Eugen David vs Goliath

Romanian villagers face down Canadian mining corporation over cyanide lake.

A small charity has succeeded in blocking a multi-billion dollar Canadian gold-mining operation in the Romanian village of Rosia Montana. Romania’s new Prime Minister, Victor Ponta, has promised a “transparent” investigation into the controversial project “so that permitting decisions take into account the national interest, environmental protection and European legislation.” This could set the project back by at least five years.

Romania’s new government, run by the leftish Social Democratic Party (PSD), is more responsive to environmental protest than the outgoing lot (who were avid supporters of the Canadian gold-miners). The new government have also promised to impose a moratorium on controversial shale-gas-fracking operations, following street protests earlier in the year against a contract the outgoing government signed with Chevron. But Romania is one of the poorest members of the European Union and it can not afford to shake off foreign investment lightly.

For 17 years Gabriel Resources Ltd (a Jersey-based, Toronto-listed company) has been fighting over 100 legal challenges by Albernus Maior, an association of 60 property owning “holdouts” who stubbornly refuse to sell their smallholdings in the Transylvanian village of Rosia Montana (located in the the Carpathian mountain range). One of the company’s most controversial proposals is to demolish the protected mountain of Carnic and process its gold ore with cyanide, a process that would destroy the 70 km of mining galleries, including 7km that were built by the Romans. Currently, the ancient mining galleries are open to the public.

In April 2012 the village charity Alburnus Maior won a landmark case in the Alba County Court that declared the company’s “urbanism” plan (the basis for all subsequent permits) null and void. This decision was confirmed by Attila Korodi, Romania’s former Minister of the Environment and is unlikely to be overturned by the new government. The opposition say this means the project is dead but the investors show no sign of leaving.  The mining company refuse to publicly accept that their project is blocked.

“Our secret weapon has been challenging the gold mining operation in court” said Eugen David, the farmer who runs Alburnus Maior. “When we found out that the Canadians wanted to destroy three villages, four mountains and create the biggest cyanide lake in Europe we mobilised.”

But Alburnus Maior struggles to inform the Romanian public about their point of view; the media tends to ignore them and their website is poorly designed and over technical. Their attempts to organise street protests in Bucharest have failed to muster big numbers. Most Romanians are bored by the delays, confused by the seemingly endless court cases and assume the project will create new jobs in a poor mountain area.

“Although Rosia Montana is Romania’s biggest green campaign” explains Mircea Toma of Activewatch, a media monitoring agency, “the environmental NGOs opposing the project are actually in the minority. Romania’s scientists are against it as are the human rights, cultural heritage and justice reform NGOs.” The best known opponent is the Soros Foundation, which is suing the mining company on “access to public information” grounds (the annexes to the original 1995 contract are state secrets).

Gabriel Resources have one of the biggest advertising budgets in Romania and have carried out a superb PR campaign. Their website promises thousands of jobs, USD$ 19 billion “benefit to Romania” as well as investment in the environment, cultural heritage and to “act as a catalyst for sustainable community development.” The gold mining company have widespread support among local and national politicians (President Basescu is a fan) as well the Romanian media.

But opponents to the gold mine say that these promises to preserve the local environment are contradicted by the plan to create a 2,388 hectare open-cast mine and a reservoir containing an estimated 250 million tons of cyanide waste (held back by a 180 metre high concrete dam). They point out that Europe’s only cyanide-mines are small scale operations in Scandinavia where the ore is processed in sealed containers and that a cyanide leaching project on this scale has never been done in Europe.

Many of Romania’s Members of the European Parliament are opposed to the gold mining project. Notable among these naysayers are Daciana Sirbu MEP, wife of Romania’s new Prime Minister, Monica Macovei MEP, former Minister of Justice and Victor Bostinaru MEP, founder of NATO’s Atlantic Council in Romania and member of the ruling Social Democratic party. In 2010, the European Parliament issued a recommendation that “Calls on the [European] Commission to propose a complete ban on the use of cyanide mining technologies in the European Union”. The European Commission ignored the proposal.

