Rosia Montana: Twelve Years Later

Submerged church near Rosia Montana.

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This is a fictional story about what could happen if Rosia Montana is allowed to become an open pit mine… 

I sat in the passenger seat of the small Nissan and gazed through the window at the passing landscape. A few hours earlier, Mihai had met me at the airport in Bucharest and the long drive to Rosia Montana had given me an opportunity to reacquaint myself with the beauty of the land. It had been twelve years since I had left Romania and returned to America after an unsuccessful attempt to save Rosia Montana from open pit mining. Through my window, I saw dandelions and crab grass wrestling for control of the rolling hills and I silently prayed that Romania had kept her innocence.

Mihai slowed the car as we entered a village. Walking slowly down the road, an old woman carried a bag of vegetables in one hand, a scarf wrapped neatly around her hair. Nearby, two children played with a dog and a third was climbing a tree and reaching for a ripe plum. Several men stood on a street corner watching us as we passed. Though the lines etched on their faces told of hardship, their eyes spoke with courage and determination.

“I see the same strength and resourcefulness in the people that I saw twelve years ago,” I said to Mihai, as we passed a man urging his horse forward, the wagon behind loaded down with a new refrigerator. “The better economy doesn’t seem to have affected the Romanian spirit, thank God.”

Just then, a large, dark Audi with Bucharest plates sped passed, ignoring the village speed limit of 50 kilometers/hour. Two of the men who had been standing on the street corner jumped back as the speeding car nearly hit them.

“The people of Romania have a survivor’s spirit,” Mihai said, as the Audi disappeared down the road. “It’s in our blood. It’s our heritage. Unfortunately, that same spirit can become corrupt in the halls of Parliament. You Americans have a great proverb; Absolute power corrupts, absolutely. Romania continues to suffer because policy makers in Bucharest still believe Romania is theirs to sell.”

When I left Romania in 2013, the open pit mines of Golden Corporation was only the beginning of a corporate frenzy unleashed upon Romania’s rich supply of natural resources. Mining leases, alone, numbered over 25 in the Apuseni Mountains to foreign companies waiting to see if Golden Corporation’s Rosia Montana project was approved. Once the mining began, these companies opened their own mining projects and feasted upon Romania and her natural resources like a pack of hungry dogs. Elsewhere in the country, companies from as far away as Australia, Canada, China and Russia laid claim to Romania’s untapped riches. Forests were cut down, natural gas squeezed from her rocks and vast amounts of agricultural land was bought by foreign investors. Romania had become a tenant in her own land.

“I guess the good part of the story is that the Romanian people are better off economically than they were twelve years ago,” I said.

“I would argue that,” Mihai replied. “Natural resource extraction is not a delicate procedure; it is an aggressive, violent disruption of both natural and human ecosystems. This means there are costs to the country that very few Romanians are even aware of simply because these costs are rarely included  in parliamentary discussions or public debates. Of course, the corporations don’t want the public to know about these hidden costs.

“Take, for example, Golden Corporation’s open pit mine in Rosia Montana. The ecosystem has been completely altered, and, to most experts, completely destroyed. What is the true cost of that destruction for the Romanian people?””

“Yes,” I said thoughtfully, remembering how companies in America would promise to “reclaim” the land once a project was finished. I could not think of one example where a company accomplished what they promised. Indeed, the environment and ecosystems were left much worse off, forever altered.

“Therefore,” Mihai continued, “in order to get a clear idea of the true cost of Golden Corporation’s project to the Romanian people, we must place a cost upon such things as the loss of irreplaceable heritage, archeological sites and artifacts to the nation, the loss of aesthetic and spiritual values to the local community, the loss of wildlife habitat and the health cost upon the surrounding communities from increased air, water and soil pollution.

