Rosia Montana and Romania's decade-long 'gold war'

A Greco-Catholic church in the western Romanian town of Rosia Montana, threatened by a Canadian mining project is Image copyright AFP

The Transylvanian town of Rosia Montana has been at the centre of a long-running debate in Romania, as politicians consider whether to give the green light to a large opencast gold mine in the region.

It was an advert which ran with surprising regularity on Romanian TV in the autumn of 2011 which first alerted me to the Transylvanian mountain commune of Rosia Montana.

A local woman appealed to viewers to understand the plight of those living in the town. There was no work, she said, and Rosia Montana needed to start mining gold again to provide them with a future.

Romania is one of the EU's poorest nations and unemployment is high, so the promise of foreign investors wanting to re-open the town's communist-era mine appears to be a much needed lifeline.

Rosia Montana Gold Corporation (RMGC) is the company behind the project, which was first mooted back in the mid-1990s. It says the new mine could benefit the Romanian economy to the tune of $19bn (£12bn) and create thousands of jobs.

It is an enticing proposal for a country which was bailed out by the IMF as recently as 2009. Yet over a decade on, politicians continue to drag their feet on whether to give the project the green light, or not.

Right across Romania people have an opinion on Rosia Montana and not everyone is sympathetic to the the plight of the town's unemployed.

"If this project starts, life is over for me," says Sorin Jorca, a Rosia Montana local, speaking to the BBC's Crossing Continents programme.

Standing in his exquisite rose garden, he tells me about everything he is set to lose.

"I would lose my house, the graves of my parents, the church, and the heritage that belongs to all of us.

"The mining industry is very dirty, they will use tonnes of dynamite each day. Think of the noise, the toxicity - life here is going to be impossible," he says.

Image copyright RMGC
Image caption Rosia Montana Gold Corporation wants to re-develop a gold mine first opened in the communist era

Mr Jorca has set up an opposition group - The Rosia Montana Cultural Foundation - and is making the most of being able to say "No" in this one-time communist state.

His organisation is part of a broader church of international NGOs and action groups across Romania, which to date have managed to stall the project.

The most prominent is Alburnus Maior Association, led by charismatic farmer Eugen David.

"There is no compromise," he says. "I have found my place in a big family of anarchists, ecologists and anti-multinationalists.

"Civil society has grown up - we have gathered around a clear cause."

However, in Rosia Montana campaigners like Sorin Jorca and Eugen David are in a minority. Certainly my visits to the beer-fuelled town cafe left me in no doubt that the majority opinion was in favour of the project.

"It's our single opportunity to work," one man tells me.

"The last three generations of my family have been miners and I want to work as a miner," says another.

"The majority of the people want the mine to go ahead."

Thousands of jobs

Almost everybody I meet in the town appeared to be employed by RMGC - excavating, restoring and waiting for the mine to open.

According to RMGC, 95% of the locals want the project to begin and the town is plastered with brash yellow banners reminding any passer-by this is a mining town.

At the moment, that claim remains presumptive, but if managing director of RMGC Dragos Tanase gets his way, it will once again become a reality.

In a sharp suit he arrives from the capital Bucharest ready to extol the benefits of the project.

"Romania has a huge chance with mining. If we really develop this industry we can develop tens of thousands of jobs in areas like Rosia Montana," he tells me.

"Let me tell you, if the mine doesn't start, this village is going to die."

Mr Tanase is also keen to push his Romanian credentials: "I was born in Romania, I have grown and lived in Romania."

This emphasis on nationality is understandable given RMGC is 80% owned and funded by Gabriel Resources - a Canadian mining company. The Romanian government owns the remaining 20% stake.

Many within the country worry that to give the go-ahead to the project would be to sign away Romania's most valuable natural asset - and its ancient heritage.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Rosia Montana is home to 2,000-year-old Roman mining galleries

Deep underground, Dragos Tanase takes me on a tour of Rosia's Montana's stunning 2,000-year-old Roman mining galleries, which have attracted talk of possible UNESCO World Heritage status. The company admits that large sections of the ancient mines would be destroyed by its new opencast mine - along with the peaks of four local mountains.

But the company also promises to invest in the town's heritage, to turn it into a tourist attraction once the mine has been drained of its gold reserves.

"After we're done here, you're not going to notice a mine was here," says Mr Tanase.

"We're going to take money from the mine and invest in the heritage of Rosia Montana. We're going to invest in hotels and sustainable development."

I suggest to another seasoned opponent of the Rosia Montana project, Mircea Toma, that it might be worth sacrificing a number of currently inaccessible Roman galleries if the mining company funded the preservation of others.

He is unimpressed. "How many columns would it be reasonable to conserve out of the Greek Acropolis?" is his disdainful reply.

Mr Toma's implacable opposition to the project runs deeper than a concern for heritage preservation. He does not trust the Romanian government to handle such a significant project.

"This is not a fight between the civil society and a private company, this is a fight between us and the state and the state is suspect of corruption," he says.

This fear of corruption and a lack of faith in the Romanian political system has united many opponents of the Rosia Montana project. The government's reluctance to publish the contract it signed with RMGC has exacerbated suspicions there is something to hide.

Fear of a political fallout from giving the mine the go-ahead is high among the country's politicians, despite the economic benefits the mine might bring.

The former finance minister and one time employee of RMGC Sebastian Vladescu tells me that when he was in government, many politicians, including President Traian Basescu, were in favour of the project.

Mr Vladescu said politicians were prone to procrastinate where big decisions were needed, fearful of allegations of bribery, generated by the opposition and media over big contracts.

"When you cut pensions and wages nobody presumes you can be bribed for that. When it is about a project of $1.5 - $2bn instantly a discussion about a potential bribe will start," says Mr Vladescu.

"This is something politicians always avoid, so it's not used in campaigns against them."

No accusations of corruption have been levelled against RMGC but the emotional issues surrounding Rosia Montana's gold mean the proposed mine has become something of a poisoned chalice for successive governments.

The country's political turmoil was compounded further this summer following an unsuccessful attempt to impeach President Basescu and with elections approaching in November, the Environment Minister Rovana Plumb is cautious in her comments about the future of Rosia Montana.

"We believe the issue has such big implications for Romanian society, and has generated such a large negative reaction, that it must be treated with the utmost seriousness," she says.

"The correct development of the decision-making process cannot be conditioned by time and it is not exaggerated to carefully evaluate the project for several more months."

So for the time being the wait over Rosia Montana's future is set to continue. To mine or not to mine, remains the question.

Hear the full report on BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents. You can listen via the Radio 4 website or Crossing Continents download.

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