The curse of the gold of Rosia Montana

After centuries of mining, the precious metal that lies under Rosia Montana, Romania, has now been targeted by a Romanian-Canadian corporation. For environmentalists, the real wealth of Rosia Montana is its natural beauty. As a legal battle rages, local people are doing their best to keep their village alive.

Published on 7 July 2009 at 13:50
Rosia Montana

At the start of the summer in the village of Rosia Montana, a story went round that one of the local women was pregnant. The news caused a stir among the old miners, who spend their days nursing cups of coffee in the village square, waiting for something to happen. When Ioji Vlăgnean, the village’s aging deaf mute, got wind of the big event, he rose unsteadily to his feet in front of the porch of the casino — where in the days before the communists took over, mine owners used to gamble their gold — and gives the village a look over in the light of this remarkable development. Only such a radical turn of events could get him out of his seat.

Ioan Moduna was first to arrive with the news, but no one paid any attention. When Foreman Gruber, known to be a man of his word, confirmed the story, it was time to discuss details of the affair: Would it be a girl or a boy? When would he or she be born? Carried away by his enthusiasm, the deaf mute nodded his head and rubbed his hands over his paunch, as though he himself was about to give birth. It was a serious matter, because in all likelihood, there will only be child born in Rosia Montana in 2009. Two NGOs have offices on the small square where this debate was taking place: one of them is opposed to gold mining, the other supports it. When passersby wander into view, activists from both offices emerge like pushy shopkeepers to try and drag them inside: each side has a story to tell.

The Rosia Montana Gold Corporation (RMGC) [a joint-venture between the Canadian company Gabriel Resources and Romania’s publicly owned Minivest] has bought up 80% of the village. For supporters of the mining project, Rosia Montana has passed the point of no return, and it is only a matter of time before the village is destroyed. Only the historic centre will be preserved. Many people have left, selling their houses and land, and moving to wherever they can find a home — or they have stayed on living in houses that have already been sold, while waiting to move to another village. On the other side of the square, the environmentalists paint a different and much more apocalyptic picture, replete with details of a poisonous lake of cyanide that will flood the historic village.

Until now, the birth of a child was not marked by such a public display of emotion. The most recent addition to the village, Robert Ştefan Mălan, who was born on 24 December, 2008, lies in the grass playing with his great-grandfather’s safety lamp. His father and grandfather were also miners. “But he won’t be a miner, you can be sure of that,” says his father. “The worst of it is, I don’t know what he’ll be. He has no future.”

Horaţiu Mălan is one of the few remaining residents in a building where most of the neighbours have sold up and moved away to live in towns and cities. Mălan, who has also sold, has opted to stay on until his new house in the county capital Alba Iulia is completed. The unemployed 45-year-old is worried about what the future has in store. What kind of life can he expect to have in a town? “In town, who is going to employ a miner? How is my family going to live?” His is only one of 125 mining families that have had to face the daunting prospect of pulling up roots since mining operations [mainly coal mining] ceased in 2006. What can they expect to live on? As if the towns did not have enough unemployed people already?

It is hard to find anyone earning a wage in Rosia Montana. Only the local police, the teachers who have stayed to look after the handful of children in the almost deserted village school, and the employees at the mayor’s office — which is located in a building that has also been bought by Gold Corporation — are still getting paid.

Like all of the miners, who have been unemployed since the Romanian government closed down the mines in Rosia Montana, Horatiu Mălan wants the opencast mining project to go ahead. As he puts it, “We’ve had enough of the environmentalist bullshit. They see a lizard under a tree, and they’re ready to let all of us die to save it. Why don’t they just move the lizard, so that we can take out the gold.”

Controversy

Legal battle in the Carpathian’s Little California

The legal battle between Romanian civil society and the Rosia Montana Gold Corporation (RMGC) dates back to 1997, when the Canadian and Romanian funded corporation bought most of the land in Rosia Montana. Since then, life in the village, founded almost 2,000 years ago by the Roman Emperor Trajan (who called it Alburnus Maior) has been marked by demonstrations in the village square, the coming and going of EU inspection teams, and the adoption of contradictory laws by the Romanian government.

RMGC wants to exploit low density deposits left by the Roman gold and silver mines, using a cyanide leaching process. The company has promised to provide new jobs, but its opponents are adamant that the project will constitute a environmental and cultural catastrophe. Rosia Montana, which experienced a huge gold rush in Roman times, has a huge range of historic Roman sites. Located not far from Sibiu, which was European Capital of Culture in 2006, it is now a sought after tourist destination.

The Romanian government, which was initially in favour of the RMGC project, is now firmly opposed to it. The region has been designated as an archaeological and natural reserve, and the national parliament is preparing to vote on an anti-cyanide law. The European Union is also less than enthusiastic about the massive destruction of the natural environment involved in the huge opencast mine which would remove five villages and five mountains from the map. It is also woried about plans to use cyanide, especially in the light of a events in the year 2000 in Baia Mare, where a break in a dam encircling a tailings pond contaminated the Mures and Tisza rivers, and polluted drinking water used by three million people.

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