Gabriel Resources say their operation will build “a best-practice modern mine implementing the highest environmental standards” and promise that the 150,000 tons of cyanide needed to process the ore will be handled safely. In order to ensure that the groundwater will not be contaminated, the company plan to line the reservoir with a 10 metre thick layer of clay.

But Victor Bostinaru MEP claims that the “cyanide-lake would need to be maintained for an eternity and the costs of this are unsustainable. The mining company have not said where they plan to locate such a massive quantity of clay, and geologists tell me there is no source within 150km of Rosia Montana.”

Opponents are also sceptical of the mining company’s pledge to generate billions of dollars in revenue for Romania. In a detailed study funded by the Soros Foundation in 2011, Daniel Bojin, a Romanian investigative journalist, describes the murky circumstances surrounding the Rosia Montana deal: the original agreement signed with the Romanian state in 1995 has gone missing, subsequent annexes to the agreement (reducing the state’s share from 40% to 19%) have been declared state secrets and the Russian magnate, tax on mining operations is less than 5% and Vitaly Machitski (controversial owner of Romania’s aluminum industry) is named as a potential buyer for the operation if approval is ever granted.

But Goliath isn’t finished yet. Gabriel Resources have shown remarkable staying power over the last 17 years and no Romanian government is likely to give a categorical refusal to an investment of this scale. And the miners also have a secret weapon – a draft Mining Law which would allow mining companies to expropriate private land “in the public interest” and bypass the onerous planning permission requirements. The bill is languishing in Romania’s Parliament and it remains to be seen whether the ruling Social Democratic party will maintain its hostility to the gold mine, or if it will succumb to the generous financial incentives that are available to politicians who support the project.

11 Responses to Eugen David vs Goliath

  1. Catalin says:

    War is war, destruction is destruction and cyanide is cyanide. Cyanide is death and corruption and even though it may hold power, the costs for obtaining that power are the lives and health of many that live there today and many more that will live for days to come. Of course capitalism would have us believe that the end justifies the means, but what if it were your children living there? Would u feel safe knowing there is a cyanide lake the size of Hoover Dam just around the corner? I do not care about jobs being created, but about the future of the children living there. For all i know there are no new jobs there now, yet somehow they manage to live and even thrive. What, for a few cents more they can have the supersize menu? Sure, it’s only 99c added, and you get all the cyanide you can eat + here’s some for your family and friends! A local sollution is not the cure for a global problem! The problem is not that there are no jobs in Rosia Montana. Not even that there are no jobs in Romania, the problem is that poor management of resources is poor management of resources. And if Romanians are so willing to give their power away, rest easy, there are plenty of profit-minded capitalists who would take it from us. You see, with well developed tourism, a solid infrastructure for the economy and stern and also simple (i know, big word for Romania) laws, Goliath here would not even be an issue, because our needs would be met. Sadly that is not the case, and waving a 100 dollar bill will surely grant you attention.
    We should think of devising a healthy cultural norm that in turn leads to a healthy work ethic and good management of resources and risk. Sadly the power to do this is in the intellectual’s hands, and Romania’s intellectuals are scattered like Elephants running in disarray from a pack of hungry lions. We have the tools, we have good PR people that can mobilize the masses, and capitalists seeking only profit use them. Maybe by gathering the energies of as many opinion-makers as possible , change can actually happen.
    In the mean time, cyanide remains a quick, easy and very cheap means of extracting the gold that could otherwise be mined by traditional means. I’m not an expert miner but it only takes common sense to realize this: The Thracians that lived here thousands of years ago managed to mine gold without having invented cyanide. Why can we not do the same?
    Do not be fooled by the media! Journalism is publishing what someone doesn’t want published! The rest is PR!

  2. Luke says:

    while this issue is dragging on and getting increasingly complex and convoluted, the majority press, under the guidance of RMGC, are chirping the same overly simplified misinformation that this mine can only bring benefits to Romania. In ignoring the realities and potential repercussions of a mining project as big and destructive as this we will blindly condone the rape and pillage of land belonging to the people of Rosia Montana, all for some shiny metal that they will never see.

