September 10, 2013

The Struggle to Save Rosia Montana is the Struggle for Democracy

Fifteen years ago the Canadian gold mine company Gabriel Resources approached the Romanian government with its intentions to mine Rosia Montana, the small commune in the heart of Transylvania, and its surroundings. If approved, the project will destroy 4 mountains, 3 villages including Rosia Montana itself and leave a giant cyanide pool in the area. It will also be the largest open-pit mine in Europe.

To gain influence and popularity, Gabriel Resources has resorted to numerous tactics; it has bought off many locals and relocated them to nearby villages; it has hosted parties with big corporate flags declaring “we are saving Rosia Montana” on it; it has screened movies showing peaceful life of villagers living next to a mine in New Zealand.

But their efforts weren’t enough.

Over 100 residents of Rosia Montana have refused to sell their property, preventing the project from going forward. Among them is Eugen David, founder of Alburnus Maior, one of the major NGOs leading the opposition. A former miner turned farmer and guesthouse host, Eugen David, was advised by president Traian Basescu to leave the area. But he refused, and his subsequent activities would end up inspiring the largest protest in the history of post-communist Romania.

Eugen David, his fellow residents and their supporters are trying to prevent what they believe to be a catastrophe. And they have reason to be worried: Gabriel Resources wants to mine 314 tonnes of gold and 1,500 tonnes of silver in Rosia Montana according to its own website. And to make things worse, it will own 80.69% of the profits, with the remaining 19.31% owned by the Romanian state.

The most powerful card played by Gabriel Resources is, as one would expect, the economy one. The general scenario has become well-known and has often been repeated. Those in favor of the project, the company and the government, cite job-creating and general it’s-good-for-the-economy reasons. In fact, Roşia Montană Gold Corporation (RMGC) reminds us that over 80% of the people of Rosia Montana are jobless and that 3,600 Romanians will have a job again as a result of the mining project. On the ‘other side’, we have the environmentalists and activists who cite the environmental and health consequences. And so we are lead to believe that we have to choose between two options ‘create jobs = destroy environment’ and ‘protect environment = destroy jobs’.

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Roșia Montană. Image credit: Cristian Bortes

But Eugen David and his supporters reject this black and white view that’s being advocated by the proponent of the project. Eugen has turned his house into a guesthouse in 2007 and, together with his family, built a farm approximately 50 meters away from his home. Both he and his wife left their jobs in the mining sector and have focused their efforts on tourism and farming which they believe to be more reliable and long-term sources of income. And they’re not alone. The FânFest festival is Romania’s largest activist concert, drawing thousands of artists and activists each year to promote the Save Rosia Montana cause and sustainable development in the region.

And as though confirming Eugen David’s choice, the contract signed between the Romanian government and Gabriel Resources was leaked online in 2011. The leak revealed that the Romanian government would receive only 2.2 percent of royalties. Scandal soon followed and the Academy of Economic Studies in Bucharest calculated that, after the environmental cleanup costs and repayment of loans, the project would generate nowhere near the $4 billion claimed by RMGC, but instead bring, and I quote, “nothing to the region but a long term sentence to poverty.” Around the same time, the blog Respect Rosia Montana released a three-part video of Rosia Montana locals including Eugen David meeting with President Basescu. The videos can be found herehere and here. A year later, in 2012 Alburnus Maior released two campaign videos featuring Maia Morgenstern and Dragos Bucur, both famous Romanian actors.

The controversy behind gold mining is centered around the potential environmental and health effects of a practice that uses Cyanide, a highly toxic chemical, in the process of removing Gold (Gold Cyanidation). In the eventuality of a spill, the environmental and health consequences would look similar to the 2000 Baia Mare cyanide spill where a leak near Baia Mare, Romania, reached the Tisza and Danube rivers, killing all wildlife affected – including 68 species of fish of which 20 were protected – and contaminating the drinking supplies of over 2.5 million Hungarians. A number of countries, including Hungary, would end up banning the practice.

