United we save Rosia Montana

Posted on October, 07 2013

Thousands of Romanians march the streets against plans for gold mining using cyanides 
Last night thousands of Romanians took to the streets in the capital Bucharest to protest about resurrected plans for gold mining using cyanides.

People symbolically started their march in a suburb in South-West Bucharest at the intersection of the streets Rosia Montana and Dezrobirii (which means emancipation, but also an end to slavery).

This was the sixth Sunday march [Editor's note: As of 21 October 2013 the protest marches are already 8]. As many TVs did not report about the first marches and police officially stated that just a couple of thousand were taking part although the protestors were many more, the demonstrators decided to start from the suburbs so that people can see what was going on and also join.

Meanwhile, a paid pro-mining ads campaign took to the screens of many Romanian TVs.

The protest last night took about three and a half hours to complete with people chanting “United we save Rosia Montana” and “Ban the use cyanides in gold extraction”. There were also political appeals for the resignation of the president and the prime minister.

WWF supporters have been taking part in the protests from the very beginning.

Here is why, writes Mara Cazacu from WWF Romania:

How did it all begin?

In 1995 Gabriel Resources – a Canadian-Australian company with no previous experience in mining enters into a project draft contract with a Romanian state mining company to form a new entity – Rosia Montana Gold Corporation.

Access to Romanian authorities and to key data of national security about the various exploitable metals in the Rosia Montana area was granted by the then Romanian ambassador to Australia.

Through a series of controversial, little known until recently, legal and political manoeuvres this company obtains the right to exploit the contents of the ponds resulted from previous mining operations at Rosia Montana. This license then turns into the right to explore and then to exploit the gold from the surrounding virgin mountains which was possible because of the multiple extensions of the mining perimeter – from 12 sq. km in the beginning to 42 sq. km.

The initial project draft contract gets translated and legalised in English (under the name of “Contract”) and along with a set of supporting documents it is introduced on the Vancouver stock exchange attracting millions of dollars. Rosia Montana is a proper gold mine – it’s one of the biggest gold reserves in Europe which back in ancient times convinced the Romans to settle here in large numbers.

In spite of the political support, the next 18 years pass without the company to actually get to begin mining. And this is due to a local opposition group - an NGO called Alburnus Maior – the latin for Rosia Montana - who have refused to sell their properties to make way for the mining company and who have been campaigning and fighting the project ever since. Also, the company still had to obtain the outstanding seal of approval from the Ministry of Environment which to date hasn’t been issued.

The straw that broke the camel’s back

On 24 August 2013 the current government passed a draft bill that basically granted Rosia Montana Gold Corporation (RMGC) the right to mine for gold and silver at Rosia. The bill was then sent to the parliament for it to discuss and vote on it in a plenary session. The story went public and the outcry ensued.

In brief the bill gives green light to the project, irrespective of the major negative consequences on the local cultural and natural heritage and the health hazards. Furthermore, it states that the project is of “public utility and of special national interest”. In public, the bill has been deemed as a compromise made by the state in return of the higher commission it would earn and the increase in state owned company shares. Meanwhile, the Romanian Ministry of Justice rejected it as unconstitutional.

It should be mentioned that the unique heritage from Rosia was subject of an official application made by Alburnus Maior (in partnership with an association for the protection and restoration of architectural and archaeological sites) to the Ministry of Culture which asks for it to be declared a UNESCO Heritage Site. The application has been long ignored, the documents lost or hidden, the current Minister of Culture even saying that no file has been submitted to support the application.

The recent trip to Rosia made by members of the UNESCO committee from the parliament, organised for consultation and information-gathering purposes was a total fiasco: the agenda and the itinerary arranged by RMGC, a whole cohort of people brought in by buses from the neighbouring villages to show that they are in favour of the project (though when asked they didn’t know why they were brought to Rosia, what project was all about etc.), the representatives of the local opposition given a blind eye.

But the trip marked a turning point: two young and brave volunteers made a short movie showing the blunt reality (exposing what the members of the committee did there, asking questions to event participants and to RMGC reps and showing the real face of one of the women featured in RMGC’s TV ads). The movie went viral and it sparked further debate and public outrage towards the aggressive propaganda made by the company and the government.

