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ROMANIA: Villagers Resist a Corporation

Claudia Ciobanu

ROSIA MONTANA, Oct 4 2007 (IPS) - "I never had money, I never wanted money, and I never will want money." "I fear no one but God." "I will not leave this place for as long as I live." Such statements, from a small yet determined core of inhabitants of Rosia Montana are indication that the Canadian corporation that wants to dig for gold here could get blocked by at least some people.

Rosia Montana Credit: Alburnus Maior

Rosia Montana Credit: Alburnus Maior

Rosia Montana is a commune with a population of 3,500 in the Transylvanian county Alba, roughly 600 km northwest of capital Bucharest. The largest gold deposits in Europe, exploited since antiquity, are located in the area. A little over 300 tonnes of gold and around 1,500 tonnes of silver could still be extracted from here, along with other valuable metals such as titanium, experts say.

Rosia is the oldest mining locality in Romania. But apart from these resources, it has a rich historical and cultural heritage. It hosts some of the most ancient Roman underground galleries, and numerous monuments of the 18th and 19th centuries.

For the past 11 years, the Gold Corporation has been trying to persuade inhabitants to accept its development plan for the region.

The Canadian company wants to start extracting gold in Rosia in the autumn of 2009 and, going at a rate of 20 tonnes per year, to exhaust the deposits within about 15 years. It promises to create 6,000 jobs in an area where unemployment stands at 70 percent. The company also says it will "generate 2 billion euro for Romania."

While so far, from antiquity to the communist period, mining has been done through underground access, Gold Corporation proposes open quarry exploitation and use of cyanide for metal separation. These are "modern mining practices and technologies, which have proven profitable all over the world," the company argues.

To make space for extracting gold, the company has started relocating some inhabitants from Rosia to &#39The New Rosia Montana&#39 being built from scratch six kilometres from the old village. The company has already bought about 80 percent of the total of about 800 homes in old Rosia Montana.

More than 100 of these have already been demolished. The rest are either abandoned, or occupied by their former owners who have taken up jobs with Gold. Gold bought houses both in the historical centre of Rosia and on the outskirts.

The company explains that relocation and demolitions are necessary in order to clear areas on the outskirts of Rosia. It also argues that their mining plan will not affect the historical centre of the commune, which includes a concentration of protected historical monuments.

Gold says on its website that it is totally dedicated to safeguarding the cultural heritage of Rosia. "Over the past five years, we have financed with over 10 million dollars the research and recovery of cultural heritage, this being one of the largest programmes of this type in Europe," says the company. It says its archaeological efforts are "in conformity with UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) standards and EU archaeological regulations."

Stefan Balici, an architect working on restoration of houses in Rosia Montana, told IPS there is no way the historical centre would remain unaffected by the exploitation. Trucks the size of houses carrying loads from the quarries through the narrow roads in the centre would shake the fragile cottages, Balici said.

The four peaks around the village would be replaced by four huge holes, radically altering the scenery and ecosystem. Valuable historical sites located outside the centre would be destroyed as well, Balici says.

One of the most worrying consequences is cyanide pollution. The group Romania Without Cyanide says Gold intends to use 10 to 13 million kilograms of sodium cyanide a year in Rosia. The poisonous substance would be kept in protected pools, but the cyanide could easily infiltrate the soil and underground water, a report from Romania Without Cyanide says. In addition, toxic hydrocyanic acid would be released into the air.

The corporation argues that it will help improve environmental conditions in Rosia rather than worsen them. It claims it will improve community life rather than disrupt it.

But Gold has started uprooting the community. Families have been paid money to unearth their dead and bury them outside Rosia.

While some in Rosia would never accept the Gold plan, many have opted for the jobs and the good prices for houses offered by Gold. "Here, in Rosia, we are divided in two camps," says Rodica, owner of a local shop.

Houses bought by the Canadian company carry signs saying "Property of Gold Corporation". Notices on some of the other houses say: "This house is NOT for sale."

The tense atmosphere in the commune can be felt as one enters the centre. Rodica, who has been refusing to sell her house to Gold, says she was forced to get rid of her pigs because the company threatened it would bring her to trial because of the animals&#39 bad smell.

Marti was first given gifts from the company, but it became clear she would never sell her house. Then, she says, the intimidation began. Zelo Ornea, one of the most outspoken opponents of Gold, says he has been receiving death threats.

Religion too has become involved. While officially all churches represented in Rosia (Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant) are opposed to the project, the local Orthodox priest has been heard preaching in favour of the company during service, several villagers going to the church told IPS.

With the battle ongoing, there are some reasons to believe that the villagers opposed to Gold will win. Authorities have temporarily suspended environmental authorisation for the Gold project. The Social-Democratic Party, the largest opposition force in the country, announced Sep. 24 it would support a law to prohibit use of cyanide.

Aware that political statements cannot be counted on, the villagers resisting Gold are relying on their own strength.

"Our allies own houses and lands in areas crucial for Gold," says Zelo Ornea. "And nothing would persuade us to sell out to the company. I think we are winning this time."

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