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Stopping Europe's biggest gold mine

After ten weeks of nationwide protests, Romanian senators rejected bill to open the mega-mine.

Last updated: 27 Nov 2013 07:01
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Bucharest, Romania - Ten thousand people march through a neighbourhood in Romania's capital shouting, "If you care, come out of your house!" Lights in huge, Communist-era concrete apartment buildings turn on one by one and silhouettes appear in the window frames. Some of the spectators cheer and wave flags on their balconies.

They haven't seen public demonstrations of this size since Romania's anti-communist revolution and the ensuing turmoil more than 20 years ago. The nationwide protest movement, calling themselves "United We Save," are demanding an end to environmentally harmful mining projects, curbing corruption, and higher spending on health and education.

Although Romania's "Facebook generation" has often been dismissed as apathetic and individualistic, many of them are now out on the streets, inspired by the Occupy movement and the uprisings in Egypt and Turkey earlier this year. "We have awakened," reads one of their banners.

The movement began this September, when the government drafted a law to speed up a controversial mining project that has been in the works for 15 years. The law would allow the Canadian company Gabriel Resources to bypass legal hurdles and expropriate property in the mountain town of Rosia Montana to open Europe's largest gold mine.

The mine would raze mountaintops to extract an estimated 314 tons of gold and 1,500 tons of silver. The company promised $4bn of earnings for Romania and thousands of jobs in an impoverished area.

But activists argue that the environmental risk of using cyanide in mining is too high, that Romania would see few of the benefits and that the operations would destroy 2,000-year-old mining galleries dug by the Romans, who were among the first to extract gold from Rosia Montana. In addition to the protesters, the project is opposed by a wide range of institutions, from the Romanian Academy to the Orthodox Church.

Last week, the Romanian Senate voted overwhelmingly against the plan, with 119 senators opposed and only three in favour. The project could still technically come to fruition if Romania's House of Representatives votes in favour of the bill, but the prime minister said the project was "closed" and the president has said he won't sign the bill if it is passed.

Unexpected mobilisation

The first protest on September 1 drew 5,000 people - far more than expected - who occupied the main boulevard in Bucharest, erected tents and organised a sit-in in the middle of the street.

The next Sunday, they called for their friends and family to join and 10,000 people marched in a kilometre-long column. Twenty thousand came to the next protest - four times the number of those who said they would be "attending" on Facebook.

Gold mine creates controversy in Romania

It was an unlikely crowd for a protest in Romania: a colourful mix of mostly young and educated people, working in IT or the "creative" industries - a demographic that tends to be politically apathetic and unlikely to vote.

They held witty banners with references to Quentin Tarantino movies, or calling Chuck Norris and Captain Planet to the rescue. For many of them, it was their first time at a protest. "We're not here just for Rosia Montana. The frustrations built up for a long time," said Sasa, a 29-year-old employee of a big corporation. "We needed Rosia Montana to get up."

Security forces, while present in large numbers, did not use force. "As long as the manifestation is not only peaceful, but also ultra-civilised, there's no sense in stopping the people from occupying the street," said Interior Minister Radu Stroe to the newspaper Gandul.

At one point, a police truck tried to disperse the crowds, but people laid down in front of it and forced it to retreat. One of them was 38-year-old architect Eugen Mira, who said, "I love my country. I'm lucky to be born in Romania and I can't stand that a stranger, or even one of ours, can come and destroy my country."

Following the unprecedented wave of protests, Gabriel Resources' stock dropped around 50 percent and President Traian Basescu and Prime Minister Victor Ponta accused each other of taking bribes from the company.

Ponta had opposed the mining project when his Social Democratic Party was in the opposition. "The government is giving away what's left of Romania's resources," Ponta said in 2012 about the former administration. But he has since changed his mind, and supported a law to jump-start the project until it was rejected by the Senate.

Few of the protesters say they trust the legislative process in Romania - noting that of the current parliament's 581 members, 15 had been indicted, prosecuted or convicted before they were elected.

Villagers against shale gas

After a month and a half of protests in big cities, smaller movements began appearing in villages against potentially harmful energy projects.

Hundreds of villagers in Pungesti, a village in eastern Romania, started their own sit-in protests, with local priests as leaders. They blocked trucks owned by energy giant Chevron from entering a field where it planned to drill an exploration well for shale gas. Some activists from Bucharest and Cluj-Napoca travelled to Pungesti to support the protest there.

Everyone is his own leader. It's a mentality still subtle for many: You have an idea, just do it. Don't wait for anyone's approval.

- Cosmin Pojoranu, activist

The Romanian government awarded 30-year agreements to Chevron with some of the lowest royalties in Europe. The revenue from the project would go to the federal budget instead of to locals. The fact that Chevron planned to drill for gas using the controversial technique of fracking - in which pressurised liquids are injected into the ground to split rock - also angered the protesters. 

The villagers blocked a road and camped in a field, erecting makeshift tents and spending the nights gathered around campfires. A local journalist started a live-streaming channel from the field. In a couple of hours it gathered thousands of viewers, and by evening University Square in Bucharest was teeming with young people protesting in solidarity with the farmers. After four days, Chevron announced it would suspend exploration activities in Pungesti.

"Chevron is committed to building constructive and positive relationships with the communities where we operate and we will continue our dialogue with the public, local communities and authorities on our projects," the company wrote in a statement. Rosia Montana Gold Corporation, a Canadian-Romanian company set up for the mining project, did not respond to requests for comment.

'United We Save'

The "United We Save" protest movement has brought together many different subcultures, and although they all think the planned Rosia Montana project is an example of mismanagement and corruption, they differ on how to fix the system. A few protesters, especially older ones, said they wanted the movement to have a strong, charismatic leader.

But most favour a decentralised model. The movement claims to have only community organisers, not leaders. "Everyone is his own leader," says Cosmin Pojoranu, one of the administrators of the movement's Facebook page. "It's a mentality still subtle for many: You have an idea, just do it. Don't wait for anyone's approval."

Earlier this month, the protesters met with members of Spain's "Indignados" ("The Outraged") movement and announced that they planned to adopt their model, organising into smaller activist groups to focus on a variety of issues.

Meanwhile, many Romanians are just excited to have found something they think is worth fighting for. Emilian Jamschek, a 33-year-old architect, says while holding a flag in Bucharest's Revolution Square: "It's important for people to speak their minds, that's the basis of democracy. Right now, our society is not democratic. But look at these guys [the protesters] - they're going to set things right."

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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