There is a silent revolution slowly, but steadily, unfolding in Southeast Europe, as Romanians are getting out on the streets in a number sufficiently high to matter. For the past three months, it has become the norm for Romanians who turned into overnight activists to spend their Sunday evenings carrying witty banners, Roşia Montana flags and chanting slogans against the cyanide mining project at Roşia Montana (Red Mountain). The ”Romanian Autumn” movement, as some call it, started on 1 September 2013, when approximately 1,000 people went into the main streets of Bucharest, the Romanian capital. It is a non-violent protest against the government’s initiative of drafting a bill, which in case of Parliamentary approval would offer the mining company Gabriel Resources the right to forcefully expropriate the remaining few hundred residents in Roşia Montana to mine what is now considered the largest gold reserve left in Europe, holding a little over 300 tons of precious metal. Only two weeks later, 15,000 people showed up in the streets of Bucharest.

If this sounds to you like the classic tale of large corporations being backed up by ill-fitted governments in making huge profits at the expense of the environment and people’s livelihoods, you might actually be right. In a nutshell, Roşia Montana (Red Mountain) represents a battle field where corporate interests, backed up by local politicians are opposed by the remaining few residents of Roşia Montana, supported by tens of thousands of citizens across the country and a few hundred more abroad. The stakes are high: the price of gold is debated on the streets – the real price, that is.

Where did it all start?

Rosia Montana represents a small commune of 16 villages in the Western part of Transylvania, along the Apuseni mountains, which belong to the Carpathian arc surrounding Eastern Europe. Mining activities are said to predate Roman times, and gold digging has been a perpetual activity until 2006, when the government put an end to mining operations in the wake of the country’s integration in the European Union. The concession to dig for gold in Roşia Montana has been awarded to Gabriel Resources in 1995 through a state auction process many suspect of having been handled behind closed doors. Since 2010, the economic entity managing the project is represented by the Roşia Montana Gold Corporation (RMGC), owned to 80% by Gabriel Resources, the remaining share belonging to the Romanian government. Standing between its goals and the four-mountain gold ore is the Alburnus Maior Association, coordinated by locals resisting expropriation and activists across the country.

Despite its precious metal reserves, the locals of Roşia Montana have never been anywhere near rich, and the current situation of hundreds being jobless or with no income perspectives has divided the public opinion on the project. Most people supporting the project argue for the need of foreign investment to spur the economical development of the area, even at the cost of the environment, while many opponents protest against political corruption and the overall lack of transparency displayed by both the Romanian government and RMGC.

Predictable scenarios

Activists concerned with RMGC’s mining proposal have sounded the alarm for years on the prospect of cyanide use in the mining process, which is considered to be one of the cheapest and most effective solutions in dissolving metal ores. According to experts, cyanide is fatal to both human and environment ecosystems. Cyanide can infiltrate soil, poison water resources and contaminate the air, among others. Despite its gruesome effects on the environment, cyanide use has not been banned in Europe, partly due to strong corporate lobbying.

To counter such concerns, RMGC has created an aggressive PR campaign – Rosia Montana News, which states that cyanide occurs “naturally in the environment, in our food and in our bodies” and that “it is harmless unless we get a toxic dose at once” and therefore should be viewed and carefully handled the same way as, for example, household bleach. This can hardly reassure the concerned locals running small businesses such as picking wild berries for export that their produce will find demand given their vicinity to what is seen as the biggest cyanide lake in Europe. This is not to mention the real danger posed to human health given the short distance from the rest of the villages surrounding the Roşia Montana area. According to the company representatives’ statements, blasting four mountains from the face of the earth will require approximately 13.000 tons of cyanide per year for the next 16 to 17 years of mining activity, which some activists warn is already exceeding the amounts tolerated by mining legislation.

Despite this evidence, the grim perspective of a major ecological disaster sometimes fades in the background of discussions about who should benefit the most out of this project. Many protesters got out on the streets in response to what they perceived as corrupt policies serving private interests, claiming the gold should be kept within country boundaries, while others have been advocating for a mining-free activity at Roşia and its preservation as a UNESCO World Heritage, which could shield the commune from any industrial intrusion. Both sides have joined forces on an ad-hoc basis, inspired by their common indignation at the puppet mastery being displayed for the past few months.

If the project gets through, as the Prime Minister Ponta seems to endorse for, the cyanide-based mining activities would eventually lead to the irreversible destruction of a gold-mining community and the loss of an invaluable biodiversity treasure. To gain more support, Gabriel Resources is promising that their mining project will create approximately 2,000 jobs in the process and 900 more in mining operational activities, enriching the national budget with an overall amount approximated at EUR 5 billion. This would be a desirable incentive, as long as those jobs could be occupied by the jobless locals at Roşia Montana. However, that is highly unlikely due to their lack of specialized skills in the matter of handling mining technology, or other skills pertaining to general administration of the mining facilities.

