In 2013, tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Romania and abroad, mobilised exclusively by NGOs and informal networks to protest against a law which meant turning an idyllic place into the largest cyanide-based mining project in Europe. A small village in Transylvania became the battle ground of opposing narratives and forces.
Its very long history of gold-mining turned Roşia Montană into an equally vibrant and tensed community, reflecting the changes in political and economic regimes. Its latest transformation, driven by global and local corporate interests, serves as a revealing case of abuse and resistance. Its origin is to be found in the turbulent transitional politics and economy. Equally important, it signals the end of transition as quest for development at any cost and the surge of new political and social cleavages.
Roşia Montană, the age long curse of gold
Roşia Montană, a medium-sized village in the heart of Transylvania, in northwest Romania is one the oldest continuously inhabited gold mining communities in Europe. It sits on vast networks of Roman and medieval galleries, many of them having important cultural and heritage value. In the early 20th century it was a very rich and multicultural place, relying economically on the work of independent miners owning their own quarries. After the end of the Second World War, when Romania became a communist state, there were still significant reserves of gold and other precious materials in the mine. The nationalisation of the economy meant that the resources would be intensively exploited by state owned enterprises.
Roşia Montană became the perfect opportunity to express the increasing dissatisfaction of citizens with the party system, government, mainstream media and corporate practices.
The industrial development brought to the place new technologies, inhabitants, modes of organization and a subsequent destruction of the natural environment. At the end of the communist regime in 1989, Roşia Montană was still a diverse community but wholly dependent on the mining of gold. As in many other cases, the transition was very tough. The state owned company, lacking financing and technology, declined, leaving many people out of work and a partially devastated landscape. The scenario was very common in transitional Romania, the most affected being the communities relying on extractive industries (e.g. coal) and mono-industrial activities (chemical, metallurgy). But Roşia Montană still had a lot of gold left and that brought it to the attention of foreign investors of global scale.
Roşia Montana Gold Corporation (RMGC) was stocklisted in Canada and built its local operations in Bucharest, the capital, Alba Iulia and Roşia Montană. Their plan was to relocate the village, and turn the area into a gold mining exploitation of huge proportions using a cyanide-based mining technology. The four mountains surrounding the village, many of them having tens of kilometres of Roman galleries, were supposed to be destroyed as a result of the processing a cyanide lake of approximately 600 hectares. The mining project as it was planned should have been the largest in Europe.
From local to (inter)national, from campaign to street protest
How did the Roşia Montană protest evolve from a local struggle to an international one and how did it become a turning point in the transition?
First, a local focal point of resistance managed to attract a wide network of support and solidarity. Second, the politics of the country forced the resurrection of political protest. Roşia Montană became the perfect opportunity to express the increasing dissatisfaction of citizens with the party system, government, mainstream media and corporate practices.
The first critical factor was the creation of the local opposition group. Formed by ex-miners now turned farmers and entrepreneurs, the group successfully resisted the massive pressure coming from the authorities and the company. Their opposition became notorious and was quickly taken on-board by progressive and environmental groups from Cluj, a large university town not far from the village. Due to these groups, the local resistance turned into a proper campaign – Save Roşia Montană (Salvaţi Roşia Montană), with legal actions, support for cultural events and professional communication. A strategic move from these campaigners and the local opposition was to start FânFest, an alternative musical and cultural festival.
Thousands of people came every year, meeting the community, seeing the places and leaving with some commitment to the preservation of the place. Equally important, it created an economic and symbolical lifeline with the local community. It also provided an alternative model of development opposed to the one envisioned by the mining company and the government. With Fânfest and other information and mobilisation tools, the case became well-known in the civic and cultural circles in the country and abroad. The technological, economic, and legal details of the project became familiar to various mass-media organisations, environmental networks, research institutes and even churches. It also became a European issue as the campaigners asked the EU to ban cyanide-based mining. The campaign resulted in a European Parliament resolution which failed to produce legislation due to the reluctance of the European Commission and some Member States.
The constant expansion of the opposition networks went in parallel with a specific political dynamics in the country. The project was supported since its inception by all major parties in Romania.
A separated community
Not all the local community opposed the mining project. In fact the majority supported it mired by the prospect of having well paid jobs even though it meant the abandonment of their houses, lands and community building as the church and cemetery. It was a tragic choice that many people made. The recent history of the place can help understand the local support and opposition. As Roşia Montană became a major mining site after 1945, the community significantly grew in numbers. People came from all over Romania to work there, most of them more or less coerced by the regime. The existing community was absorbed in the new industry. After 1989, the de-structuring of the mining sector left the majority of miners, many of them young and not owning property with little means to survive. They had to choose between emigrating or holding on to the few jobs around. The project of the company was seen by them as a rescue.
Against this background, the company engineered the social destruction of the community first. It employed a large number of people and used them to pressure their families, friends and neighbours into selling their property. It offered to those willing to sell and move new houses in the nearby town of Alba Iulia, 40 km away. The split of the community was visible and very painful. Young people turned against the older ones, who wanted to keep the family houses and lands, neighbours against neighbours on the same grounds. Only a few families stayed in Roşia Montană while many other moved to Alba Iulia. The results of the relocation were tragic. Some villagers deeply regretted the move and committed suicide. At the time of writing the article the situation has not changed much. The community is physically and psychologically separated into two camps, waging a war in which already they have lost a lot, on both sides.
The constant expansion of the opposition networks went in parallel with a specific political dynamics in the country. The project was supported since its inception by all major parties in Romania. The mining company spent almost 500 million dollars preparing the project, a large amount of money going into communication and lobbying. The generous spending was over-shadowed by the amounts of money envisaged as total spending and profit, in the order of billion of dollars. The intense lobby by RMGC paid off. There were a constant stream of MPs, ministers, prime-ministers and presidents stating their support. The latest high-ranking supporters of the project were the former president Traian Basescu, de facto leader of the center right government until 2012 and the current prime-minister Victor Ponta, leader of the Social Democratic Party.