Another aspect of Rosia Montana that activists want to preserve is its archaeological and historical heritage. Indeed, The Roman mine galleries bear witness to Rosia Montana’s privileged importance in Roman history. The gold that came out of Rosia Montana financed the Roman Empire’s greatest periods of prosperity. Activists have the support of The Romanian Academy, the country’s highest independent scientific body. In 2003, and then again in 2011, it condemned the project, stating “the initiative should be abandoned before producing disastrous, irremediable consequences.” The head of the National Museum of Transylvanian History, Ioan Piso, joined them, lamenting that “we are losing unique archaeological monuments.”

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Protest Roșia Montană în București. image credit: Bogdan Giușcă

But what protesters in Romania are also fighting for is democracy. In a country still young in its experience with democracy, activists are leading the way in the fight against government corruption, which is quite significant. To try and silence all opposition, the government of current prime minister Victor Ponta proposed last week a law that would grant Gabriel Resources the right to expropriation. In other words, the Canadian company would be legally allowed to kick out the residents of Rosia Montana. The law also  postulates that Gabriel Resources would be granted rights outside the country’s national legislation, court rulings or public participation requirements. If passed, this will literally mean that Gabriel Resources would have rights above Romanian citizens. What may even seem more shocking to some is that, while in opposition, the Ponta government opposed the project, highlighting extensive unchecked corruption in the country.

Victor Boştinaru, member of the Social Democratic Party of Romania and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats of the EU, has condemned the project. In an interview with Der Spiegel, he described the project as being “another symbol of Romania selling out its economic interests for individual gain” and further stated, “We need sustainable development to rebuild Romania’s economy and, as it stands, Rosia Montana in no way offers that solution.”

And so the struggle to save Rosia Montana has turned into a struggle for democracy. Protests are increasing in recent years. In 2011, Occupy Conti was born against giving private companies the right to expropriate and in January 2012, protests against the privatization of medical system drew tens of thousands of protesters. 

On Tuesday the 2nd of September 2013, thousands of Romanians took to the streets of Bucharest to protest the proposed gold mine. Between 4,000 (according to police) and 7,000 (according to organizers) walked between the central University Square and the government building, shouting slogans demanding that the proposed project be dismissed. Bigger protests are were called for the 8th of September.

About the Author

Joey Ayoub
Joey Ayoub is a recent graduate of the American University of Beirut. A photography-loving bookworm and wanderluster, Joey is also a blogger at as well as the co-founder of and of the "Humans of Lebanon" project. A strong believer in Secular Humanism, Joey intends on being as engaged as possible through blogging and writing in the hope that it'd push more like-minded people to be more active.


  1. Ray Halpin.

    A fine piece, Mr Ayoub. If I have understood your argument correctly, you are not opposed to mining and development per se, just to the corrupt, short-sighted, poorly planned and destructive practices that they can sometimes lead to. Why not ask Gabriel Resources to adhere to Canadian standards of practice wherever it operates a mine? Why not petition the Canadian government to pressure GR to reconsider its approach to Rosia Montana in the interests of good public relations, secure future profits and the positive cultural legacy that a well-run mine has the potential to generate? Can GR not do what the Roman’s managed to do unintentionally? Can it not leave behind a heritage worth preserving?

    Natural resources can be developed in a sustainable, environmentally friendly way. I worked in the mining exploration industry for ten years. During that time I liaised with traditional land-owners, white pastoralists, local communities and mining companies. Disagreement was a factor in every one of the operations I saw. Given the stakes involved, this was inevitable. But in every case I witnessed, and in spite of strong opposition from some very determined groups, every one of those operations went ahead. The forces involved were immense – a coalition of wealthy multi-national companies, cash-strapped governments and an impoverished workforce made for a formidable lobbying group.

    Some of the operations approved for development were very poorly managed. In each instance the results were predictable – poor legacy outcomes, damaged workers’ health, divided local communities and a polluted natural environment. Despite this there were operations that were a credit to all involved. And the formula for success was the same in every case – a willingness on the part of all the parties involved to work together to achieve fairness for all. The unemployed do need work, but it shouldn’t have to cost them their health or despoil the region they and their children have to live in. The choice does not have to be either/or. With the right encouragement and incentives from activists, environmentalists, trade unions, local representative groups, NGOs and government, a solution to the Rosia Montana debacle can be found. I’ve seen it done elsewhere.

    Another characteristically strong piece, Mr Ayoub. Keep up the good work.

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