Tucked away in the mountains of western Romania, Rosia Montana has been a mining town for 2000 years. From Roman times, extracting gold and other metals from these rocks has been a dirty, dangerous business, and life there has never been easy. Safety, health and environmental considerations were rarely priorities, and decades of operations under Communist regimes left mountains of rubble that still leach toxic chemicals into streams.
When the Ceaucescu government collapsed, state-run mines like Rosia’s limped along, posting huge losses and continuing to ignore their environmental impacts. In 2006, most were finally shut down. Thousands of workers lost their jobs, villages were plunged into poverty, and families were reduced to surviving on pitiful welfare payments, scavenging for mushrooms and berries in the forests, and breaking up abandoned concrete facilities with hammers, to recover and sell their steel reinforcing rods.
Few families own a car. Indoor plumbing is almost unknown. Snowstorms make unpaved roads treacherous, and malnutrition and ill health are common.
Seeing an opportunity to make money by being socially responsible, Toronto-based Gabriel Resources proposed to reopen the mines, under modern Western standards and practices. In the process, it would create thousands of direct and secondary jobs in the village and surrounding areas, clean up the horrific environmental legacy, build modern homes and a museum, protect and restore ancient churches, and inject US$2.5 billion into the Romanian economy. The region would also get improved roads, wireless internet service, safe running water, modern schools and clinics, and dozens of new businesses – all of which would remain long after the mines finally close for good.
Almost immediately, the global anti-mining movement rose up in self-righteous indignation to oppose the project. Financed by George Soros’s Open Society Foundation, San Francisco insurance magnate Richard Goldman’s family foundation and others, the activists set up a local front group known as Alburnus Maior, brought in organizers and agitators from Belgium and Switzerland, recruited watermelon celebrities like Vanessa Redgrave (green on the outside; red on the inside), and launched an intense campaign of lies and vilification to stop the project and keep the area impoverished.
In the perverse tradition of Orwell’s 1984, their noxious campaign was presented to and reported by the media as vital to ensure environmental protection and corporate ethics, transparency and accountability.
As winter 2007 set in and the Holiday Season approached, the agitators’ efforts appeared to be paying off.
Romanian Environment Minister Atilla Korodi suspended further evaluation of the Rosia Montana environmental study. A local court annulled the urban planning certificate that the county council had granted. And Romania’s parliament was considering a bill that would outlaw the use of cyanide for processing ore – despite the modern closed-loop system Gabriel has developed, and an EU decision specifically allowing cyanide as a preferred alternative to toxic acids once used in gold mining.
Villagers, legal analysts and corporate representatives insist that these actions have no basis in fact or law. But for now the project is on hold. Hundreds of workers have been laid off. Thousands of others realize their own prospects for employment are fading.
The Soros-Goldman Brigade is filled with holiday cheer. It’s just sent Season’s Greetings to some of the poorest people in all of Europe: May you freeze in the dark.
“They are laughing in our faces, while we are crying. They are happy for our sorrow,” Marinela Bar said bitterly. “The so-called ecologists care only about themselves, not about the local community, Calin Cioara added. “They only mock people.”
“We have no words to express our disappointment. The company was our only chance for development. We are hopeless now,” Daniel Pacurar said softly, echoing the despondency that has crept into the valley, despite Gabriel’s determination to continue seeking the needed permits and move forward.
“We’ll spend the holidays together at the community center,” Miorita Botariu said. “We’ll sing carols and laugh together, maybe for the last time. With the project, we could have been a happy, united community. Now we will lose our friends, our neighbors, our relatives, because everyone will try to live a better life – somewhere else.”
Rosia Montanans are tough, resolute and used to hardship. But this Christmas seems different. “We will prepare for the holidays in sadness, because of what will happen after the holidays,” Augustin and Georgeta Cioara said, staring out their window. “We don’t know what we will do.”
“The cold is killing us,” Mircea Silaghi shivered. “There is no public transportation. Our wood stoves barely keep us from freezing. We are living only a little better than in the Middle Ages.”
Sometimes the snow gets so deep, and the roads so impassable, Tamira Danciu says, “that you cannot go anywhere. When the wind blows hard, the electricity goes down.” The anti-mining activists often say “Rosia Montana is beautiful, like in fairy tales. It might be for people who just visit for a few days, and then go back to civilization,” she continued. But they don’t visit the polluted mine sites, they don’t use water from the polluted streams, they don’t have to endure the deprivation and bitter winters.
“Right now we have about 1000 lei ($400) a month for ourselves and four children,” Sorinela Croitoru said softly. “But what will we do for Easter? By then the jobs will be gone, the money will be gone. We are desperate.”
The villagers are in this terrible situation “because of the Hungarians and our Romanian leaders,” Mrs. Botariu said angrily. “They took everything away from us. They took away our hope.”
Soros, Korodi and Romanian senator Peter Eckstein-Kovacs (co-author of the no-cyanide bill) are all Hungarian by ethnicity and apparently by allegiance. A busload of anti-project Hungarian activists told villagers last summer that they view this Romanian section of Transylvania as part of Hungary.
Those attitudes appear to be driving much of their opposition: if they cannot rule it their way, if Gabriel went to Romanian leaders for permits, if the mining revenues flow to Bucharest instead of to Budapest (or George Soros), they would rather see the region broken and destitute, than let the project proceed.
No matter how they spin it, the opposition is clearly not motivated by concerns about ethics, the environment or people.
Others blame themselves, for not battling furiously enough against these unscrupulous, well-funded eco-imperialists. “We didn’t fight hard enough to keep this project here,” suggested Dr. Andrei Jurca, the village’s dentist (and physician). He feels it is intolerable for Rosia Montana to remain “under the thumb” of a minister who is becoming “an environmental dictator.” When the government held public debates in Bucharest to discuss the project, he noted, the villagers “were not even allowed to speak.”
The local people – the true stakeholders, the ones who need jobs and will be most affected by any decisions – were not allowed to speak. That is incredible, outrageous, at odds with the most fundamental tenets of democracy, ethics, environmental justice, transparency and accountability.
“This project is the area’s only chance for development,” Ilie Botariu emphasized. “The Alburnus Maior people helped us with a big nothing. They didn’t offer jobs and didn’t provide any benefits. And when they are done protesting against this investment, they will pack their bags and leave, to fight another project. That is all they do.”
Added Sebastian Hanesh: “We cannot wish them anything but the holiday ‘happiness’ they have given us. Today we are miners. Tomorrow we will be mushroom pickers, because of Alburnus and Soros. The members of parliament should resign, because they do not represent us and don’t fight for our rights.”
Romania has 300,000 unemployed miners. It can hardly afford to shut down this industry with ill-advised bans on modern mining technologies – or tell prospective investors they are not welcome.
The country’s government needs to encourage investment – and start representing people who simply want jobs and a chance to get their families and communities back into the economic mainstream. It also needs to hold ministers, legislators and unaccountable nonprofit multinational activist corporations to the same standards of honesty, decency, transparency and accountability that they demand of for-profit corporations.
EU, UN, US and Canadian officials must likewise insist on basic ethical standards for these activist NGOs. And civil rights groups and social responsibility advocates need to insist that they do so.