On September 15, a group of around 30 people gathered at Sherbrooke and McTavish to protest a large-scale mining project taking place in Romania. Most of the group walked in a circle holding signs and banners, some chanting and banging tambourines, all with the mission to gain attention from passersby. One of the organizers, Manuela Oanes, told The Daily, “We are here today in solidarity with the thousands that are protesting across Romania.”
Oanes continued to explain that the Rosia Montana Gold Corporation (RMGC) was seeking to create the largest open-pit gold mine in Europe in the Rosia Montana area in Transylvania. Oanes also noted that the project is 80 per cent owned by Gabriel Resources, a Canadian company based in the United Kingdom.
“We want Canadians to know that mining companies from Canada a lot of times don’t always act ethically and morally in countries that are less developed, or maybe [where the] legislation isn’t as good,” she said.
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Over 7,000 kilometres away, in Bucharest, Romania, a mining project was finally greenlit on August 27 after 14 years on the backburner. Days later, on September 1, activists and citizens began to take to the streets to protest the project.
Alexandru Predoiu, one of the organizers of the protests and a member of Militia Spirituala, a non-governmental activist organization, told The Daily, “On the first night [that] we saw the law had been drafted, had been put into Parliament, some other people put together a Facebook group calling for protests.”
Predoiu, who is based in Romania, explained the bill that allowed the mining project to go forward. “It’s a special law that exempts [RMGC], the gold mining company, from environmental laws, constitutional laws – it just offers them the project on the table.”
“We are marching through the streets, through the capital and the cities to let people know.”
Demonstrations quickly spread across Romania in the following weeks, with protests being held in major cities like Iasi and Brasov. In Bucharest, numbers have swelled at Sunday night protests to as many as 25,000 people, with thousands more taking to the streets across the globe in solidarity protests in places like Gezi, Turkey, and London.
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The Rosia Montana project would see 500,000 ounces of gold extracted per year over a period of 16 years, according to the company’s website. The region has seen mining taking place as far back as Roman times, up until the present day, with mines in the area previously being used during the Communist period.
One of the main reasons people are upset about the project, according to Vicentiu Garbacea, another activist based in Romania who has been present since the protests began, is due to the way the mining will take place.
“This project means digging an accumulation lake, with a huge surface, that is going to be full of cyanide,” he said.
Garbacea noted that Romania has already dealt with an environmental accident involving cyanide mining – a project that was a joint venture between an Australian company and Romania. In 2000, a mining accident occurred when cyanide from the nearby Baia Mare mining project spilled into a river, causing massive environmental damage. Many considered the accident to be the worst environmental disaster since Chernobyl.
“You cannot do anything with the area after cyanide, except for possibly freezing the soil forever,” Garbacea noted. “Cyanide gets into the water, it gets into the earth, it affects everything.”
The Rosia Montana project would also see the destruction of three villages and four mountains in the region – involving the uprooting of thousands of people from the region and the destruction of ancient Roman mining galleries. Garbacea noted that the company, not the government, would be in charge of moving people.
Garbacea explained that the protests are not merely aimed at the mining project, but also at the systemic corruption present in the Romanian government.
“It’s an escalation of many things, mainly state corruption, and aggressive Western capitalism,” he said.
Garbacea believes that government corruption allowed for the project to begin in the first place, despite the fact that the current government’s campaigns centred around opposition to the project.
“Since the so-called revolution in 1989, nothing has changed. All the people and all the politicians are linked to the former Communist party,” he said. “We have had no change of system – just the name changed.”
Romania is currently lead by the Social Democratic Party, under the leadership of Prime Minister Victor Ponta. The country began its transition to democracy in 1989, when over 40 years of communist rule ended with a series of protests across the country and culminated with the execution of former leader Nicolae Ceausescu.
Despite Garbacea’s view of the government, Maria Popova, a professor of Political Science at McGill, noted, “[The Romanian government] is a democratic regime; it is not an authoritarian regime that is going to crack down and wipe out dissent and go ahead with whatever they want to do.”
While both Garbacea and Predoiu are firmly opposed to the project, the same could not be said for all Romanians. Gold miners in the Rosia Montana region were involved in a five-day protest underground where they blockaded themselves in a mining pit 300 metres below ground, and threatened to go on hunger strike if the mine did not go ahead.
Additionally, the CEO of Gabriel Resources announced that he would take legal action against the Romanian government if they did seek to stop the legislation that would allow the project to go ahead.
In recent days, the government has begun to reconsider the draft bill put forward on August 27, with the President of Romania, Traian Băsescu, calling it “unconstitutional,” according to several Romanian media reports.
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According to Predoiu, the nightly protests have remained non-violent, with people marching on the streets in large numbers every Sunday night. During the rest of the week, University Square, where people have been meeting in downtown Bucharest, is kept ‘alive’ with teach-ins and volunteers handing out leaflets.
Despite the large number of demonstrators – last week, 25,000 people protested in Bucharest – the protests have remained peaceful.
“This is a great accomplishment, because there had been protests last year that had turned violent, but this year, because of us, because of the protesters, we have just gone for a peaceful cultured protest,” explained Garbacea.
“There has been no reason for violence, beside the normal pushing, maybe a bit of pepper spraying when [the police] feel threatened by the numbers of the crowd,” he continued.
Predoiu listed four of the protesters’ specific goals: shutting down the legislation that would approve the project, banning cyanide mining in Romania, declaring the area a UNESCO heritage site, and making the current government step down from power.
The legislation is currently on hold, according to Garbacea, and a special committee was convened “of representatives from [the] parliament, the opposition, NGOs [non-governmental organizations], the company [… and] civil society involved, in order to debate the pros and cons about the mining bill.” The committee has until October 20 to determine whether or not the bill will move forward.
Predoiu believes that the government expects, with the convening of the committee, the diffusion of civil tension – but stressed that the determination of the protesters would win out.
“We are going to go on until all the demands are met. […] None of those points are negotiable.”
Despite the odds, both Predoiu and Garbacea were proud of the social mobility that has been achieved so far in Romania and across the globe.
“It has evolved into a culture of peaceful protest,” Garbacea remarked. “We have been meeting every night, playing, singing, mostly having concerts, a string quartet played a couple of nights.”
“I feel very proud about my generation, that we managed to unite finally for a cause, for something that affects us all,” said Garbacea. “There is nothing political with this protest, there is nothing to gain. We are protesting for basic human and civil rights, the right to clean environment, the right to clean air and not be poisoned.”