“Uniţi Salvăm Roșia Montană”: Gold Mining and Civil Society in Romania

kristian ngoh via Flickr
kristian ngoh via Flickr

United We Save Roșia Montană: That’s the motif that keeps protesters in Romania, and increasingly around the world, dedicated to opposing the gold mining project that threatens the small Transylvanian commune and its heritage. Roșia Montană, located in Alba County of western Romania, has been receiving foreign attention for years due to its rich deposits of gold. Although mining began in this region as early as Roman times, the recent controversy emerged over the latest project of Gabriel Resources, a Canadian company that plans to open a new mine in Roșia Montană.

There are two main issues of concern with Gabriel Resources’ plan for the opening of a new mine. There has been concern that the mining project would destroy the remains of Roman mining sites in the region, which are important to Romania’s cultural heritage. After all, Roșia Montană is the oldest known mining area in Romania. Moreover, Hungarians in Transylvania, as well as the Hungarian government, have voiced concern over the risk of damaging monuments, historical sites, and other significant relics of the ethnic minority community. The company was committed to buying houses throughout the city, but about 100 residents have refused to sell their homes and instead took to the courts to defend their rights.

The second issue has been over the use of cyanide in the mining project, a common but nasty part of many gold mining operations. The project plans to produce 225 tons of gold and 819 tons of silver over 17 years, by creating four mining pits of over 205 hectares. To extract the gold, four mountains in the region would be blown up, and the resulting rubble would then be leached with cyanide and separated into gold and cyanide-laced residue. In this process, as much as 250 million tons of this residue would be stored in the Corna Valley, behind a dam of about 200 meters. Public concern over cyanide pollution is certainly warranted, as a previous project in Baia Mare, in 2000, led to rampant cyanide pollution.

However, there have been many arguments in favor of building the gold mine as well, which cite potential benefits that the project could bring to the underdeveloped region of Romania. These arguments tend to downplay the health and environmental risks of cyanide use. Moreover, the project would require the complete relocation of the community in Roșia Montană. As for the economic benefits, the 640 promised jobs would only satisfy a small fraction of the 1,600 unemployed in the region, while the mining itself is likely to disturb the local economy.

After a mining license was transferred to the Roșia Montană Gold Corporation (RMGC) from Minvest Deva SA, 80% of it came to be owned by the Toronto-based company Gabriel Resources. It is important to note that only the remaining 20% is owned by the Romanian government through Minvest. However, the project has received consistent support from the Romanian government. In 2009, it announced that the construction of a mine in Roșia Montană has become a priority, even though the environmental risks of the project had not been fully reviewed.

Yet in spite of the government’s backing, the corporation has not been able to gain full authorization for its project. Environmental groups have annually appealed to courts to ensure that any acquired permits would be annulled. The campaign against the mining project in Roșia Montană is the largest campaign over a non-political issue in the last 20 years in Romania. Various organizations and institutions are supporting the protesters, including the prestigious Romanian Academy.

Photo Credit: Matei Mandea, from Bucharest
Photo Credit: Matei Mandea, from Bucharest

In August 2005, the Canadian government announced that it supports Gabriel Resources’ project. In 2013, the Prime Minister, Victor Ponta, announced that a new law will pass through parliament to allow bypassing environmental and heritage regulations that obstructed the mining project. And that’s when the protests against the Roșia Montană mining project arose throughout the country.

This past summer, McGill students Radu Păltineanu and Sophian Guidara biked across Europe to raise awareness about the struggle to save Roșia Montană. According to Sophian, they decided on the project “…in March, when Radu contacted me saying he wanted to do a project for the summer …to bike across many countries in Europe for Roșia Montană … then it took us some months to organize everything and then we started the trip in early June.”

They visited “… eight countries that are officially recognized, that is Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Russia and Moldova; we also saw the autonomous republic of Crimea, which is a part of Ukraine, and Transnistria, which has broken off from Moldova but is not recognized by the international community… The purpose was twofold; one was for the public in Romania, simply to provide more publicity for the cause… the other … was to actually make Roșia Montană known outside of Romania, because up until recently … nobody really knew about Roșia Montană, so we thought it was really important to reach a greater public.”

