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Rosia Montana and Dirty Politics

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Rosia Montana is an ancient Romanian village sitting on Europe's largest gold deposit: 315 tonnes of a metal that currently fetches around $1,200 per ounce on the stock market. This area is also home to some of the world's most significant Roman artifacts: 7km of ancient mine galleries weaving through the Apuseni Mountains - and they are under threat of demolition due to a controversial cyanide mine run by foreign investors.

Advisory bodies are calling for the area to be granted UNESCO World Heritage status; while Gabriel Resources, a Canadian firm listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange, is intent on digging gold, unearthing a myriad of murky politics in this one time communist state.

On August 27, after 14 drawn-out years of Gabriel Resources' investment with legal barriers and opposition stalling the project, the Romanian government passed a draft bill granting the company the rights to mine the area of Rosia Montana for its metals. The planned 16-year extraction is poised to flatten 4 mountain tops, expropriate hundreds of families, put tens-of-thousands of local jobs at risk, and deposit 215 million cubic metres of water, visible from the moon, in a lake contaminated with poisonous cyanide.

In 2010 a report was commissioned by the Romanian Ministry of Culture, but paid for by NGO Pro Patromonio to evaluate Rosia Montana's archeological heritage. The evaluation was carried out by UK private consultancy, CgMs, whose job is to "balance the often conflicting demand to deliver profitable development whilst addressing conservation, sustainability and the many other issues which impinge on the development process." The report was submitted in 2010 - for minister Daniel Barbu to then claim for the past three years that no such document existed. Reasons for this are open to speculation.

Pro Patromonio then took the Ministry of Culture to court to request the document, and after a long and speculative wait the report appeared yesterday. Andrew Wilson, Professor of Archaeology of the Roman Empire, from Oxford University, one of three British specialists sent to Rosia Montana by CgMs to evaluate the site, says: "The purpose of the report was to produce a statement of the archeological significance of Rosia Montana in an international context,"

Prof. Wilson continued: "Rosia Montana is the largest underground Roman mining complex known from the Roman world. It is also the place where over 33 writing tablets were found in different mine galleries at various points in the 19th century. It's therefore of exceptional interest because it has produced things like labour contracts and mining agreements from the early to mid 2nd Century. The report is a very big part of the Rosia Montana narrative. I feel it's important that the report is made public, I think it is a clear and important contribution to the current debate." With the turn up of the report Minister Daniel Barbu now claims the report was supposed to exempt Mount Carnic from evaluation - Carnic happens to be the largest mountain with the majority of gold.

Claudia Apostol, who works in Rosia Montana for NGO Architecture Restoration Archaeology, says: "This remarkable heritage already attracts thousands and thousands of tourists, although the local authorities, the government and the companies involved are doing their best to prevent it, or even deny it."

While the politicians and mining companies shouted job creation, a global movement started shouting cyanide - and for good reason. In year 2000 Romania added to its resume the worst environmental disaster in Europe since Chernobyl went nuclear in 1986 - when a dam in Baia Mare cracked due to heavy rains and snow melt. The dam failure spewed 100,000 cubic metres of water contaminated with cyanide into 2000km of the River Danube tributaries killing every living species in its path - further polluting waters in Hungary, Serbia, and finally the Black Sea. Hungary fined Romania $100m in damages while huge numbers of dead fish rose to the surface throughout the three countries.

The proposed waste deposit at Rosia Montana is set to be 130 times larger than that of Baia Mare, so selling this ecological, social, and cultural bomb to the Romanian public was always going to be tricky for the investors who are set to profit billions from the project. The big play has been on the 900 local jobs the project will create in the depressed area, while failing to mention the 20,000 or more jobs put at risk in the surrounding towns and villages.

What politicians also diplomatically omit, is that in 2002 the local County Council deemed Rosia Montana a "mono-industrial zone" - curiously stipulating no other commercial activity other than mining can operate in the village. This law was overruled in the court of law but was labeled "mono-industrial" immediately after. The new draft bill states that the government can re-issue any authorization within 30 days.

Then in March 2013 the multinational financial firm that specialises in insurance initiated a risk assessment procedure for the mining project, to determined whether they will insure it. Michael Diekmann, CEO of Allianz, said: "As a result of what we found, Allianz will not do business with Gabriel Resources and will not insure the proposed project." Gabriel Resources market capitalisation is a mere CAD $303.44m, which is curiously small for such a huge mining project from a company with no prior mining experience. I wrote to Gabriel Resources asking if they had an insurer for the project - I didn't receive a response.

Through aggressive PR and media campaigns the parties set to profit are doing all they can to pacify, oppress, and deceive opposition to the mine. In 2010 Rosia Montana Gold Corporation (RMGC), the 80 percent stakeholder in the project paid 20 influential Romanian media managers and journalists to visit a goldmine in New Zealand - spending a reported 10,000 Euros per head on the trip. The mining company has purchased big advertising contracts with all of the state's mainstream media; and until more recently the coverage of the global movement against the mine has been curiously sparse.

Eugen David, a subsistence farmer from Rosia Montana, who has become the figurehead of the global community opposing the mine, and who heads NGO Alburnus Major, says: "the press is held on a leash by the company's big advertising contracts. Either online or by publishing our own newspaper and spreading it around all of Romania, we somehow need the people to hear a different opinion, not just the same fabricated story the company's PR is telling us through the media."

This raises an eyebrow on the subject of impartiality and buying editorial sympathy. Romania's state TV channels have broadcast concerts in Bucharest as headline news while 25,000 protesters were marching the capital's streets chanting "united we save Rosia Montana, the revolution of our generation!." The PR Company working for Gabriel Resources have also been quick to contact foreign journalists when protests are published in a respected foreign title; after publishing a report in a British national newspaper that was shared over 13,000 times, they duly contacted me.

