Rosia Montana and misguided activism

Environmental gold

In opposing the Rosia Montana gold mining project, environmental activists are focused on the wrong target. Serious environmentalists should embrace the culture of hope not that of fear.

Romania has a rich cultural and environmental heritage. Well managed, this could make an important contribution to the nation’s economy and to improving the quality of life of its people. The country has a vast rural expanse representing one of the few remaining large, unspoilt old growth forests in Europe. These forests are teeming with wildlife and have the potential of being preserved to support several small-scale economies in rural areas. Local farmers have preserved the skills of living comfortably alongside large predators like wolves and bears. The rural tourism industry remains, however, grossly underdeveloped. Funds are lacking both to preserve and restore the country’s natural and cultural heritage and to build the infrastructure that is essential to the development of this sector of the economy. As a result, cultural sites are falling apart and forests are being systematically destroyed with illegal and unmanaged clear cutting for wood products – aided and abetted by foreign multinational corporations. Many rural people today have no option but to embark on tree felling and other environmentally damaging activities as a way of making their living.

Instead of constructively helping to preserve these assets, a small but vocal group of protestors have decided to try to derail the proposed Rosia Montana gold mining project – one of the few opportunities that Romania has to start the process of re-building a sustainable economy after the 2006 IMF bailout that spooked foreign investors and from which the country has not yet recovered.

Rosia Montana and its potential for Romania

Rosia Montana’s gold reserves have been mined since Roman times – and most recently to its cessation in 2006, it has been done badly. Unlike many of the protestors, I have visited the proposed mining site and seen the legacy of these previous operations. The local environment lies in a sorry state. Hectares of abandoned mining operations cover the landscape. Chemical effluent is leaching out of these abandoned sites and polluting the water supply. The local rivers run bright red. This is an environmental disgrace which needs a significant investment of some 500 million Euros in clean up and restoration. Absent further development, these funds are simply not available. The local communities need further social and development support. Surrounding towns have periods when running water is only available for a couple of hours a day and the local economy is moribund with some 80% unemployment. Rosia Montana Gold Corporation (RMGC), the company involved, has already pumped more than $500 million into the local economy including water purification efforts and the restoration of local heritage sites. In the longer term, infrastructure development and post-mining remediation will open the way for a viable and sustainable local economy.

In addition, the project has the potential to do much more. Based on a 2009/2010 analysis by Oxford Policy Management, the project will, depending on the gold price, pump in the region of $24bn into the wider Romanian economy. In addition, RMGC is committed to more than offset its environmental footprint – funds that can be used to provide environmental and cultural protection and remediation efforts across the country, creating a net social and environmental benefit from the project.

Activists are blinkered and misguided

Instead of constructively engaging in bringing these benefits to the Romanian people, activists have instead chosen to spread fear with a campaign of misinformation. They have focused on the local environmental disruption which will result from the project without providing viable alternatives for the clean up of the current environmental disgrace, without taking into account the net environmental benefit across the country nor acknowledging the post-project remediation work that will be undertaken. They have spread fear by highlighting the use of cyanide in mining operations and highlighting the 2000 Baia Mare environmental disaster. Of course, they quote the facts selectively to serve their narrow ends. They fail to highlight the fact that every year some 70,000 tonnes of cyanide are currently used in mining and other industrial operations across Europe, including in environmentally sensitive countries such as Finland. They choose not to mention that the Baia Mare disaster was not due to cyanide use but rather to poor quality Communist era construction practices that caused dam failure. They argue for the protection of local heritage without suggesting where the funds for doing so are to come from or who is going to build the infrastructure to allow these cultural sites to become part of a viable local economy.

This behaviour is not only blinkered and misguided – it is irresponsible.

Creating a culture of hope

In his book The Geopolitics of Emotion, Dominique Moisi describes two scenarios for a future world. One is based on the culture of fear, the other on the culture of hope. The former results in a dismal world that we can only pray will never materialise. The latter provides a positive vision that we can all aspire to. In their campaigning, activists have chosen the culture of fear. They deserve to be marginalized. The responsible, thinking environmentalist should be focused on the bigger picture and embracing the opportunities, and the hope, that this and future projects can offer.

The Romanian government has, so far, acted responsibly by setting up a Parliamentary Commission to examine the project and render its opinion. Such a Commission has the opportunity to choose the culture of hope and set a framework that encourages economic and social development while building in appropriate environmental safeguards for the project. The Romanian people have also chosen the culture of hope. A recent poll shows that 70% of the population support the project. Who do the activists speak for with their destructive culture of fear?

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