Article by Raluca Besliu
Raluca Besliu is a masters student in Refugees and Forced Migration Studies at Oxford.

On January 28, a freezing day in Bucharest, hundreds of Romanian citizens protested against a government-approved gold mining project in Rosia Montana by a Canadian corporation, Gabriel Resources Ltd. It was not the first protest against the project: as I mentioned in a previous post, anti-governmental sentiment has swept the country since mid-January, and the row over Rosia Montana is a key issue. But despite the protesters’ warnings about the environmental, cultural and economic consequences of the project, Romanian authorities seem disinterested.

The project’s opponents criticise the use of cyanide (a common technique used to leach gold from extracted material) which would have a devastating and irreversible impact on the region’s biodiversity. Moreover, the mine would lead to the destruction of over 900 buildings and the relocation of over 2,000 people. Alas, the Romanian government supports the project, highlighting its economic value, and ironically, its ecologic and cultural benefits for the region.

A key justification put forth by advocates is that it represents the best chance for the region to escape poverty. They argue the project would create a total of 3,600 jobs, ensuring Rosia Montana’s sustainable economic development. However, CNS Cartel ALFA, a trade union group, puts the number at around 1,700 jobs, a significant difference, and predicted that after nine years employment would fall to just over 300. Hardly long term economic sustainability.

Furthermore, contrary to the Romanian government’s claim, the region is not mired in inescapable poverty, but rather systematically impoverished by government industrial policy, which declared the region a mono-industrial mining area. A state owned mine existed in the same location,  closing in 2006 ahead of Romania’s accession into the EU. This single-minded economic vision prevents alternative types of development. Instead of a mine, Rosia Montana could be an ideal location for eco-tourism, small businesses, agriculture and wood processing.

Re-opening the mine will do little for Romania’s long term economic development. As is the case with many foreign-owned resource extraction projects, Gabriel Resources owns  80 percent of the project, leaving the Romanian government with only 20 percent. After extracting 800-4,000 tonnes of gold, over 2,300 tonnes of silver, over 300 tonnes of uranium and numerous rare minerals, the Romanian state will obtain almost nothing – apart from lengthy cleanup.

And there will be a lot of it. The use of cyanide is highly controversial given the environmental effects. But many Romanian parliamentarians stress it is environmentally safe, and claim that cyanide uses will be lower than the European standard. More brazenly, the Romanian president has gone so far as to claim that the mining project will “ecologize” the region and that less cyanide will be used than that found in a cup of coffee (link in Romanian). Strange, most people do not drink coffee containing 40 tonnes of cyanide, the daily amount to be used at Rosia Montana.

Romania has already experienced the negative impacts of cyanide usage in 2000 during the Aurul S.A. Corporation’s Baia Mare  mining project. The company deposited over 100 tonnes of cyanide waste, breaking a dam in the process. This contaminated 100,000 square metres of fresh water, killing 1,240 tonnes of fish and causing enormous health problems for the locals.

The area’s culture heritage is also at risk. Mining, cyanide free, has occurred here since before Roman times. In the 18th and 19th centuries, several ceramic plaques containing Roman buy-sell agreements were discovered. Indeed, the mines themselves, many still preserved, are of historic value. To this effect, Gabriel Resources wants to preserve a historic centre in Rosia Montana, promising to renovate its buildings. But the company intents to start renovation after the cyanide extraction starts and given the buildings’ frailty, they are likely to collapse. More treasures are likely to lie buried in the mines and surrounding region. In response, project opponents are proposing to make Rosia Montana a UNESCO World Heritage site.

This is a good idea. I believe our international patrimony must be respected ahead of political and economic interests. Cyanide-based extraction methods should be banned at the international level. If citizens from across the globe lobbied their governments and the international community to stand against the Rosia Montana Project, not only would this important heritage site be preserved – but from these lessons learned, other locations can be protected from similar exploitation.

Raluca Besliu is a masters student in Refugees and Forced Migration Studies at Oxford.