Gold rush: A small Romanian town takes on a multinational

August 3, 2005 10:19 | by Guillaume Carré

Inhabitants of an ancient town in Transylvania have mobilised in opposition to what have been described as the Pharaonic ambitions of a Canadian gold mining consortium menacing the environment and even the existence of the town itself. So far, they have managed to put the project on hold. Guillaume Carré reports.

In the middle of Transylvania, in an idyllic landscape with mountains and valleys, many of the inhabitants of the town of Rosia Montana been struggling for five years against a plan to open the largest open-pit gold mine in Europe. The "Pharaonic" plans of the Romanian-Canadian Rosia Montana Gold Corporation (RMGC) would lead to the almost total destruction of the town and of the adjacent archaeological sites, regarded as an important aspect of Europe's historic heritage. In addition, an 800-hectare cyanide storage pond to hold cyanide-contaminated water is planned for an adjacent valley.

A region renowned for its gold mines

This region has been known since antiquity for its gold and silver mines. As early as the 5th century BC, the Greek historian Herodotus made mention of the gold industry in Transylvania. At the end of the Second Century AD the Romans performed a more systematic resource exploitation, and gave the village its former name of Alburnus Major.

The inhabitants of Rosia Montana alternate farming and mining, two activities which go hand in hand in the local economy. The opponents of Rosia Montana Gold Corporation's project stress the fact that they are not against mining, but rather against an irresponsible project that will destroy the environment and their town. Some of the inhabitants of Rosia Montana used to hold property titles giving them the right to extract gold on a small scale. Some of them, threatened with eviction by the mining company, still hold property titles.

Since the 1970s, many of the inhabitants of Rosia Montana, alongside their agricultural activity, have worked for Minvest, a state owned mining company which exploits one of the four mountains adjacent to the town. Minvest, which has encountered serious difficulties, holds 19% of RMGC.

In mid-90s inhabitants of Rosia Montana heard for the first time about the RMGC mining project. Eugen Davic, a young farmer and former mining engineer living in Rosia Montana, is president of the association Alburnus Major, which opposes the RMGC project and represents the interests of more than 300 families. He explained that "At the beginning, our community welcomed the news; here, life is difficult and the perspective of new investments creating new jobs in the region could only fill us with hope. Only later we found out that the project implied expropriation of our land and destruction of the town in which we were born."

Community alert

At the beginning of 2002, RMGC representatives came for the first time to Rosia Montana to begin discussions. The meeting between the Canadian company and local and national authorities took place behind close doors. Excluded from the meeting, more than a hundred representatives of the local community protested in front of the closed doors. Upon leaving the meeting, two members of the Romanian parliament warned the population of what had been agreed. Valeriu Tabara explained that the project was "a rip-off" and encouraged them to organise in defence of their interests. Ioan Rus, who as well as being an MO is by profession a lawyer, offered to help them draw up the statutes of what would become the association Alburnus Maior.

Alburnus Major launched a juridical guerilla action against the mining consortium, with help from Stéphanie Roth, Swiss advocate for the protection of the environment. Roth has been active in Rosia Montana for several years and this year won the prestigious Goldman Environmental award for her fight to preserve the town.

Although the fight is not over, the small association of Romanian farmers could eventually get the upper hand in the dispute with the Canadian company. The Romanian government, which in the beginning was in favour of the project, has had to face increasing pressure from national and international bodies. In 2005, the European Parliament expressed its concerns that the mining project would pose "a serious environmental threat to the whole region." As for the country's Hungarian neighbours, through their Minister of Environment Miklos Parsanyi, they are urging the Romanian authorities to oppose the project. Hungarians are still traumatised by the cyanide spill in 2000 at Romania's Baia Mare gold mine, an accident which polluted the River Tisza and became one of Hungary's worst ecological catastrophes. The cyanide storage pond projected by the RMGC is one hundred times larger than was that of Baia Mare.

In spite of its very impressive public relations service, RMGC has failed to win people over.

Irrational fears

Listening to Catalin Hosu, RMGC representative in charge of environmental issues, one would believe that the project offers a unique opportunity to the region and to the labour market. Environmental risks are brushed aside. According to Hosu, the concerns surrounding this project are due to irrational and unjustified fears. He promises numerous mining jobs and even to clean up the area, which, it has to be admitted, is already badly polluted.

Eugen Davic does not, however, believe a single word of the mining company's promises. He refuses to see Rosia Montana become a lunar landscape. Instead, he would like to see his land flourish and dreams of an economic development that respects the community and the environment. "Our land ensures our future and our children's future. I don't want to work for a company that in two years will fire me. My land cannot fire me. As long as I'm working it, it will feed me."

This article by Guillaume Carré is translated from a slightly longer piece which appeared in the French left daily L'Humanité. It was by Ramona Diaconescu. You can read more translated selections from L'Humanité at http://www.humaniteinenglish.com/

See also http://www.spectrezine.org/CorporateCrime/Bhopal.htm