The 10 year tenure of president Basescu was a good period for the company. The president himself visited the village trying to convince the core of the opposition to give up. During the economic crisis he promoted an aggressive austerity policy, with severe cuts in spending and salaries and increases in taxes. These policies and his quasi-authoritarian style of leadership resulted in violent street protests in early 2012.
The protests were anti-austerity, anti-poverty and corruption and surprisingly or not, were also against the Roşia Montană mining project. It was at this time that the campaign made a definitive step in bringing the issue at the top of the public agenda. The active people in the Save Roşia Montană campaign were involved in the street protests in Bucharest and Cluj, an experience that proved essential to the success of the 2013 protests.
In all this period the leader of the social-democrats, Victor Ponta was very vocal against the mining project, considering it part of the corrupt and irresponsible agenda of the centre-right president. His stances were convincing enough and more or less everyone involved believed that a change in government would also stop the project. Victor Ponta became the prime-minister of Romania in April 2012. Later that year, he was confirmed as prime-minister, leading a large parliamentary majority formed by the Social Democrats and the Liberals. Rather unexpectedly in early fall 2013, there was a complete turn in policies and his government sent to the Parliament a special law concerning the Roşia Montană mining project. The law, an absolute novelty in constitutional terms, effectively suspended current legislation on urban planning, environment and other areas, allowing the company to bypass the legal and institutional obstacles they had encountered. The conditions were perfect for a new wave of civic mobilisation to come.
The impact of the protests was not only relevant in the politics of the day, it also marked a turning point in recent Romanian history.
The “Romanian autumn”: mobilisation and competing narratives
The special law brought a sense of danger and urgency to the situation and people felt that the fate of Roşia Montană would be decided within weeks.
Immediately people took to the streets in Bucharest and Cluj, reaching a peak of 30,000 participants in the first and around 10,000 in Cluj. All the networks created by the campaign in previous years were quickly mobilised. Along with them came the people who were active in the street protests in 2012. The protest in 2012, still fresh in the minds of the public, had an empowering effect and prepared the people for what was to come, a significantly larger and better-structured wave of protests.
These groups soon joined forces with those unhappy with the general performance of the new government. The success of the mobilisation and the protest was due to the fact that it gathered diverse and, up to a point, complementary interests, agendas and ideas. Roşia Montană became the umbrella cause under which various groups came together –the most popular slogan being “United, we save Roşia Montană” (Uniţi salvăm Roşia Montană!). You would find in the same place progressives, environmentalists, conservatives and even nationalists. This variety was a strength of the protests, reaching the wider society but was also the main obstacle in becoming a more institutionalised social movement. After the end of the protests, the Save Roşia Montană continued its work while other militant groups stayed active under the umbrella of United, We Save (Uniţi Salvăm), an environmental and civil community. Despite the diversity, there was a core of ideas accepted by everyone: maintaining the community and recognition as a UNESCO protected site, an alternative model of development for the area and banning cyanide in mining. These issues were taken on-board by the existing Green parties but their weakness, organisation and style made them unpopular with the civic and environmental groups. The Green parties tried to use this agenda, together with some larger parties. But there was an overall feeling that their positions were contextual and not part of a wider and more serious commitment toward fighting for Roşia Montană and against the political and economic model it came to represent.
The protests were long, lasting for almost three months. They were also unusually spread. From the large Romanian cities they have spilled abroad, marking the debut as a civic actor of the large Romanian diaspora. Mobilised through social media, the protests were largely peaceful and took the form of marches reaching not only public sites but also typical neighbourhoods. Due to the unexpected and massive public pressure, the special law on Roşia Montană submitted by the government was rejected by the Parliament, bringing the project to a halt. In the end it helped break the governing coalition and probably played a role in Victor Ponta losing his presidential bid in 2014.
At some point the protests took on other issues like the exploitation of shale gas, a relatively new environmental challenge. The expansion of the agenda was possible due to the rather similar structuring of the conflict. On one side, a large corporation assisted by the local and central government and on the other, besieged local communities protecting their property, lifestyle and safety. The fact that the major political leaders and mainstream media were, to say the least, dismissive of the protests added a layer of indignation and increased the fracture between the corporate, political and media elites and civil society.
Post-transition Romania: rediscovering solidarity
The impact of the protests was not only relevant in the politics of the day, it also marked a turning point in recent Romanian history. After 25 years of difficult transition the society was no longer talking about being communist or anti-communist or pro- or anti-European, two major issues of the transition. They were talking about government corruption, corporate power, protection of local communities and fundamental rights. About models of economic development and responsibility in order to safeguard the environment and the local heritage. It was not just a new political syntax but a reflection of the new structural issues the society had to face. The same issues were at stake in the protests that followed, against shale gas and recently illegal logging, taken on board by more or less the same people active in the Roșia Montană campaign.
Thanks to the Roşia Montană protests Romanian society re-discovered the principle of solidarity which was lost in a brutal and competitive transition. There was almost no cost the political elites were unwilling to impose on society on the way to economic development. Privatisation, destruction of industries, communities and natural habitats, economic migration – these were all legitimate means to depart from communism and reach some ideal yet imprecise state of development. Not anymore. A significant part of the population was empathetic to the struggle of locals in Roşia Montană and a significant number of people actually took to the streets in solidarity with them. The transition is now over, at least if its understood as development at any cost and as the sacrifice of the few for the pretended greater good of everyone.