“We must also consider the cost of having chosen open pit mining over the available alternatives. Economists call these opportunity costs. They are the costs incurred in choosing one alternative over the other. For example, by not choosing a more sustainable alternative for the Rosia Montana community such as agriforestry, tourism and eco-tourism, costs have been incurred. Open pit mining provides a few hundred jobs over a period of 10 – 15 years. Tourism and agriculture can provide jobs for generations; therefore, the positive economic impact to the Romanian economy is many times greater with sustainable alternatives and this lost chance is a cost of the project.”

Mihai glanced at me and smiled, “You see, there is much more to determining the true cost of a project than just creating a balance sheet of corporate material assets and liabilities.

“Besides,” he continued with a wave of his hand, “most of the time, foreign investment is not nearly as beneficial as the company projects. The average Romanian sees very little of the promised dividends and what profits there are goes through many hands before it reaches the people…

“I know of villages that don’t have asphalt on their roads or modern sewage facilities. And we still don’t have a national highway system. Where is the money going? Is it only a coincidence that our politicians can afford to send their children to private schools while some villages don’t even have a school?”

I sat silent for a moment. “Are you saying that corruption in government is what opened the doors for Golden Corporation and these other companies?” I asked.

“Corruption, lack of awareness, lack of conscience… call it what you will. Man has a peculiar habit of thinking he will live forever and often takes actions that only benefit his bank account and rarely for the good of his country. In the end, we take nothing with us from this world; only the consequences from our good and bad actions remain. How much money we made, how much recognition we experienced, how many titles we held… it doesn’t mean a thing. What matters is the love we gave to the world.”

Mihai was a spirited and conscientious reporter and had been strongly against open pit mining in the Apuseni Mountains. A vocal advocate for transparency in government and a lifelong friend of sustainable development, he believed that our intentions should be of benefit to as many people as possible.

“What about jobs?” I asked.

“Some jobs have been created, that’s true,” Mihai acknowledged, “but most of these jobs are unskilled, labor jobs that don’t pay well. Look what happened in Rosia Montana: a few hundred jobs that will last only a few years. The Romanian government should give more support to environmentally friendly technical industries and reverse the exodus of Romania’s best minds that began after we joined the EU in 2007.”

It was true. Romanians are known throughout the world for their technical skill. It has been said that Romanian is the second most common language spoken at Microsoft and Romanian programmers have helped develop some of the most respected software programs in the world. Why was more not being done to promote their expertise in the world’s markets?

“So tell me about Rosia Montana, Mihai. What is it like, now? Is it as bad as we all predicted if the mining project was approved? And what about Sorin and Zeno and all the rest? Where are they? Are they still in Rosia Montana?”

After I left Rosia Montana, I had kept in touch with Sorin, one of the leaders in the opposition movement against open pit mining. But it wasn’t long before our emails to each other stopped. I didn’t blame Sorin or myself. The opposition had lost. What could we write about except how Rosia Montana was being destroyed?

Mihai sighed. “Sorin was devastated, of course. He and his family stayed for awhile and tried to reverse the new expropriation laws that allowed private mining companies the legal means to force the holdouts off their land. But once the mountains around Rosia Montana began to disappear, they really had no choice but to leave. The daily explosions from the mines eventually destroyed many of the historical buildings and the constant dust that hung in the air made living in Rosia Montana unbearable. Now it’s just a company town, used by mine administrators and employees. As for Sorin, he and his family moved to a small village in the Apuseni mountains not far from Rosia Montana.”

“And Zeno?” I asked.

“Ah! Zeno! What a character! For years after the project began, he gave interviews to anyone who would listen and spoke of the injustice that had been brought upon the Romanian people by a corrupt system, a system that favored euros over national heritage, environmental stewardship and personal rights. One day, he came back from a hike into one of the remaining Roman galleries and said that he had seen the Spirit of the Mountain and that everything would be okay. Zeno’s face was light and the twinkle was back in his eyes. Three days later, he disappeared and no one ever saw him again. Some say he fell down one of the open mine shafts but many believe the Spirit of the Mountain had called him home.”

