Roșia Montană – When a Government Turns on its People

Roșia Montană – When a Government Turns on its People

Rosia Montana, a mountainous region in the West of Romania, gained notoriety when a Canadian company revealed plans to mine its gold – but not without a severe impact on the environment. In unprecedented numbers, Romanians have taken to the streets to fight the project and a government that has turned on its people.

An article in the Economist once read sarcastically “No gold please, we’re Romanians!”.  It mocked the efforts of Romanian NGO’s at the time to halt a potentially disastrous mining project in Rosia Montana (RM), a little commune in the middle of the Western Carpathians. The Canadian company investing in the project, Gabriel Resources (known locally as Rosia Montana Gold Corporation, or RMGC), had promised a $2 billion boost to the country’s economy and 1200 jobs; the said article played on Romanians’ obvious poverty, suggesting it was nearly an act of economic hubris to reject such a generous offer, and therefore worthy of ridicule.

Seven years later, “Save Rosia Montana” has become the largest mass protest Romania has known since the 1989 Revolution that abolished communism. From the 1st of September when the protests started, every day, throughout the country, Romanians have determinedly taken to the streets, with numbers reaching tens of thousands spreading the protests worldwide, with actions in 75 cities across the globe, including New York and Shanghai.

A mining project shrouded in corruption and dishonesty

What triggered the protests was the government’s decision to stealthily pass a bill it had previously promised to categorically oppose in order to win the elections. On august 27th 2013, Prime Minister Victor Ponta passed a draft bill granting RMGC the rights to start at RM the largest open-cast, cyanide-based mine to have ever been built in Europe. The project would use 240.000 tons of cyanide over the course of 16 years. Four mountains would be blown up, leaving behind a crater 8 km wide.  One of the local villages would be entirely covered by a tailings management pond, containing cyanide and heavy metals spread over 600 hectares. Thousands of private properties would be forcibly relocated, and hundreds of houses torn down. As part of the project, RMGC also aims to destroy most of the area’s ancient mining galleries, a heritage site deemed by international experts as “the largest underground Roman mining complex known from the Roman world”.

The arguments against the project are obvious and numerous. Perhaps the biggest issue though is the muddy cloud of corruption, dishonesty, and disrespect for the people’s will that shroud the case of RM.

15 years ago, the exploitation licence was given to RMGC a day before the public auction for said licence was announced and declared of “special national interest”. The members of the Ministry of Justice deemed the bill unconstitutional, but were contradicted by their head of Ministry who declared the process constitutional. Former Military Prosecutor Oancea called for the National Department Against Corruption to re-open the existing case on RM, but to no avail. Four national heritage specialists that have voiced their dissent against the project have been fired from the Ministry of Culture. The head of the National Institute for Geology has publicly opposed the project, accusing RMGC of falsifying geological maps and was also fired shortly after.

Only through activism on social networks did the protests eventually reach mainstream media and a week later PM Victor Ponta said the law would be dropped. In October he remarked that he was “only joking” concerning his opposition to the law.

In the meantime, the same Mr. Ponta organised a “super-committee” above party lines, meant to re-assess the situation and re-write the bill in question as well as the mining law. But this is not what the people want. The people want the resignation of the culprits. They want to save Rosia Montana, and Romania along with it. “The revolution starts at Rosia Montana”, protesters chant, and there’s not a trace of humour in their voice.

Ana Sandoiu has a B.A. in Moral & Political Philosophy from the University of Bucharest, and an M.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Sussex. She works as a freelance writer & translator, and is part of the “Save Rosia Montana UK” support group. She is member of IFAIR.

This article was published in cooperation with the Diplomatic Magazine.