The email informed me that cyanide is found in varying concentrations in spinach, apricots, coffee and table salt and that the "depressed area" of Rosia Montana will become prosperous. It mentioned nothing of the Baia Mare catastrophe, the tens-of-thousands of jobs at risk in surrounding areas, the demolition of churches, or the Roman mine heritage. They also suggested it best if all information is straightened out by them "before any articles are published" regarding Rosia Montana.

What the Romanian government have found difficult to deal with or comprehend, throughout this saga is an educated youth with the internet at its fingertips. There seems to have been a latent dissent with the populace who are tired of their second-rate democracy. Like every movement of our day, protests and information have been rapid and reactionary. Where printers could once be easily turned off - the internet can't.

"Alburnus Major has annulled every important legal notice given by the authorities in the favour of the project, in court. The mining project is illegal from so many points of view. Now they have proposed a bill so that their entire activity would be able to bypass legal channels and they, a foreign investor, would be able to expropriate us." Says Eugen.

"The EU politicians say that they can only intervene if the project is eventually approved. But even there we see how parliament's resolution to the banning of cyanide mining stays blocked with the committee on the basis that it does not appeal to the mining companies. Well who writes the law in the EU? The companies or the people? The committee is filled with lobbyists, and to us lobby stands for official corruption."

Eugen also claims that some tactics at play by the mining companies are better suited to the bygone communist era, "The mining company pays for the protests in favour of the mine here at Rosia Montana, they bus people in whenever politicians or the press appear. Rosia Montana has 3000 inhabitants, and as few as 250-300 people come to the protests organised by the mining company, many of which come from far away."

Then we have the curious figures of Stefan Marincea, Director of the Geological Institute who has accused RMGC of falsifying geological maps. Where RMGC claimed the soil of the waste lake was impermeable - it turned out to be highly permeable. On October 16 the government fired Marincea via fax shortly after he made a statement against the interest of Chevron's fracking rights - another controversial issue that is starting to further rouse the nation. Meanwhile, former Military Prosecutor Gheorgie Oancea, was interviewed by the Special Committee (set up especially for Rosia Montana) to whom he declared that during his mandate he witnessed abuse and corruption surrounding the Rosia Montana mining project, but was unable to pursue his claims due to pressure - and said he was made to bury files by the then Prime Minister Emil Boc.

Grey matter and high profile bickering has swamped the Rosia Montana debate, making it difficult for a foreign audience to process a clear narrative from Romania's labyrinth politics.

Some hope was drawn though on October 15 when the National Council for Audio Visual (CNA), whose job it is to ensure that Romania's TV and radio stations operate in an environment of free speech, responsibility and competitiveness made the decision to terminate adverts by RMCG from all media channels, deeming the companies adverts unlawful. Loran Turos, a member on the board of CNA, said: "what is the purpose of this campaign? There is no product or service being sold...why is this company paying so much money? To promote what? My opinion is that this company has a very well established interest to gain a positive vote in parliament - therefore it is promoting a political interest. This is already a political problem. It requires a political decision."

This was a progressive move that finally gave democracy and law in Romania a voice. But even this move was a reaction spurred on by Eugenia Voda, a respected Romanian TV presenter (rather than any government official) who wrote an open letter to CNA calling for "immediate and complete termination of related RMGC commercials that has invaded Romanian broadcasting."

Since September 1 all media channels have barraged the nation with adverts carrying the slogan "Say yes to mining! It is good for Romania!". Voda likened the nature of the adverts to a "private referendum, a state within a state". She went on to highlight the use of the internet, "everything you click on, anything you search for - a film, an actor, a plane ticket, a cooking recipe, anything, they put it in front of you, bang! "Say yes to mining!" CNA followed suit to Voda's request, which scored the mining company an own-goal and publically displayed the murky nature of tactics at play.

The big play in favour of the mine has been that local residents at Rosia Montana need work, which is true, but much of this is owed to the mono-industrial zone label imposed on the area, and so poverty and modern cars created a cheap cocktail for persuasion, but it is shortsighted. Sixteen years of work isn't nearly enough work for one generation for the untold risks at stake.

On October 16 RMGC sent the Special Committee a list of officials who profited financially from the company. The President of the Committee, Darius Valcov, insisted that law could not allow him to make the list public. Valcov told website pesurse.ro, "I can't publicise the list - I'd be breaking the law'. The government also refuses to publish the contract they signed with Gabriel Resources. Monica Macovei, a former Minister of Justice, publically declared her belief that the license had expired. The Rosia Montana story seems littered with curious figures, missing documents, back patting, and murky politics - and Romanians have become fed up with it.

There's not much consideration given to post mining when Gabriel Resources have left with the valuable metals, and deposited a hideous lunar landscape with enormous craters and a huge toxic lake. Over the past couple of months the Romanian media have pacified protestors and George Maior, the Chief of Romanian Intelligence, has labeled them 'eco-anarchists' - seemingly to create a flimsy image of protesters and disregard for this global movement.

It seems more like a knee-jerk reaction to undermine a mass movement the controllers lack ideas on how to control. This is the story of the small village that has triggered Romania's biggest uprising since the demise of communism in 1989 - with protesters out on the streets in 75 cities worldwide: from Bucharest to London, New York to Shanghai. The interesting steps in this Rosia Montana narrative are yet to come, and the government can sense it. Romania's democracy is frail and immature, and commentators have coined this mass movement the "Romanian Autumn" - but it looks set to see the snow fall.