“Wow…” I said, softly. I thought of the men and women who I once knew, forced from the land of their fathers and their father’s fathers. It was a sad commentary upon the Romanian government that these people were forced to accept decisions corrupted by greed.

I watched the villages pass by, each one bringing me closer to the place I once called “home.” Having seen the devastation of open pit mining and the results of cyanide contamination in my own country, I had come to Rosia Montana hoping to help save it from what I knew would be its death. I wanted the people of Romania to understand the importance of Rosia Montana, not only to themselves but to all of Europe and even the world. Rosia Montana was one of the most unique places on earth, a treasure trove of Roman roads and artifacts, Dacian burial grounds and a gold mining history that spanned more than 2000 years. It was a place where the beauty and eloquence of nature crossed paths with human history and even the casual observer could see for themselves how one era dissolved into the other. From the Dacian and Roman Empires, to Austrian and Hungarian interlopers, through communist dictatorship, a record of Romanian history lived in Rosia Montana as the vast network of underground galleries, as the architecture of its buildings and most of all, as the pride of being Romanian inscribed upon the souls of those who lived there. Rosia Montana was the birth place of Romanians when Dacian women married Roman conquerers and I wanted Romanians everywhere to realize that the spirit and pride of Rosia Montana was in all of them.

As we began to climb the last hill to Rosia Montana, I saw large billboards and placards extolling the virtues of the American company Newmont Mining Corporation, one of the world’s largest gold producers. By 2013, Newmont Mining owned nearly 20% of Golden Corporation. As is standard practice in the mining industry, Golden Corporation never intended to do the mining; they only came into existence to secure the necessary mining permits and make money for their stakeholders. Once they achieved their goal, the company’s board of directors sold the remaining interest to Newmont Mining which begin the actual mining operations.

Before the mining permits were approved, Golden Corporation had paid millions in advertising to convince the Romanian people that mining was the only answer to the difficult economic conditions. They made promises of jobs, a new village and of taking care of the environment. In addition, they convinced the local mayor and town council to issue a proclamation making Rosia Montana a mono-industrial site focused on mining and mining only. With such tactics, how could the people of Rosia Montana find a solution that truly benefited their community? Golden Corporation spent millions to appear as the area’s savior when in reality, their influence kept the people in economic hardship.

“Do you know why I think we failed, the opposition’s greatest weakness?” I asked Mihai. He shook his head, politely, and let me speak. “We didn’t act as a team or a family. We were separate groups with a common goal; to end open pit mining in Rosia Montana. But our egos prevented us from coming together as true partners. With so much talent among truly inspired individuals, it was a shame that we could not have worked together more harmoniously, pooling our resources so that Golden Corporation was continuously kept off balance, not knowing from where would come the next assault on their propaganda machine.”

Mihai glanced at me and nodded and then looked back at the road. “I agree. Through all the years of opposing Golden Corporation, there was very little continuity. The NGO’s efforts came and went like the seasons in the mountains.”

Halfway up the hill, I could see what was left of Cetate Mountain after the open pit mining operation during the communist era had removed over 120 meters of mountain top and with it, a Roman fortress and several kilometers of Roman galleries. Untold archeological treasures were lost, forever. It was incomprehensible to me how the Romanian nation would allow history to repeat and destroy priceless archeological heritage because of their inability to understand the importance of their heritage, a heritage that defined them as human beings and as part of a great nation.

Surveying the devastation brought upon Cetate, I began to sense the worst for Rosia Montana and the mountains I had loved. Rounding a bend in the road, my thoughts stopped cold. There, in full view, was Rosia Montana, or what was left of it and not even my worst thoughts could have prepared me for what I saw.

“Oh my God!” I exclaimed. I was disoriented. My memories still held the Rosia Montana I had last seen, when she lay at the foot of four mountains, a picturesque village in the Apuseni where herds of sheep grazed on green mountain pastures and apple trees with blossoms of white and pink dotted the hillsides, joyful reminders of the bounty to come in the fall.

