An article written in the attempt to understand what’s going on by presenting the facts to an eye who haven’t decided on a side yet. Hence the language.
You might not know too many things about Romania. Maybe you heard about Nadia Comăneci, the first gymnast who got a perfect score (multiple times), Hagi, the great football player, Dracula or if you read more current news you might think of the gypsies. If you got a chance to visit it you probably left with the image of our beautiful women and our amazing landscapes. There are a lot of other nice things about Romania that you don’t know.
And what you almost certainly don’t know is that Romania has probably the greatest gold deposit in Europe. Some specialists estimate 300t of gold and 1600t of silver (although some other specialists say it might be a bit less). Nonetheless, a huge amount of gold. And although this might sound like a story about a gold rush it’s actually a story about a country trying to find its identity, to define what democracy is and to ground its values.
It all started around 1995 when Gabriel Resources won the auction that allowed it to extract the gold from Roșia Montană – an area situated in Transylvania. This happened in rather dubious circumstances, most probably illegal, and the story lasts until today, the fifth day in a row of active protests in Bucharest and all around the country (and even outside it).
After the auction was won the project was presented to the population as an enormous opportunity. The Roșia Montană Gold Corporation (RMGC) invested a lot of money in promoting the project (in publicity and is suspected that even on bribery). It did all it could to make sure the project will go as planned.
But in 2002 NGOs (Alburnus Maior being the principal actor) started to take a stand against the project. So for 14 years now the country has been divided into supporters and opponents. NGOs kept on protesting, gathering signatures, sending letters to authorities, acting in court and blocking the project. A lot of institutions joined (The Romanian Academy, The Academy of Economic Studies, The Presidential Committee for National Heritage etc.). Things really escalated these last few days because of a law the Government sent to the Parliament which if it’s approved will give the power of a state to a private company allowing it to expropriate people, to have shorter terms in receiving approvals, to pay less guarantees and so on, making the project unstoppable. This move basically attacks democracy.
But let’s take it step by step.
There are around 3.000 people in the Roșia Montană area from which 350 work in the mine. The unemployment is 20% so there is no surprise that when RMGC came and promised jobs for a few hundreds of people, they bought it. Before any NGO mentioned the other issues that come along with it the population was already convinced with the idea that this project will bring them better lives. There were even manifestations of the local community with signs that said “We want to work, let us!”. RMGC used this later in their campaign and brought in their commercials poor locals who cried and asked for this opportunity. For some Romanians the issue became confusing and the two sides started to be even more apparent.
The problem is that these jobs will only last for 2 decades so this is not a sustainable investment in workplaces. Probably, with the help of the NGOs whose campaign became more and more strong, people started to mistrust the Canadian company or they just lost interest because in December 2012 with all the struggles of RMGC the referendum organized in 35 villages in the area was not validated for lack of quorum. The project was once again put on hold.
The RMGC representatives say that they are preoccupied with the population and they want to protect them,to give them jobs, that they will not move them, that they will help to revive the area and so on, but these statements lack credibility which was lost because of too many dubious moves and no hard evidence or guarantee.
So even though there might be some local supporters of the project I think most of them are or should be worried because their future is uncertain. If the law passes these people’s lives are in the hands of a private company who’s mainly interested in getting as much gold as it can out of this deal.
One of the strongest concerns around the project is that in order to extract the gold RMGC will use cyanide which is a very dangerous substance for the environment. In 2000 a leak of cyanide in northern Romania became the worst environmental disaster in Europe since the Chernobyl and affected Hungary and Yugoslavia as well. (Baia Mare cyanide spill). So there is precedent and the consequences are not simple stipulations, we’ve seen them.The Hungarian authorities got involved in the opponents side and Greenpeace Hungary even bought a square meter under the dam near the “to be exploited area” to help stop the project.
RMGC says that there are more than 500 gold mines in the world and 85% of them use cyanide. More than that they say that this is the method recommended by the European Union and they presented a lot of safety measures that they intend to take to make sure nothing bad will happen and that they even plan to clean the area, already affected by previous mining activities. The RMGC’s director in order to prove the lack of danger, even said that he will have his office there right in the middle of the action. They seem to be sure of what they are talking about. But these statements again are not convincing enough, and specialists are worried that the dam that exists there will not last forever and that the risk was not evaluated well enough. As I read, the project intends to use 13.000t of cyanide versus the average 1.000t in Europe. Big difference. The UE’s stand is a bit unclear as I know that in may 2010 MEPs voted by 488 votes in favor, 48 against and 57 abstentions a resolution that asks for banning the general usage of mining technologies based on cyanides until the end of 2011. – there’s a question I don’t have an answer yet.
