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‘If the gold mine doesn’t happen, our village will die’

Kirk Leech reports from Rosia Montana in Romania, where green NGOs are trying to halt the building of a mine that locals desperately want.

Kirk Leech

Topics Politics

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The village of Rosia Montana high in the Apuseni mountains of Transylvania, Romania, is the scene for a conflict over a billion-dollar goldmine. And the outcome of the conflict may play a significant role in determining the prospects for Romania’s accession to EU membership in 2007.

The story begins in 1997. Then, Gabriel Mining Resources, a Canadian-based company, started to carry out geological explorations for a new gold mine that would replace the state gold mine that has since closed down. Now, through its Romanian subsidiary Rosia Montana Gold Corporation (RMGC), Gabriel Mining Resources plans to open an opencast gold mine. At the same time, however, it has opened up a storm of controversy. There is an odd battle over the mine, in which an alliance opposed to the project – led by a group of local property owners (who go under the name Alburnus Maior), international environmental NGOs and celebrities – is pitted against the less privileged residents of this valley village who want the gold mine to go ahead because they want more investment and jobs.

In an interview with BBC Romania, Olli Rehn, EU Commissioner for Enlargement, said there were numerous factors that could delay Romania’s EU accession – and he cited the development of the Rosia Montana mine as one particular problem. In the wake of Rehn’s comments, the environmentalist-led campaign against the mine has garnered support from more celebrities, and campaigners have upped their media war in newspapers and on the world wide web. Is the new mine really bad news for Romania and the environment, or might it be a good thing? And what are the opinions of those living in and around Rosia Montana?

‘You can’t live off beauty alone.’ Niculina Bulearca, looking every year of her 53, sat with me in the village. Life has been hard for Niculina. ‘I stopped working in the state mine to look after mother; it’s been tough.’ It has been tough for the whole village. Minvest, the state-subsidised gold company, after shedding jobs like snakeskin for decades, has finally closed. It gave its 400 workers just two weeks’ notice.

I asked Niculina if tourism or farming could, as some have suggested, replace the old mine. She laughed. ‘In winter it’s minus 28 degrees Celsius. Winter here lasts five months. I have no income beyond what we get for mother’s pension [£34 a month]. If the new gold mine doesn’t happen, this village will die.’

RMGC claims there are 314 tonnes of gold and 1,617 tonnes of silver to be excavated in this area. The revenue generated for the local area and the Romanian government would be substantial: the Rosia Montana project will add £1.3billion to the Romanian economy over the life of the mine, which is around £79million a year.

This valley wasn’t always so quiet. Gold has been mined in these mountains from Caesar to Ceausescu. Corina Bors, the patrimony and compliance expert for RMGC, explained: ‘In the pre-communist days the sound of thousands of stamp machines smashing rock would cascade down the valley. Not for nothing was it known as the place of damnation.’ In the late 1940s, the machines were confiscated and the small plots nationalised. The state-run enterprise Minvest has now also been consigned to recent history – but the ‘peace’ of the valley that exists today is the peace of an industrial graveyard.

‘If God is with me I will hopefully get a job in the new mine’, says Avram Chicidea. A pencil-thin 57-year-old, he is paid £81 a month to guard what looks like a bomb site – an area which was, until a few weeks ago, a depot of the old mine. Running through his workplace is a stream of gushing water, as red as cherryade: polluted run-off from the old mine workings.

Outside, Ana Vadan, 73, is cherry red with anger. The company has suspended buying property until the project is assured, but this is no good to the locals. ‘The company is dragging its feet. We want to safeguard our grandchildren’s future. Give me a good price and I’ll sell’, says Ana.

Trudging uphill to the old goldmine, I arrive at a wasteland that could have come from TS Eliot’s imagination: ‘A heap of broken images, where the sun beats.’ It’s impossible to believe that workers used these machines for crushing and transporting ore less than a month ago. They look like the wrecks of Iraqi tanks, destroyed not by munitions but by rust.

Minvest’s closure has caused unemployment in the area to rocket to 90 per cent. Only half the homes in the valley have reliable water, and it’s often rationed to 90 minutes’ use a day; over 70 per cent of the houses still have outside toilets. Average income levels in Rosia Montana are one-third of the national average in Romania. One in 10 people scrapes out a survival on the equivalent of £1.25 a day. This valley, like many in Romania, is being depopulated as the young leave for a better life elsewhere. Niculina’s daughter left for Italy.

The new mine promises 1,200 jobs during construction, and over 600 when the mine is operational – and the project will last a minimum of 16 years. ‘For every job created, 10 will be made in ancillary industries. We’re paying replacement value for houses, not market value, offering to relocate people in places of their choosing or in the new town, Piatra-Alba, which we’re building. It’s a chance to transform their lives’, said Yani Roditis, chief operating officer for RMGC.

The people of Zlanta, some 40 kilometres from Rosia Montana could well do with such an opportunity. They saw their main source of employment, the state-run copper mine, close in 2004. As a town, Zlanta has more going for it than Rosia Montana: it has good roads, it’s connected to the railways, there is a steady supply of gas, electricity and water. But if you want to see what de-industrialisation without replacement looks like in Romania, then visit Zlanta.

I came across Nicole Colda, an unemployed metallurgist. He receives £14 a month in social help from the government, after losing out on a pension from the copper mine by a matter of months. He makes what you would only tragically call ‘a living’ by smashing up the old concrete walls of the mine buildings, stripping the metal out for scrap, and selling it. ‘I feel very bad in my soul’, he says. ‘I’m really embarrassed. People condemn me for being a kind of dustbin man, but what can I do? I have a wife and kids. I have to earn money. And there is nothing around here.’ After his backbreaking and soul-destroying work, he sells the scrap metal for around 12p a kilo.