On 1 September 2013 the protests began. People all over the country announced their own events and in Bucharest around 10,000 people occupied the Universitate square (a symbol of the anti-communist and liberation movement) and the square in front of the government.

From then on, protests have been held every day at Universitate and each Sunday has been dedicated to a march through Bucharest’s main districts. The biggest march in Bucharest took place on 15 September 2013, with a reported 25,000 people on the streets. The leader of the local opposition movement and the director of Alburnus Maior, Eugen David, a local farmer, also joined the march giving an emotional, down-to-earth and powerful short speech from a lamp post in Universitate square.

The movement has taken shape under the slogan “Uniti salvam Rosia Montana”, that is “United we save Rosia Montana” and spread throughout the world, from New York to London, from Kathmandu to Greece and France. Romanians all over the world and from all walks of life have been crying out loud in solidarity against the project, demanding a few clear things: the Romanian Parliament issue a law that forbids cyanide mining, reject the RMGC project and the government sack the ministers of environment, culture and “major projects”.

During the month-old protests several other communication tools were deployed by campaigners, including a day of tram-riding to inform people and explain why we have been taking to the streets, a similar day of tube-riding, street concerts (classical music) taking advantage of the Enescu Festival (the biggest and internationally renowned Romanian cultural festival which is held every 2 years), informative campaigns carried out by volunteers in several of Bucharest’s districts, and an unconventional invite made to people to place candles by the windows during the Sunday marches.

As far as the media is concerned, in the beginning reports from the protests were very scarce in the mainstream media, or none at all. Stories also circulated around the web exposing the revenues from RMGC advertisements gained by major TV channels. Afterwards, the media coverage of the protests grew only to turn into attempts to discredit protesters, labelling them as “hipsters” who don’t know what or why they are shouting for or as people paid by NGOs to oppose the project.

In the meantime, the movement had its own life in the social media, blogs and independent journalists’ websites.

What’s in the project?

880 jobs during the extraction. 6% royalties (from gold and silver, though the company would have access to a whole host of other profitable metals). 25% shares

What else is there?

4 mountains crushed. 3 villages destroyed. An 8 km long and 400-metre deep crater (visible from space). A 215-million cubic metre cyanide lake that will remain here forever. The company will use 13,000 tons of cyanide per year while in the EU the average volume of cyanide used is 1,000-3,000 tons. And a shameful budget for possible environmental disasters (only 25 million USD).

To wrap it up

In the following days, Romania will have to take some extremely important decisions regarding our future, the economy and nature. These decisions will critically influence not just our present, but also and most importantly the future of many generations to come.

The protests against the Rosia Montana gold mining project have quickly grown to become a movement about principles and ideals that we lack in politics and which we strongly and vocally ask for now. Even if the gold mine still remains the central issue the protests revolve around, more and more people are talking about other planned industrial and infrastructural developments and about our future and the way the country is governed.

Fortunately, we can gladly and whole-heartedly say that a generation of well-informed and active citizens has awakened in Romania, learning to speak up and to demand their right for a secure and sustainable future. This is the moment when their voices and hopes will be listened to or ignored, the moment when we will decide on the role of nature in the long term development of Romania.
A protester waives the Romanian flag at a protest march to save Rosia Montana from a gold mine project
A protester waives the Romanian flag at a protest march to save Rosia Montana from a gold mine project
© Daniel Vrăbioiu
Ancient mining galleries in the historic town of Rosia Montana date back to Roman times.
Ancient mining galleries in the historic town of Rosia Montana date back to Roman times.
© rosiamontana.org
Ancient mining galleries in the historic town of Rosia Montana date back to Roman times.
Three villages in Rosia Montana may be relocated to serve the new gold mine project
© Attila Szocs
Mothers at a protest march to save Rosia Montana from a gold mine project
Mothers at a protest march to save Rosia Montana from a gold mine project
© Laura Muresan
WWF supporters at a protest march to save Rosia Montana from a gold mine project
WWF supporters at a protest march to save Rosia Montana from a gold mine project
© Anamaria Dascalu