Corruption, poverty, stray dogs, orphanages - these are the impressions most people have about Romania, an East European country of 19 million souls that has been an EU member state since 2007. Those who know the country better appreciate its friendly people but despair at the corruption in their vast public sector. Even Romania's small charitable sector has been corrupted by a people who have learned that the quickest way to get things done is to bribe the underpaid officials. Unscrupulous investors have a field day in Romania.
With such an unpromising background it is boggling to see that a residents association in the Transylvanian village of Rosia Montana have managed to block a multi-billion dollar open cast gold mine, a project that would destroy three villages and create the biggest cyanide lake in Europe. The protestors say that groundwater in the whole region would be contaminated and if the cyanide dam bursts it will poison the Danube River and the Black Sea.
What's remarkable about the victory of the local charity is the fact that the Canadian mining company, Gabriel Resources, have invested hundreds of millions of Euro in a national marketing campaign that promises thousands of jobs and billions of Euro in taxes (a promise that is disputed by opponents). The Canadian miners have the uncritical support of the local and county council, the president of the country (Traian Basescu) and most of the national media. But they didn't manage to buy the legal system, which has blocked them by refusing planning permission. This is the most encouraging news about Romania's legal system in the last 20 years.
How did it happen? How did a bunch of peasant farmers and volunteers, operating on a shoestring budget with no access to the national media, manage to block one of the biggest investments in Romania? I went to the remote mountain village of Rosia Montana, located in the Apuseni mountains in western Romania, to find out.
The Residents Association that has caused such a headache for the Canadian miners is called Alburnus Maior. It was set up by Eugen David, a local farmer in Rosia Montana. We went to his house, admired the stunning views of woods, hedgerows and mountains, sat in his kitchen and drank unpasteurised milk. He told us how he got together with about 50 other villagers who all refuse to sell their properties to a mining company that would demolish three villages and four mountains (one of which contains several kilometres of ancient Roman mining galleries). This refusal to sell-up has been a thorn in the side of the mining company since it started buying up local properties over 10 years ago.
Mr David said "our best weapon is to challenge the gold mining project in court" - an approach which is far more effective than the usual noisy street (or online) protests. In April this year they 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 has been upheld by Romania's Minister of the Environment, Rovina Plumb, a former MEP who signed the anti-cyanide mining petition in the European Parliament.
But the mining company refuse to admit defeat. They are like supermarkets in Britain who stake out local councils until more compliant councillors are elected. Having been defeated in court earlier this year the mining company tell their investors back home that all is well, that this devastating court judgement is in fact irrelevant and they are on the verge of getting all the permits they need. Because the story is complex (much of the original contract is classified as a state secret) and it has been going on since 1995, the media aren't interested in investigating properly. As a result the mining company can monopolise the media with its version of the truth.
Romania's voluntary sector is starting to find its voice. The "Save Rosia Montana" village charity only has 60 members, all residents in the threatened village, but they have over 50,000 fans on Facebook and claim that a majority of Romanians support them. Like most Romanian charities, they lack access to professional design, PR and communication services - until this year when a Bucharest-based ad agency produced a brilliant pro-bono TV ad which uses a Holocaust inspired concept (and a Jewish actress who played Mary in Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ) to oppose the mining project. You can see it here.
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N.B. The opinions in this article are entirely my own and have nothing to do with my job at Castle Craig Hospital.