my work for the money – only there was no money.
A documentary, like any film, is an expensive and risky undertaking.
Without a prior distribution deal, there are no guarantees of recouping the funds spent.
At that point, it was eighteen months since I’d received my last paycheck.
I’d spent my entire personal savings on the Project.
I’d also spent all of the money inherited from my grandmother, who lay dying at home in Australia while I searched for M and P in Asia.
The previous year, myself and others had raised $12,000 to fund Sisters For Sale.
With the unexpected success of locating M and P in China, however, production stretched from three months to a full year.
What was to be a small story – and a relatively simple documentary – grew ever more complex.
The funds initially raised for the film were exhausted before post-production even began, and the contributions I received via The Human, Earth Project‘s website were rarely enough to continue.
Like P, my friend M had also been abducted, trafficked and sold as a bride in China.
M, however, ultimately decided to remain in China with her baby, rather than return home to her family in Vietnam.
At that point, it was perhaps the best of the bad options available to her.
I wanted to give M a better alternative, a possibility for a new beginning in life, independent of her stepfather in Vietnam or the man who’d bought her in China: but my funds were gone.
I was considering dual-purpose fundraising – to give M and her baby a better option in life, and to complete Sisters For Sale.
This was clearly impossible whilst under attack.
My mother offered me my inheritance in advance, so that I could complete my work on Sisters For Sale, but I refused.
I began applying for funding elsewhere, which turned out to be an incredibly time-consuming and ultimately fruitless process.
After several months, I took the money my mother offered – yet even this would not be enough.
With my attempts to raise awareness of human trafficking and the unexpected success of my search, I found myself living a very public life.
I began to reclaim my privacy, and disappeared somewhat from the public eye, while I considered shutting down the The Human, Earth Project.
Did I really want to dedicate all of my time and energy to a problem which was not mine, which had already consumed two and a half years of my life?
Did I really want to throw my inheritance into the black hole which had already swallowed all of my savings?
Why should I care to help anyone who so readily believed such barefaced lies about me?
I had never expected that this work would be so emotionally and financially draining.
I never expected it would become so personal, and so painful.
Yet this was exactly why I’d launched The Human, Earth Project in the first place: because I wasn’t going to sit quietly in the face of greed and evil.
Fighting human trafficking was not an easy or profitable thing to do, I knew that already – but it was the right thing to do.
If I gave up my work, the forces of greed would win.
I had suffered through the attacks by this shameless organisation in Sapa.
It had taken from me everything it could – yet, as ever, the impoverished local communities would be the ones to suffer the most.
As strange as it now seems, this organisation had also built its reputation on assisting the disadvantaged Hmong communities of Sapa.
It has positioned itself at the end of a pipeline of money and attention which pours in from around the world, and seems to be doing all it can to monopolise international sympathy for disadvantaged local communities.
This is an ideal position for the greedy and shameless, those who seek to exploit sympathy for others to line their own pockets.
The attacks on myself and my friends’ trekking outfit, it seems, were not isolated incidents, but part of a broader pattern of attacks against individuals and groups who have given their time and energy in genuine attempts to assist the local communities.
The founder of this organisation is the closest thing Sapa has to a celebrity.
Like many of the young Hmong women who grew up working with tourists in Sapa, she learned at a very young age how to convert an emotional response into hard currency.
Of the countless young women in Sapa, nobody has been more successful than she in doing so.
Her organisation has received the support of highly respectable international organisations and, in Sapa, she is considered untouchable.
This woman is known to have been personally involved in the attacks.
In an attempt to stop the attacks, I tried approaching her via one of her close personal friends.
Not only did she deny any responsibility for the attacks, she actually claimed herself to be a victim – a position which makes absolutely no logical sense, given the fact that neither my friends or I have made any form of counterattack.
Yet she is a woman of considerable charm, and her friend chose to believe her impossible story.
For over two years, I had poured all of my time, energy and money into fighting the human trafficking crisis of the Sapa region.
It is difficult, dangerous work, for which I received zero personal profit.
If her organisation was trying to stop me from doing that work, then she became part of the problem, aligning herself with the savage greed that fed off the local communities.
No doubt the respectable international organisations with whom she is connected will be similarly disgusted by her behaviour.
If her organisation continues to attack those who genuinely seek to assist the local communities of Sapa, it seems inevitable that the truth will come out.
Perhaps then we’ll learn how untouchable she really is.
I can’t help but think of Somaly Mam, another seemingly untouchable celebrity figure, who was forced to resign from her own foundation in disgrace after her own lies and manipulations were exposed.
When people learned how they’d all been deceived by this cute and charming Cambodian, they couldn’t wash their hands of her fast enough.
Ultimately, though, it is not this shameless organisation in Sapa that has given me reason to continue my work against human trafficking – it is a very simple realisation.
Last year, my brother received his doctorate in psychology, and I asked for his professional definition of happiness.
Happiness is achieved, he said, when one works towards a series of achievable goals in accordance with one’s own beliefs and values.
I believe that the theft and sale of human beings is wrong.
I believe that when people see injustice with their own eyes, they will act to stop it – and I know that I can show them.
I believe that each of us, as ordinary human beings, has the potential to achieve incredible things, and that we should do what we can to make this world a better place so long as we’re in it.
My goal, for now, is Sisters For Sale, and there’s nothing I’d rather be doing.
Support my work here.