'Who is Roşia Montană?' a passer-by on Kensington High Street asked me last Sunday. He had seen the inscription both on my t-shirt and on the banners we were preparing for our demonstration: 'Save Roşia Montană'. Although she has her own captivating charms, Roşia Montană is not a person but a place. Not a well-known place. It is a small picturesque village hidden in the woodland heart of Transylvania. It is the epitome of what Romania represents in the Western European mind: a world where time stopped long ago, where man is still closely connected with nature, where signs of 21st-century civilization are hardly detectable. This image is disseminated by the Western media who so often refer to Romania as 'one of the poorest countries in the European Union'. Nevertheless appearances can be deceiving.
This little village sits on a gold mine. Literally. The 300-tonne gold deposit under Roşia Montană is currently considered to be the largest in Europe and the third largest in the world. However, its riches are not a new discovery. The gold and silver of these Transylvanian mountains have been mined for over two thousand years. The Romans were among the first who took part in a gold rush as they stretched their empire as far as these mountains. Not long after they occupied these territories, they founded Alburnus Maior, a village known today as Roşia Montană. They built a labyrinth of galleries as they extracted the gold which was much needed to support their conquering army. Astonishingly, these Roman shafts survive and can be visited today. But perhaps not for much longer. The Romanian authorities have failed to endorse local residents' campaign to include them in the UNESCO World Heritage sites. Curious, you think? The reason is that the Roman mines are in the way of a lucrative mining project which has been laying in the Government's drawers since 1999.
The industrialists and investors of the 21st century are greedily casting their eyes on all the gold, silver and numerous other precious metals which are hidden under the lavishly-forest-covered mountains. Canadian registered company Gabriel Resources, founded by the controversial Romanian-born and London-based businessman, Frank Timiş, has been negotiating with the Romanian state on the opening of an eight square km opencast mine at Roşia Montană for the last fourteen years. The project met opposition at local level when a handful of residents from the small village refused to sell their properties to the corporation. It is thanks to their perseverance and commitment that the gold mining has not yet started.
All seemed about to change. At the end of August the project reached a key milestone when the government drafted a special law which grants the mining company a set of unconstitutional rights meant to speed up the beginning of the gold exploration. If the law is approved by the Parliament and the project goes ahead, four gold-laden mountains will be replaced by a lake which will have an annual intake of 13,000 tonnes of cyanide waste. Needless to say that in the process, the two-thousand-year-old Roman mines will also be destroyed and three villages will be relocated.
The contract between the Government and Gabriel Resources has not been released publicly since 1999 until last week when under the pressure of the civic society the Romanian Government released some documents but not the whole agreement between the state and the Canadian company. No wonder. If the information leaked online is to be believed, the Roşia Montană mining project oozes corruption. The lack of transparency is accentuated by the national media's indifference towards any concerns regarding the project. It continues to deny air time to the opponents of the mining project, but instead abounds with Gabriel Resources' publicity which misinforms the Romanian population.
The passing of the draft law which includes a number of unconstitutional clauses has reached the tipping point of civic society's tolerance towards a corrupt political class who has disregarded and looked down on the public opinion for the last 23 years . Since 1 September, thousands of Romanians have been taking to the streets in 24 major cities in Romania and another 34 around the world. Every day the crowds who gathered to protest against the mining project have grown larger and larger, reaching 20,000 last Sunday, and with even bigger protests announced for 15 September (including in London in front of the Houses of Parliament). They have promised they will not stop until they reach their ultimate aim: ceasing the practice of cyanide mining in Romania and thus prevent any future ecological disasters such as the one which happened in Baia Mare, a city in the northern part of Romania in 2000. But in the short term, they want the Romanian Parliament to reject the draft law proposed by the Government and have Roşia Montană included on Romania's UNESCO heritage list. The 'Save Roşia Montană' campaign is now regarded as the largest civic movement in Romania since the 1989 revolution.
Roşia Montană has survived under numerous waves of conquerors and owners over the last two millennia and its gold provided vital resources for generations of armies, expending empires, and totalitarian regimes. Gabriel Resources now plans to terminate in 15 years what has lasted 2,000 years. Their legacy will be equally lasting - a cyanide lake which will probably spread poison for the next two millennia. The gravity of this legacy has awakened the new generation of Romanians who are tired of putting up with political deceit, corruption, and economic fraud and are ready to protect Romania's heritage as well as its place in the European Union and the world.