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Can a gold mine save a village?

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Since antiquity Romania has been home to Europe's richest gold mines but after millennia of drilling much of the easily available gold has gone. As recently as 1989 one in ten of the population relied on gold for their livelihoods; today just 50,000 work the mines. Now, rather than prospectors flocking to the hills, Romanians are leaving in droves to look for work elsewhere.

One mine, below the village of Rosia Montana, might spark a new gold rush. The Rosia Montana Goldmine Corporation (RMGC), a joint venture with the Romanian Government who holds a twenty percent stake, estimates the reserves at $30 billion. Yet this possible reversal of fortunes has been halted and the village finds itself at the centre of an international controversy that sets local landowners and cultural preservationists against desperate locals and a giant multi-national mining corporation.

The company proposes stripping down the hills of Rosia Montana, crush the result, and put everything through a cyanide wash that separates gold from surrounding minerals. Extracting gold from low grade ore using cyanide is a process used in over 400 mines worldwide, including Romania. The project would leave most of the village intact, but part of it and the surrounding hills would be consumed in the process, creating new man-made countryside in its wake.

Opponents of the mine have moved to make the village and surrounding area a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This would preserve ancient mine workings for posterity but kill the new mine. With the price of gold likely to break $2000 an ounce, and with rising sovereign debt, can Romania afford to choose eco-friendly tourism over the one chance locals have of saving their livelihoods and boosting the country's economy?

Today clusters of crumbling buildings and rutted roads lead to a cul-de-sac at the end of a deep valley where the mine sits. Rosia Montana is a dying village in a waning area. Unemployment stands at more than 80 per cent since the state gold company Minvest shut up shop in 2006. Just half of the homes have reliable water and it is often rationed to 90 minutes a day. Over 70 per cent of homes lack inside toilets. Rosia Montanans live on one-third of the income of the average Romanian. One in ten lives on about 6 Romanian Lei a day which is equivalent to £1.25 GBP.

There is no public evidence of significant local participation in a grassroots campaign for Rosia Montana to be added to the UNESCO world heritage site list. In fact, most locals appear in favour of the mine. Of the fourteen who competed in the last mayoral election only one opposed its development. He was out of the race after the first stage having garnered only 129 votes. The only local opposition comes from Alburnus Maior, founded in 2000 in response a public announcement of the mining plans. Its alternative is to boost the local economy through organic farming, small craft-based industries and tourism using the cultural heritage of the area. Perhaps motivated by a fear of the unknown, its original 1000 members have now dwindled to just sixty.

Alburnus Maior's membership may have fallen, but it counts powerful international environmental activists, and cultural preservationists as allies. Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, and the Open Society Foundation are just some of the organisations who have joined the opposition. During September, over 500 activists mainly from outside of Romania set up a 'solidarity camp' in the village to oppose the mine. The irony of opposing a mine welcomed by the vast majority of local people, and the Romanian Government, seemed lost on them.

Ironically as well, RGMC has spent millions to excavate and preserve the ruins now being used to justify World Heritage status. It has spent $11 million USD on archaeological research and architectural restoration and has budgeted $45 million USD for an ongoing heritage project.

Romanian archaeologists have unearthed and catalogued fascinating glimpses into the country's history, yet this doesn't mean that Rosia Montana will make the World Heritage List. For Dr Mechtild Rössler, in charge of European and North American World Heritage Sites for UNESCO, the question is whether the site has outstanding universal value, "This can not be judged in the abstract. Naturally people always say their sites are unique, but its uniqueness comes through a global comparative study."

It seems unlikely that Rosia Montana is quite so unique - the Romans and then the Romanians have been busy miners. Over 47 sites of Roman antiquity have been discovered and researched in Romania alone. Further afield the Roman Empire dug up areas from Egypt to Spain to Bulgaria and even to South Wales in its quest for metal.

One can understand why some may want to preserve the peace of the mountains or simply keep their land, but the people of Rosia Montana deserve more than living in a museum foisted on them by outside interests.

I will be chairing a discussion on the politics of cultural preservation at the Battle of Ideas conference in London, 29 & 30 October 2011. Two days of high-level, thought-provoking, public debate organised by the Institute of Ideas, hosted by the Royal College of Art.