Opposition to proposals for a gold mine around Rosia Montana is at the heart of pro-democracy protests.
Fifteen years ago, Canadian company Gabriel Resources came to Romania with a plan to build Europe’s largest gold mine around the village of Rosia Montana, in the Apuseni mountains. The exploration would involve digging up Rosia Montana and two nearby villages, destroying four mountains and placing a giant cyanide pool in the area.
To date, the corporation does not have full authorisation to begin construction. Permits have been granted by state authorities only to be later annulled by courts and then reissued. The environmental impact assessment procedure started in 2004 but has not yet been finalised by the Ministry of Environment.
In Rosia Montana, Gabriel Resources has been buying up property from locals but could only get so far: more than 100 villagers whose homes are on the envisaged perimeter of the mine are determined to stay. Supported by environmentalists, architects and lawyers, the villagers’ NGO has been battling the corporation and state authorities in courts. Despite the mainstream media showing unflinching support for Gabriel Resources and politicians including President Traian Basescu singing the praises of gold-mining, the campaign gained public sympathy.
Over time, Rosia Montana supporters have been resorting to advocacy, legal actions, small protests, petition writing. They have been promoting an alternative future for Rosia Montana involving cultural tourism and biological farming. In the last two years, however, the movement has been re-energised. In 2011, at a time when Romania’s educated youth had already been exposed to the global Occupy movement, Romanian authorities proposed a mining law which would allow private companies to conduct expropriations.
Understood by most as serving Gabriel Resources’ interests, the law met with public opposition. In the western city Cluj (a centre of progressive politics) and in the capital, Bucharest, people organised Occupy-style protests. The best known example is the occupation of the Intercontinental Hotel in Cluj – “Occupy Conti“.
Then, in January 2012, protests erupted across Romania in response to a proposal to privatise the medical system. Tens of thousands took to the streets to complain not only about plans for the health sector but also against the perceived corruption and arrogance of politicians. Occupy-style tactics were used again this time around: people returned to the streets day after day called for participatory democracy; they formed working groups and drafted policy proposals. Saving Rosia Montana, this country’s symbol of defending the commons, was included in all manifestoes.
The January protests have been criticised for their lack of impact, but they did constitute a school of activism in a society in which the public have been relatively quiet since the early 1990s. And it is precisely because of this recent history that activists were well prepared when the government of the Socialist prime minister, Victor Ponta, took decisive action on Rosia Montana.
The Ponta government proposed last week a law that would give Gabriel Resources extraordinary powers, including the right to conduct expropriations in Rosia Montana. The text mandates authorities to give the company all necessary permits for construction and exploration by set terms (15 days, 30 days, 60 days, etc) regardless of national legislation, court rulings or public participation requirements. If the parliament approves this law (a vote could take place as early as this month), Romanian citizens will no longer have a say over Rosia Montana. Outrage was compounded by the fact that, while in opposition, Ponta’s Social Democrats had declared themselves against the project. This turnabout reinforced the perception that the political class is corrupted and unworthy of trust.
Thousands protested peacefully in Bucharest and dozens of other cities on 1 September against the legislative proposal, in a day of mobilisation called for on social media. They had slick slogans and banners, loudspeakers and tents, drums and video cameras. They announced that “the revolution begins with Rosia Montana”.
What was planned as one day of protest proved to be insufficient: protesters were on the streets again over the next days, with another bigger action called for 8 September. On 3 September, they commemorated the dead of the 1989 revolution, implying perhaps both that Romanians are constructing a memory of protest and that they are ready to start once again working towards real democracy – even without the politicians.