On December 9, the opponents of the Rosia Montana gold mining project, which would be conducted by a Canadian corporation, Gabriel Resources Ltd., won a highly important victory.
A local referendum regarding the recommencement of mining in the Apuseni Mountains and the gold mining exploitation at Rosia Montana was rejected, due to an insufficient voter turnout, given that the wide majority of the local residents boycotted it. The referendum, held on December 9, was organized by the Alba District Council in over 35 villages and cities, mostly situated in the Apuseni Mountains. In order for the referendum to be validated, over 50 percent of the voting population should have cast their vote on Sunday. However, only 42,87 percent out of 42,497 eligible citizens, or 17, 683 people, participated in the referendum. Of those present, around 61,59 percent voted „Yes,” 36 percent voted „No” and 1,65 percent of the votes were declared null. This means that the wide majority of people with voting rights in the Apuseni region either responded “No” or boycotted the referendum. In Rosia Montana, where the most important gold deposits in Romania are found and whose exploitation was directly targeted in the referendum, 66,06 percent of the voting population participated in the referendum. 78,75 percent responded affirmatively to the question, 19,44 percent said “No,” and 1,80 percent of the votes were invalidated. The referendum was problematic on many levels. First of all, it barely met the 20 day-requirement imposed by article 16(1) of the Romanian Referendum Law, a time limit which is needed primarily so as to adequately inform the population about the referendum’s content. Article 6 and 7 of the Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters similarly highlight the need to inform the public early on in any environmental decision-making procedure and to facilitate direct public participation in adopting a solution on the matter. The Romanian authorities announced on November 16 that referendum would be held on December 9, on the same day as the national parliamentary elections. The authorities motivated their decision by claiming that this strategy would reduce their expenses. Behind the stated reason was also an expectation that the voters turning out for national elections could also be swayed into participating in the referendum, whether or not they had originally intended to, especially since in most localities the two events took place in the same room, often only divided by a screen. Another problematic aspect about the referendum was that, due to the short notice, no real debate on its two-point question was organized. According to some journalists, the only information campaign was organized by RMGC, the company behind the Rosia Montana project, and consisted mainly of unrealistic promises regarding employment opportunities for the locals, coupled with constant intimidation of the project’s opponents. Nevertheless, despite existing obstacles with the referendum’s organization, the Center for Civic Resources managed to mobilize and credit 67 volunteer observers to monitor the voting and to report any irregularities, in order to ensure the democratic running the event. On a more substantive matter, the referendum question was misleadingly formulated. Citizens were in fact forced to give a single answer to two completely different questions. The first one was a deceptive question, because it appealed to people’s sensitivities. In an area, where, since Roman times, mining was most residents’ key economic activity and a valued and proud family tradition, this question is likely to trigger an emotional and impulsive “of course” answer. The question appeals to people’s desire to regain the region’s prosperity, which, as gradually, many state-run mines were closed.The question, however, shrewdly avoids making reference to mining methods deemed acceptable. Had the referendum passed, it would have allowed the authorities of the 35 communities involved in the referendum to approve virtually any mining project, no matter how socially, economically or environmentally harming it might be, simply because people affirmed in the referendum that they wanted mining projects in the Apuseni. Moreover, the order in which the two referendum questions were placed is not coincidental either. The first question aimed to spark an emotional response and stir their attention away from the second question about Rosia Montana, encouraging people to forget that saying yes to one question meant approving both. In fact, when deciding on the referendum question, many mayors from the 35 localities had opposed explicitly mentioning the Rosia Montana project, which has been extensively opposed in the Romanian society for over 10 years now. Ironically, including it worked against approving the referendum, especially because of the well-known controversial exploitation methods proposed by the Canadian company, which intends to use 40 tons of cyanide daily when conducting the exploitation. The second question also gave people a hint of what the first question avoided to present, which is the methods that authorities would deem appropriate when conducting mining projects. During the referendum itself, there were many fraud attempts, which the volunteer observers sent by the Center for Civic Resources took notice of and reported. Despite all these problems, the important aspect of the referendum is that the Romanian population has given its final answer, which should be respected and applied accordingly by the Romanian government. Some have to accept this decision. For instance, the Leader of the Trade Union for Future Mining in Rosia Montana, Cristian Albu, has publicly asked the Romanian government to take into account the people of Alba’s wishes and restart mining operations, by claiming that the low voter turnout can be explained through the extreme weather conditions. However, the 41,66 percent voter turnout was in fact high, compared to many other regions in the country as well as to the 2008 elections, when 41,09 percent of Alba's population cast its vote. This indicates that it was not the weather that prevented most people from participating in the referendum. The wide majority of the Alba residents made a conscious decision to boycott the referendum, clearly implying that they do not want the Rosia Montana project to commence or mining in the Apuseni to be conducted under unclear circumstances. The Romanian government has the duty to fully respect these citizens’ decision.