Mihai slowed the car and let me have a few moments to fully comprehend what I saw.

“The mountains,” I began in disbelief, “they’re… they’re just gone!” My words were barely audible. It was as if an immense wave had crashed through the valley leaving only a few buildings in the center as a clue that a village had once existed here. So thorough was the devastation around Rosia Montana that nothing living remained; no trees, no flowers, not even a blade of grass.

I had seen such devastation before in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern America when whole towns were swallowed by open pit mining. The story of Lindytown is well documented and though many tried to keep the town alive, the mining companies used every means available to pressure the citizens into selling their homes. Soon, what was once a community where people lived their lives in quiet prosperity and where family’s gathered for church picnics on Sunday, was gone.

Living in Rosia Montana for almost a year, the mountains had offered me its love in every season. In the winter, when the village lay quiet and unassuming, the mountains were covered in white velvet and only the warm Sun could convince the snow clinging to the trees to loosen their grip on the branches. In spring, the meadows came alive with wildflowers and each mountain slope held, with joy, the sound of bees at work. Summer brought rains and the grass grew high as cows grazed contentedly with only the occasional dog disturbing their peace. And autumn exploded in a burst of color, too bright to be thought real, but a walk amongst their golden hues showed me the magic was genuine.

Now, they were gone.

Mihai stopped the car in front of one of the last surviving buildings in Rosia Montana; the Mining Museum. We got out of the car and I gazed at the museum’s entrance. Before they had acquired the necessary permits, Golden Corporation had used the museum as one of its primary propaganda tools and tour buses paid for by the company would unload busloads of people at its door in an effort to gain support for the mining project. The museum looked in disrepair and a thick grey dust from the mining activities covered its facade.

“Well,” I said to Mihai as I looked across the street, “at least Golden’s project office is gone.”

“Not exactly,” Mihai responded, “Newmont Mining took over the office because they want to begin other mines in the Apuseni. They continue to sugar-coat open pit mining here in Rosia Montana in an effort to win public support. If you believed what the mining companies say about open pit mining and the use of cyanide, you’d think every community should have an open pit mine in their neighborhood.”

“How can you sugar-coat something like this,” I said incredulously, lifting my arms toward what were once the mountains of Rosia Montana. Surrounding the village on three sides was a landscape that looked like the underworld. Cold, grey and lifeless, the stair-stepped walls of the open pit mines were so close to the village center they seemed to begin in the town, itself. Monstrous in their size and barren of life, the open pits were a reminder of the thoroughness with which man can destroy nature.

Mihai nodded. “Thank God the dam in Corna is still holding.”

“You mean the dam holding the cyanide lake?” I asked. Corna was the beautiful little village on the other side of these mountains that once sat in the valley now covered by a lake of cyanide used in the processing of the ore.

“Yes,” Mihai answered. “If it were to fail, the city of Arud would be gone. Nothing like a 30 meter wall of cyanide water to hurt business,” he added, sarcastically. “But it appears we may have other problems. Hydrologists are finding elevated levels of cyanide down from the dam. Initial indications are that the rock underneath the lake is more porous than what was indicated in the company’s environmental impact assessment submitted to the government before approval was granted. The company says the elevated levels are just a natural occurrence from the heavy rains we have had this year. I don’t know but I certainly am worried. If the area’s underground water becomes contaminated with cyanide, we will have a problem no one knows how to solve.”

I thought of the state of Montana in America and the cyanide contamination that affected local communities as a result of open pit mining. It was a huge environmental and social disaster that is still unresolved. The company had promised that no damage would be done. Once the contamination began, however, the company declared bankruptcy and left the people and the US government with a huge, expensive ecological nightmare. I hoped the similarity of names between the two places was not a bad omen.

Just then, the blast of an industrial horn blared across the village from the direction of Carnic.