Besides the environmental risk the area represents a national heritage. RMGC presented a plan of conserving the historical center and mentioned that they will work mainly in already exploited areas and after they are done those will look even better than now. In a recent public debate RMGC’s director said that they already restored 25 houses, the old city hall, that they have designated employees that work to restore and protect the heritage and that they intent to clean and revive the area (promoting tourism, for example). The plan mentions €140 millions for the environment and some say it’s not enough.
The NGOs don’t believe these plans so they are trying to include Roșia Montană in the UNESCO heritage.
If the area will look better after the project or not is hard to say because one cannot anticipate the damage RMGC might do in the process and the risk of cyanide is a fact, never mind the modern technologies that are to be used.
This chapter is a little more clear, at least concerning the facts but we are facing an important decision we have to make as a country. I say only a little more because the contract between the state and RMGC is a secret. What we know is that Romania will gain 6% royalty (from 4% in the first offer) or around $5 billion (royalty, taxes, contracts…). I would say: peanuts. I admit I am not familiar with what is an average royalty in similar cases but 6% sounds like a joke.
There is also the discussion of a possible hidden agenda as apparently the area has other resources as well, estimated to a value double or even more than the one of the gold and silver. RMGC said they do not have licence for those and they don’t even have the means to extract them. So let’s say they are telling the truth although an exclamation mark remains.
The economical benefits are the most strong arguments of those in favor of the project. And yes, it is an opportunity but an opportunity that will help Romania on the short term and will probably make things on the long term even worse than without the $5 billions. Why? Because no country ever proved sustainability exploiting its natural resources, on the contrary. This phenomenon happend before, has a logical explanation and even a name: the Dutch disease. Not a too appealing name, is it?
So this is a matter of choice: short term gain that we might try to multiply (and unfortunately the way we handled the European Funds suggests that we are not yet good at that) or safer, long term sustainability.
I’m not even sure how to approach this because our country politics is a laugh. The president, Traian Băsescu, is a supporter of the project, but he said he will remain neutral now to be able to arbitrate with objectivity if needed. The party in power (USL) had on its agenda very clearly stipulated “to stop the Roșia Montană Project” and now it’s also a supporter and even proposed the law that gives too much power to RMGC. That’s far from stopping it. The prime minister, Victor Ponta (the same one who was involved in a plagiarism scandal, always contradicts himself and many voices call him a schizophrenic) said that as the Prime Minister he approves the project, but as a member of the Parliament he would vote against. Sounds like something you would say in a schoolyard to not upset any of your friends.
And all agree that, if the law is approved by the Parliament, the president will demand for a referendum before he signs it. And again, some voices comment that this will be just a delay, or a move of some sort in favor of the project. It’s hard not to see everything as a conspiracy.
So now we wait. But not in silence. Although some of the media stopped promoting the RMGC spots, most of the media cover the manifestations that are happening for 5 days now only timidly. But that almost doesn’t matter. The protesters demand and want:
- To stop the project
- The declassification of the contract between the state and RMGC
- The ban of cyanide
- Introducing Roșia Montană in the UNESCO heritage
And more and more people join the cause.
I told you at the beginning of the text that this was not a story about a gold rush and if you read this far I will now tell you what I meant.
The majority of people standing in the streets as I write this are young people. We, as a country, started to learn what democracy is 25 years ago. Most 25 years old persons are still struggling to understand who they are, what life is, what are their beliefs and values. It’s the time when you make those decisions. This is why I believe this is a crucial historical moment. I think this is the moment when we define who we are. As citizens. As a country. Some of our politicians are ex-communists partially adapted to the new regime, more of our politicians are probably corrupted and most of them are completely inefficient. But democracy is about the power of the people. And these days I feel that the fight passed beyond the exploitation of a country and a potential environmental risk. It became about who we are: letting some money-havers be above the law or fighting for what’s right and for our future. These days seems that the new generations are trying to prove that they are able to influence what happens to them, that they are active citizens and that they are committed to their values. And that can mean the birth of a different country! One that you will hear more and more nice things about.
A preoccupied citizen
//click on the photos for photo credit