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'Roșia Montană exists because of mining': Cyanide, gold and Canadian capital in cash-strapped Romania

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We left Bacău county at 8 a.m. in the morning. We stopped in Comănești for some informal meetings, in Miercurea Ciuc for lunch, and Sighișoara for sightseeing. All Romanian towns. One in Moldova and two in Transylvania. One in the 'Romanian' part of Romania, one in the Hungarian ethnic enclave, which the all-proud and nationalist Romanians do not want to recognize as a legit enclave, and one in the old German part, which is squeezed of all its Germanness for touristy purposes, since Germaness constitutes (par excellence) one of the highest markers of (Western) distinguishedness in the Balkans (yet second to the French finesse of course). Long story short, all small towns. No need to know much about them in Canada.

By the evening we were in Muncel, the tiniest place in the middle of nowhere (or the Apuseni mountains if we are to map this nowhere-ness a little bit more), just 50 km away from Romania's oldest mining settlement, Roșia Montană. And here is where, as Canadians, we should care and know about Roșia Montană. The small town has been battling a Canadian gold mining company for over 16 years now. The open pit gold mining project is pursued by Roșia Montană Gold Corporation (RMGC) -- an intermediary of the Canadian owned Gabriel Resources (GBU), with its official head office based in Whitehorse, Yukon and a subsidiary location in London, U.K. RMGC is based in Canada and sub-incorporated in Romania. One of the thousands corporations that came out after the '89 revolution. GBU holds 80.69 per cent of its shares. The remaining 19.31 per cent are owned by Minvest Roșia Montană S.A., a Romanian state-owned company. The project would be the largest cyanide opencast mine in Europe.

We spent the night in Muncel at my aunt's place. In the morning we headed to Roșia. ''Just before you hit Câmpeni, you need to turn left and then another left,'' my uncle said. ''So you drive straight and when you see a steam locomotive, then you turn the first left.'' That's how directions are always given in Romania. No North and South. Nor East and West. Rather left and right with some symbolic points of reference on the way. We have shortly seen a sign: Roșia Puieni left. This is it. We turned left.

No steam locomotive yet. Just climbing and climbing. And more climbing and climbing. Some guy wearing an orange-vest stood in front of our halted car. Seems that we cannot go up anymore. This is a copper mine. It is not the Roșia Montană mine. "If you wouldn't have had the camera I would have let you in" the orange-vest guy said. I told him I could switch off my camera. "It won't work" he said, ''because you already have the camera. It is just how it is. We are not the bad guys anyway. Turn back, keep straight and once you get to the locomotive, turn left.''

We finally got to the locomotive and turned left. Climbed a little bit and then turned left again. Seen a yellow banner reading "Roșia Montană, mining town" right above us. Good I thought, we are on the right track. Few meters away, a RMGC white banner: "Roșia Montană exists because of mining". Quite some existential descriptions at play.

I was surprised to see the ex-communist flats. I always imagined Roșia as this very picturesque place with old houses and all-natural surroundings. "People have nothing to eat in the flats," I suddenly remembered my aunt saying. "They are starving over there." Not much naturalness about that. Indeed, the unemployment rate reaches 90 per cent in Roșia. Quite surreal to me, coming from a place like Canada -- where unemployment merely stretches around seven per cent (i.e. April 2015 rate). We have seen a tourist information point. Offering "accommodation, bike rentals, tourist guides and other services." Walked over but the door was locked. I guess out of momentarily services.

We drove another minute or so to get to the center. Several German heritage houses on both sides of the road. Germanenss, I thought. How does it relate to the 90 per cent unemployment? We started walking. Three barking stray dogs were following us. Very common practice in Romania to feel you could be teeth-punched anytime by a stray dog. A newer looking building had "The Cultural Foundation of Roșia Montana" tinted on the wall. Knocked on the door but it was locked again. Two women were chatting outside.

One of them picked up the phone "Come down, someone is here to see you." A guy wearing a yellow vest showed up. I introduced myself and said that I am coming from Toronto. "Ah, from the Stock Exchange?" he asked. I responded that I am not from the stock exchange, that I am from the Romanian diasporic community in Toronto, that we are organized under Canada Save Roșia, which now has a Facebook page but initially started as a Facebook group, however after we changed to the page we were able to incorporate Montréal along Toronto as well, which is so much better because we can have broader appeal, that we have supported the 2013 protests against the project, that we were also out in solidarity every Sunday between September and December 2013, but unfortunately by December only about 10-20 of us would show up, despite some alleged high number of 60,000 Romanians in Toronto (number never verified in fact, but passed along in all community argumentations), that some guy from our group rationalized this apathetic mentality as people wanting to rather watch TV or spend time with their girlfriends or boyfriends than attend a protest, and that I sort of think that too, and that oh, it is so good that the project didn't get a parliamentary pass, and mobilizing efforts for sure seem to work.

"Come on in" he said. "We can chat inside."

He told me many stories. About the very beginnings at Roșia. The company came and bought everything, almost 80 per cent. They did not expect to face such strong community resistance from just a handful of peasants. They were buying out houses and placing out people in some flats not far away. Some even got mobile phones for free. People were poor, they were happy to get anything. Not everyone wanted to sell. But some people wanted jobs, they would have been happy to work a few years and not think about the rest. The cyanide destruction that will follow.

Many people came and talked to him. He gave interviews on interviews. He always said the same thing. You cannot trust the state or the market. They both go hand in hand. Hmmm…I thought. Yes, this is how the market-state works nowadays. But the company seems to be caput. From eight dollars on the Stock Exchange it is now trading at around 50 cents. Unsure how they even survive. Probably by buying each other's stocks.

They only have about 50 millions euros left for the development, which is nothing for such a big scale project. Many people from the company already left. They spent too much on publicity in 2013, thousands of euros. But someone else will come. This is how it works. There are 300 tonnes of gold here. They will sell to a bigger company and they will come and try again. "But thank you for the exhibit," he said. "We will hang it on the building for the FânFest" (the annual hay festival in Roșia Montană). United We Save* is a photo and text exhibit of the Toronto protests. It contains over 40 photographs that were printed on canvas via heat transfers sheets. The exhibit was on display at University of Toronto, Oldenburg University in Germany and University of Bucharest. As a final destination, we left it in Roșia.

We thanked our guy, turned around, walked next to the barking dogs, and left. We turned right and then right again. Snapped some shots of the locomotive. And headed to Câmpeni.

 

Note: * The United We Save movement gathered a group of Romanians from the country and abroad. After four months of mobilizing, between September and December 2013, the draft bill allowing GBU to start the Roșia Montană project was rejected by the Romanian Senate in November 19 2013, with amendments to the country's mining law being further voted down by the Parliament on December 10, 2013 and respectively June 3, 2014.

Photo: Raluca Bejan

 

 

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