    Clarity and facts are the ammunition of opposition and so thanks for giving us that Rupert.

  3. Luke says:

    Nice quote from Shakespeare’s Timon, the super rich lord who naively gave away all his money to phoney friends and was left destitute and alone, until he comes across some gold in a cave and decides to use it for his revenge. Its vaguely relevant.

    Gold? yellow, glittering, precious gold? No, gods,
    I am no idle votarist:
    Thus much of this will make black white, foul fair,
    Wrong right, base noble, old young, coward valiant.
    Ha, you gods! why this? what this, you gods? Why, this
    Will lug your priests and servants from your sides,
    Pluck stout men’s pillows from below their heads:
    This yellow slave
    Will knit and break religions, bless the accursed,
    Make the hoar leprosy adored, place thieves
    And give them title…….

  4. Julian says:

    So, this issue is still live. I recall the relatively minor dam breach up in the Maramures that caused so much damage, not only to people and the environment but also to relations with neighbours downstream. And that was a tiny lake of poison. Has the lesson not been learned by those in power? Does anyone really believe that in ten years or a hundred after mining has ceased, when the politicians who took the bribes are dead and buried, any of the beneficiaries will be taking care of the dam and its clay lining?

    And what next if the gold mine goes ahead? Foreign corporations extracting uranium? Where will it stop?

    No, Romania is well placed to develop a sustainable future. It has plenty of renewable resources, excellent land and capable farmers, foresters and engineers. It is really good to read comments to that effect and hear about people who are fighting for the true and long term future of their nation.

  5. Pingback: Rupert Wolfe-Murray: Romanian Village Blocks Canadian Cyanide Mine | Screw Cable

  6. Matt says:

    Thank you for writing this article, it’s all about raising awareness as far as Rosia Montana goes. Unfortunately the least aware are Romanians themselves, and that’s a real shame because no anti-mining foundation or NGO will have to deal with the consequences of this project. It’s a mess and we can never talk about it too much.

  7. Alecs says:

    Exquisite piece of journalism! These are the things that keep the fight alive. Save Rosia Montana!

  8. Pingback: Romanian Village Blocks Canadian Cyanide Mine | "Global Possibilities"

  9. cristian says:

    Here in Romania we’re under massive attack. You wrote excellent about Rosia Montana, but we’ve just started to fight against Chevron too.
    The entire political system is corrupted and this war will be a difficult one.
    So please, write more about this kind of ngo who fight for a CLEAN LIFE.
    Thank you!

  10. Anamaria says:

    For the longest time I have been looking for articles on this subject and I was surprised to find very few, especially in the international media. I hope there will be more coverage as we know the only weapon this people have in order to survive Rmgc is media and the correct depiction of facts , just like you have done here. Thank you Rupert!

  11. Enikő says:

    Thank you Rupert for this objective article!

    It is true that all political parties on all levels are corrupted not only in Rosia Montana issue, but also other gold mines, like the one next to Deva, Certes, that is in process of opening. Corruptness is everywhere: massive forests plundering (legal end illegaé)for companies like Schweighofer, Egger, Kronospan – giving environmenatl authorization for a 76 ha timber plant next to a NATURA 2000 area, without having an outstanding strategical environmental assessment, and without taking in consideration the NGO analyses; shale gas extraction by fracking; building micro hydroelectric power plants in protected areas, national parks, Natura 2000 areas, but also other places without conforming to the legal requirments, etc. we could enlist many other fields, cases.

    This is why We save Rosia Montana movement getting bigger and bigger, because it became the symbol of high level corruption.

    This project is not profitable for Romania nor from economical, cultural, social or environmental point of view. we have detailed studies in RO, made by researchers from ASE Bucharest,and the Romanian Academy with arguments why it should be stopped.

    All of you if you would like to have news, press releases in English from the Alburnus Maior Association please follow up this link:

    Thank you and please write more about this issue.

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