Hundreds of thousands of Romanians took to the streets in across 50 cities in Romania and abroad, including Washington D.C., Berlin and Amsterdam to vehemently oppose the passing of the draft legislation on the open-pit cyanide-based mining project at Rosia Montana. According to Gabriel Resources Ltd., the Canadian company behind the scheme, the plan for the project is to dig up the estimated 800-4,000 tons of gold squirreled away in Rosia Montana using an astonishing amount of 40 tons of cyanide per day. Chanting slogans such as “Together We Save Rosia Montana,” the Romanian protesters expressed their resistance to the mining project and demanded the government’s resignation, while sending a similar warning signal to the opposition. In Romania, protesters have announced their intention to keep demonstrating, until the government’s measures are revoked.
The draft law was adopted during a governmental session, which had not been publically announced, as properly required. Passing the draft legislation marked a significant shift in the Romanian government’s attitude toward the project, given that Gabriel Resources, the Canadian mining company behind the project, had been fighting for over 10 years to obtain its approval. As a result of the government’s decision, the Romanian Parliament is expected to vote on this project in the upcoming month. The Romanian public’s outrage is more than justified, given that the Romanian government’s decision is unconstitutional and would breach several other Romanian laws, including the forestry law.
According to article 136 of the Romanian Constitution, ‘public interest riches’, including underground resources, such as gold, are the exclusive object of public property. In a bold and cunning effort to bypass the constitution, the government claims in the draft law that the private mining project is one of public utility and utmost national public interest. Becoming a project of public utility secures the Canadian company not only properties, financial advantages from the government, but also recognition for all of its emitted documents as ‘public utility.’
This claim is hardly the case when Romania will gain almost no economic benefits from the project, given it would only obtain 20 percent of the profits, while the Canadian company would walk away with 80 percent. Romania would effectively just be offering its highly valuable gold resources in exchange for hundreds of thousands of tons of cyanide, which would destroy one of its most beautiful and ecologically diverse regions forever and transform it into a toxic wasteland. The enormous daily quantity of cyanide to be used during the Rosia Montana mining project would therefore produce a gruesome and irreversible environmental destruction in area. Exploiting the mine would mean destroying four forested mountains, contaminating multiple rivers, devastating several fragile ecosystems and destroying over 900 buildings. It would also require the damming up of one end of the Corna valley to hold 250 million tons of cyanide-laced waste generated by the gold leaching.
The government’s recent decision also comes in utter disregard for the Romanian population’s long-term and clearly expressed opposition against the mining project, due to the aforementioned catastrophic environmental and cultural consequences. Thus, during the January-February 2012 anti-governmental protests organized throughout the country, many Romanians demanded that the Rosia Montana project be ceased. Whilst in opposition to the then liberal government, current Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta and his Social Liberal Union (USL), an alliance of several political parties, supported the protesters’ claims and vehemently opposed the Rosia Montana mining project. Since gaining power, the Prime Minister and USL have radically changed their position, as now they seem to be even more willing than the previous government to bend the Constitution and the law of Romania, including on many of the issues that they once considered inviolable, in order ensure the project goes ahead. Moreover, in December 2012, the wide majority of residents of Alba, where Rosia Montana is situated, made a conscious decision to boycott a local referendum regarding the resumption of mining in the Apuseni Mountains and the gold mining exploitation at Rosia Montana.
The Romanian public’s global protest movement is the biggest manifestation of its kind since the 2012 anti-governmental protests and the second largest since the 1990-1991 Piata Universitatii peace protests organized by intellectuals and students who demanded authentic democratic reforms for the country. This latter protest initiative was crushed with violence and brutality by miners recruited from the hinterlands by Ion Iliescu, the Romanian President at the time.
Iliescu’s actions sent a powerful message to the Romanian public: Romanian leaders would not hesitate to crush popular uprisings through violence and force. It was nothing new. For a people that had lived over 50 years under a repressive communist regime — where no form of protest was allowed and fear was an almost institutionalized as a way of living — enduring abuses without protesting was a way of life. Since the 1991 protests, Romania has not seen any other major public demonstration like the January 2012 movement and the current Rosia Montana protests.
Silence too often has allowed Romanian politicians to make important decisions without consulting the public. They often act as if they would never be accountable to the population — as if its voice doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter.
The current protests represent a testament to the Romanian public’s increasing determination not just to make its voice heard, but to be respected and adequately represented by those in power. The government’s decision was interpreted as a declaration of war by many of the people and the NGOs struggling to protect Rosia Montana. The people-government clash could determine the role that the Romanian population will play from now in making decisions about the country.
It may also decide who is entitled to enjoy the country’s natural resources and how it is acceptable for the latter to be extracted in order to achieve successful economic development.
At the same time, the ‘war’ is about the importance of preserving patrimony in the face of development. Most recently, Europa Nostra, the leading European heritage organization, selected Rosia Montana as one of the ‘7 Most Endangered Landmarks’ in Europe out of 42 candidates from 21 different countries, bringing Rosia Montana one step closer to being recognized as a UNESCO Heritage site.
This type of population-government struggle is certainly not new. It has been amply seen throughout Latin American and Africa. But it is new in European countries. Yet, numerous companies are lurking closer and closer to the rich European resources. For instance, Chevron has started eyeing Poland and Romania’s oil resources that it intends to exploit through fracking, a highly contested extraction practice. What sets the Romanian struggle apart is that it has gained a global dimension, as the Romanian diaspora, alongside other international supporters, have joined in to demonstrate their solidarity.
Romanians have the opportunity to set a historic precedent in Europe and the world. They can demonstrate that the will of a united people can overcome an incompetent government and a greedy company. They can show that the only option is to fight to the bitter end and give it all, regardless of the size of the opponent, with the conviction that good will prevail.rosia,montana,