After visiting Zlanta and spending time in Rosia Montana – and listening to people’s desperate stories and how 16 years of investment (that’s two generations) could help transform the area – I couldn’t fathom what the opposition to the mine might be based on.

Stephanie Roth is the spokesperson for Alburnus Maior, the NGO leading the opposition to the mine. Media-savvy, driven and connected, she is a modern-day international crusader for protecting the environment. The Swiss-born 35-year-old worked in London as a journalist on the Ecologist magazine. She is friends with Zac Goldsmith, editor of the Ecologist, friend of David Cameron and multi-millionaire pin-up boy of the environmental movement. In 2005, Roth was awarded a $125,000 Goldman Prize for grassroots environmentalism, presented in San Francisco.

Today she finds herself in Rosia Montana, drawn like a moth to a golden flame. She’s been in the valley for a few years, hitting the ground running after successfully halting a Dracula theme park and an influx of tourists to Sigishoara, also in Transylvania. She then set her sights on mining.

‘I talked to Eugene David [president of Alburnus Maior]. His arguments made sense, so I stayed’, she says. The campaign has gained celebrity-backing from Oscar-winning British actress Vanessa Redgrave, and it has become a cause celebre for environmentalists around the world – some of whom have even joined Roth to live in Rosia Montana.

Roth has a litany of objections to the mine and she believes there are alternatives to mining. ‘Over 900 houses, nine churches, 10 cemeteries; people’s homes, people’s history, their traditions, their potential future – all of this will go’, she says. ‘The forests will go, the mountains will go.’ She rails against the mining company: ‘They’re forcing people out…. People [don’t have to] just mine; they can make a living from the land, from tourism.’

Salvation for Roth lies in the EU. ‘Romania will join the European Union in 2007. There are big incentives for farmers to cut meadows with scythes not machines, which will help bio-diversity.’ So is she endorsing back-breaking labour and subsistence farming? ‘No, for people like Eugene, this is their life. Maybe in a Western context it’s difficult to understand, but his aim in life is not to become a rich fat property owner – it is to manage his farm.’

Eugene David is a big man, and so is his land and new house-hotel. His 30 hectares make him one of the valley’s largest landowners. A mining engineer by profession, even he couldn’t survive by land alone and split his time 50/50 between mining and farming. He’s planning to use part of his new house as a hotel, employing local people. Is he not complacent about poverty and deprivation in the valley? ‘I don’t want to hear that people in the valley don’t have work’, he says. ‘What’s 400 jobs? The earth needs to be worked, to be produced. There is work for all.’

Alburnus Maior claims the mining company is running a ‘psychological war’, forcing people to sell their homes and causing high levels of stress and depression. Calin Capros of Alburnus Maior told me: ‘My mother works in the local pharmacy, there’s a big rise in anti-depressants here.’ Apparently things are even worse for those who relocated. ‘The local psychiatric hospital is full of people who moved, and who now can’t cope and regret it’, says Capros.

This wasn’t a picture I recognised from my time in the village. Far from being victims, local people are actively seeking to better themselves, selling their old and dilapidated properties for new and better-located homes close to schools, hospitals and alternative sources of employment.

For Ana Bar, 73, leaving the valley was very difficult, but worth it. ‘We thought it through, we spoke to people of our age who’d moved. I’m happy we did it. We couldn’t normally have afforded a house such as this.’ She’s not alone. Marius Balea, 46, a softly spoken man, proudly showed me his new home. ‘This house can’t be compared to the one in the village. It’s new, clean and big. With my wages I would never have had the chance to have such a home. It was a decision for my children, it was the right decision.’ Not regret then, but satisfaction.

Much of the controversy over the project centres on the use of cyanide to extract gold and silver from low-density ore. In 2000, cyanide-tainted water spilled from the Baia Mare mine dam into a nearby river, causing major pollution. ‘Technology has come a long way quickly. The cyanide-leaching technique has been used in over 400 mines in Europe, and enormous progress has been made. Rather than just scare people, they should look at the facts’, says Yani Roditis of RMGC.

What lies beneath the list of objections trotted out by Roth and Alburnus Maior is really a fundamental objection to industrialisation itself. Their alternative to the mine – for people to make a living from tourism or farming – is a dangerous fantasy, which will tie people to the land and leave them with little opportunity to improve their lives and living standards.

This part of Romania is picturesque – but it’s nothing special. The old mine works are just a few hundred metres from the village, and many local rivers are polluted (although they don’t have to stay this way, as the new mine pledges to clean up the mess of the old state mine). Tourists are not going to flock in thousands to this remote valley, and attaching the futures of thousands in the valley to the whims of tourism is a potential disaster. Subsistence farming may seem attractive, but only until you try to make a living from it. Niculina offered this counsel: ‘I’ve tried to grow mushrooms in my shed. It was a real disaster. How could I live off that? How many of us can become mushroom farmers?’

Walking through Rosia Montana in the crepuscule it struck me that those opposing the mine shared a strong preservationist ethic. Stephanie Roth feels at peace in these mountains; Eugene David wants to keep his land and build his small hotel; Vanessa Redgrave and environmental NGOs want to leave the environment alone. This prioritising of the land over the people is perverse, and might hold back a project that will give the poor of the valley a chance for a better life.

Of course gold-mining is not many people’s idea of an ideal job. It is hard work indeed. Yet the new mine will offer some in rural Romania the opportunity to avoid taking up subsistence farming at home, or moving hundreds of miles to pick apples in Kent, England, or clean hotel rooms in Rome. It may even offer those who have already left an incentive to return.

As Niculina puts it: ‘The ecologists just seem to be stubborn. I think that people in the valley should decide what happens here, not people from Bucharest, Washington or London.’

Read more about Rosia Montana at www.goldenmyths.com

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Topics Politics

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