Along the way, Sophian claims that “reactions were fairly positive the whole way through. Mainly, I think people are impressed when they are told that you are biking so many kilometers for any cause, so just this sheer activity already brings a lot of positive reactions. Now for the cause itself… a lot of countries are struggling against big companies that may harm the environment through a project, so a lot of them could relate to Roșia Montană. In Finland and Sweden, for example, they go through similar problems. In Russia and Ukraine, I guess there was a bit less social conscience in that regard. And definitely in Moldova and Romania we had a lot of positive reactions… in Romania especially it’s a very polarized issue, but the people that we met were strongly for the preservation of Roșia Montană.”

According to Radu, the ideal triumph of the struggle would be “… the immediate closure of the project and stopping all sorts of pushes towards the implementation of the project and … an overall ban on cyanide usage in the mining industry.” But it is more likely that “…they’ll probably continue to push towards it, I mean the government is definitely for the project, there is lots of corruption going on at the very high level, so it is hard to say that the government will suddenly decide to stop everything and close this case; but on the other hand, it is also very hard for them to give a positive answer given the public reaction and the civil society that has turned against them.”

Photo Credit: Matei Mandea, from Bucharest
Photo Credit: Matei Mandea, from Bucharest

In recent weeks, as many as 15,000 people gathered in the streets of Bucharest to protest the mining project and the government’s support for it in spite of public outcry. Maria Mandea and her brother Matei, studying design at the Ion Mincu University of Architecture and Urbanism and medicine at Carol Davila University of Medicine and Pharmacy respectively, have been regularly participating in the protests happening in downtown Bucharest.

According to Maria, the protests have been “…extraordinary. This was my reaction the first Sunday when over 15,000 protesters gathered in Bucharest. It was for the first time that I participated in something alongside so many people. Conscious and determined. The atmosphere, completely out of the ordinary. But the truth is that we were waiting for it to happen. To take it to the streets. For Roșia Montană, for education, for health. Because “Roșia Montană is more than just Roșia Montană.” I think this expresses well why we go out into the streets. Of course we are upset about the exploitation project. Upset and informed. But more than this, I believe it upsets us that for years we are constantly presented with projects that are against us, as changes for the good. The exploitation of Roșia Montană is only an example that has become a symbol.”

Yet in spite of the vivacity of the civil society that emerged in recent weeks, media coverage has not shown the protesters in a favorable light. According to Radu, “…there were even a lot of cases where positive articles [on the campaign] were banned from major newspapers and media outlets in Romania; there was a lot of censorship … because the media in Romania has been receiving for years huge amounts of money from the company, and that affected a lot the way in which they published articles. When the protests erupted in Bucharest, five weeks ago, the media was very reluctant to report [on them]. It’s such a huge movement now that it’s slowly started to report, but it’s still erroneous, they don’t necessarily come up with the right numbers of people that come and protest in the street.”

Radu also suggests that the protests are evidence of something more important: “Romania has not been experiencing such big protests since the 1990s. The only similar, but very different in scope, were the ones from 2012, but those were very political. These are for an ecological cause. The political parties in Romania could not attach to those protests. They are against politicians, but above all, they are for saving a small village in Romania from a mining project. They do represent the first sign of a true civil society in Romania.”

Soon after protests began in Romania, some individuals began to protest in the streets of Montreal as well, to show support for Roșia Montană. Radu is one of them. “We’ve been steadily about 30-60 people that come every week and protest in front of the Romanian consulate. And I think they are very peaceful, we try to do anything in solidarity with the protesters back in Romania and around the world. We try to make ourselves here heard in Montreal and since the company that wants to exploit the gold over there is a Canadian registered company, we also try to bring more awareness about the cause here in Canada.”

Will the controversy surrounding Gabriel Resources and the mining project in Roșia Montană affect Canadian-Romanian relations?  Sophian believes that “… it definitely takes the image of Canada abroad, especially because there are no laws governing how Canadian mining companies can conduct business outside of Canada. I’m sure there is some kind of resentment toward the Canadian government, but on the part of the population, perhaps not from the government.” Similarly, Radu does not believe that the events will have an impact on how the two governments interact. However, he does believe that “…it certainly does have an effect on the minds of Romanians, given that the company is coming from Canada and everyone sees it as the destructive force over there.”

The Romanian Prime Minister, Victor Ponta, has already responded to the protests by promising to send a parliamentary committee to Roșia Montană, which will formulate a report by October 20th. In light of the committee’s report, the Romanian parliament will vote on the issue; it will have to decide in the next few days between short-term gain and long-term sustainability. But it looks as though the Romanian people have already decided on the matter.


For more information on the struggle to save Roșia Montană, visit http://rosiamontana.org/en.

For more information on Radu and Sophian’s activism, visit http://www.travelforacause.eu/.