A sketch portrait of protesters

The “Save Roşia Montana” protest is ongoing, not only in Romania’s largest cities, but also in other European cities, thanks to efforts by Romanian students or young Romanian professionals abroad who are coordinating solidarity protests in London, Berlin, Munich, Paris, Vienna, Copenhagen and other major cities, though much smaller in scale e.g. 200 protesters chanting slogans in front of the Brandenburg Gate, or 40 people carrying Roşia Montana flags in front of the Romanian Embassy in Copenhagen.

Given the smaller numbers, it is increasingly hard to keep up the momentum during protests abroad, especially in the face of political immobility back home, but nevertheless, there are few participants who continue to show up and believe their efforts make a difference for the people back home. Adrian is a young professional working in the IT industry in Berlin, and a constant participant in the solidarity protests. As many of his friends or fellow Sunday activists, he is very much aware that large numbers make a difference in triggering political feedback, but he is not discouraged in his motivation: “We’re not going to save the world, and probably not even Roşia Montana, but this will create a precedent for future generations, and probably then, they will manage to change the world for the better”.

Tica Darie, a former student in Copenhagen in Multimedia Design, has made the news in supporting the Roşia Montana activist campaign, by covering 2377 km on his bike, from Copenhagen to Roşia Montana, crossing 7 countries on his route. He has relocated to Roşia Montana and he is dedicated to further invest his efforts in the Save Roşia Montana campaign. He is famous nation-wide as the living image of the environmental activism at Roşia Montana. Lavinia and Alex, the typical young family with little time to spare other than with their 14-month baby, have set up the first international news hub on Roşia Montana, in an effort to disseminate its story in Copenhagen, their current place of residence, and hopefully throughout Europe. Their aim is to inspire an international awareness campaign on the threats posed by cyanide mining. Joining the protests in Bucharest, Monica tells about the new-found contagious energy among Romanian youth in reclaiming their rights, both in the environmental and in the political sphere.

Activist accountability

The controversial project at Roşia Montana has issued numerous articles in the international media, written by either foreign or Romanian journalists. While the biased tone has not escaped some of these chronicles, the facts remained unspoiled, and they are indicative of measures alternative to the mining project proposed at Roşia as a solution for economic development. The social and ecological risks are too high to be ignored, and possible costs in the future are likely to be higher than the benefits promised by RMGC.

Based on this argument comes my surprise about reading this article in The Guardian Sustainable Business Blog, which argues for a less sentimental, more reasonable perspective on ecological issues and mentioning the Rosia Montana movement as a case in point. The author rightfully asks that environmental activism be followed by accountability – if we shout in the streets we’d better know what we’re shouting for, and usually doing your homework on the matter will help you deliberate on the proper way to go around these types of issues and actually add value to activism. Fair enough, Roşia Montana does stand for option within our reach for economic development in the wider, public debate. But let me express why I feel the anatomy of the Roşia Montana movement is beyond an “to get the investment money or not” question.

The last time history recorded a similar mass solidarity movement was in the freezing cold of December 1989, known as the Romanian revolution against the communist dictatorship of Ceausescu, a street protest which left behind numerous youth casualties and a fragile, new-born democracy. 25 years later, faced with economic depression, shifting cultural values and an overall sense of injustice, Romanians are out on the streets again, this time voicing general discontent as an end-product of a democracy gone haywire. For those tens of thousands of Romanians blocking major city boulevards shouting slogans for saving Roşia Montana, this mining project symbolizes much more than the 16-village commune, it symbolizes resistance against accumulated frustrations with corrupt governors and a corrupt economic system. For a significant part, it also symbolizes the fight that is owed to the true and only heritage we can still be proud of, the natural resources. They are not members of Greenpeace or other environmental NGOs, but merely concerned, educated citizens that are exercising their capacity to reflect on the long-term perspective of their country, and they equate this with the sustainable use of natural resources. Hence, preserving the natural beauty of Roşia Montana is more valuable in their eyes than the extraction of gold, and more worthy of a legacy to future generations.

So in response to liability for ecological activism, I would say the people on the streets are doing just that, they are taking responsibility where its agency, the government, has been failing it over and over again. Encouraging sustainable development is not about building a glamorous, glass house on top of nature’s destruction; in this case, it is about encouraging a real, active dialogue to weigh in the best possible solution, and maybe, when the storm of voices gets quieter, to reflect on man’s stewardship of nature, if at all.

It might be the case that the project goes through the Parliament vote, and weeks of protesting and marching in the streets might have been in vain. But there is one outcome that will continue to linger in the common conscience of Romanian society, and that is a newly-found civic sense, as opposed to the more common cynicism displayed by our parents’, and their parents’ generations.