“What was that?” I asked.

“You’ll see in a moment,” Mihai said, holding up a finger and looking at his watch. “…five, four, three, two, one…”

A large blast erupted from the open pit where Mount Carnic used to be. I could feel the vibration in my chest and I instinctively cringed. Rock and dirt shot skyward and a large cloud of grey dust hung in the air for a moment then floated silently like a menacing apparition toward us and the town.

“Blasts like those destroyed most of the buildings here including the Romano-Catholic church on the hill.” Mihai pointed toward Carnic and for the first time I noticed that the old beautiful church that Golden Corporation had promised to preserve was gone. “Most of these buildings were of simple mud and wood construction built over a hundred years ago and they could not withstand the detonations.”

“So how did the people respond? The ones who didn’t want to sell?” I asked. “I mean, didn’t they fight?”

Mihai shrugged his shoulders. “There were protests and demonstrations at first; even a few arrests. But what could they do? The mining laws were changed to allow private mining companies to take control of any land they felt was in the “common good.” Courts did not rule them unconstitutional because the Romanian court system had long been compromised by powerful figures in Parliament. Even the threat of expulsion from the European Union did not deter them.” He looked disgusted. “Now, no one’s property is safe in Romania. It’s like living with a dictator, again. Whatever he wants, he takes.”

For a moment, I thought of the difference between Americans and Romanians. Americans have over 200 years of independent thinking and individual liberty. It’s reflected in their entrepreneurial spirit and their “can-do” attitude. Americans instinctively understand that whatever they want can be attained through hard work, a little luck and dedication.

On the other hand, the history of Romanians is a history of being occupied, of being told what to do and what to think. Not long ago, Romanians spent over 40 years under the harsh rule of a communist dictator who considered independent thinking a threat to his power and sought to destroy any example of it. Like students in Romanian classrooms who gained their right to learn without physical and verbal abuse by their teachers, Romanians are learning how to stand up for themselves. It would take time for the Romanian people to feel completely comfortable with their still-young democracy and realize they have the power to make real change. Hopefully, I said to myself, it will not be too late to save this beautiful land.

I looked around at what was left of Rosia Montana. Her once green mountains and fields of wildflowers were gone. The forest that had adorned her slopes, had disappeared, and the trails that led through her woods where the mountain squirrels and woodpeckers played, were gone, too.

Why is the step of man so heavy upon this earth, I wondered. Is there not enough suffering in this world? Must nature be destroyed for progress? Must we attack our neighbor because he does things different from us or because he sees the world with a different eye? Will the legacy to our children be one of wisdom and harmony or mistrust and fear?

I turned away from Rosia Montana and looked toward the west. I wasn’t sure. But I knew it was our choice. Rosia Montana was gone. Perhaps it wasn’t too late for other communities threatened with destruction.

The sun was beginning to set and its light, softened by the late summer clouds, played upon the distant mountains. I was reminded of all the great souls before me who saw the world in a different way and who believed in a higher principle. They bore names like Lincoln, Ghandhi and Iancu. They sacrificed much and some, even their lives. What could I do to honor their legacy? What could I do to step a little lighter upon this great land and not be a burden?

I turned to Mihai. “Rosia Montana is gone but Romania is still alive, the heart of her people still beats strong and she still asks us to do the right thing.”

I looked again to the setting sun and the golden light that played upon the mountains. In the distance, beyond the horizon, I knew a storm raged, a struggle between self-interest and greed and progress for the good of all.

“Mihai, there is still much we can do. Romania is calling us. There are many who want to exploit her riches for their own personal gain but like stars in the night, we can light up the sky and show a better way. I think I will find Sorin and tell him the battle is not over. We have work to do.”

Mihai smiled and slowly nodded his head in agreement.

“Let’s go, then. There is no better time to start than now.”

We turned and walked back to the car in silence. I looked up at the sky. The sun was lower, now, and the first stars were beginning to shine.

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