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Steffi the Vampire Slayer

PAUL KINGSNORTH

1st June, 2005

Paul Kingsnorth talks to Stephanie Roth, the former Ecologist campaigns editor who has
just been awarded the 'environmental movement's Nobel prize' for risking life and limb
to prevent the exploitation of the largest gold reserves in Europe

Rome hadn't witnessed anything like it for years. It was 106 AD, and the emperor Trajan, fresh from his latest conquests north of the Danube, was staging a vast celebration in Rome's Circus Maximus. Almost 350,000 people would witness 10,000 gladiators and 11,000 animals battling through 123 consecutive days of gladiatorial combat. To accompany the games, the emperor was erecting new buildings and public works across the city. Trajan had reason to celebrate. His recent conquests had extended the Roman empire to its greatest ever extent. The troublesome Dacians, who inhabited the land now known as Romania, had been crushed. And, if the rumours running around Rome were to be believed, the emperor was paying for the city's extravagant celebrations with gold he had taken from the dead Dacian king Decebalus; gold that had come from a wealthy mining region called Alburnus Maior, which now belonged to Rome.

Almost 2,000 years later, in the early 21st century, a Romanian entrepreneur named Frank Timis arrived in Alburnus Maior. Timis was a convicted heroin dealer with a string of failed businesses behind him, who had emigrated to Australia years before. Now he was back, at the head of a new multinational company he had created called Gabriel Resources. Despite having no mining experience, Timis was determined to extract the vast reserves of gold which, despite almost constant
mining since Trajan's day, still lay under the Romanian mountains in  Alburnus Maior - known these days as Rosia Montana.

The gold deposits under Rosia Montana are the biggest anywhere in Europe. Like emperor Trajan, Timis knew that vast profits were to be had if he could succeed in exploiting them. Like Trajan, he had dreams of conquest. Unlike Trajan, he was about to meet his match.

Stephanie Roth has explained why Frank Timis's proposed mine would be such a disaster hundreds of times, but when I ask her to do so again she does it with good humour and passion. She's going to have to keep telling the same story for a while yet. In recognition for the past three years she has spent organising the campaign against the mine, the former Ecologist campaigns editor has just been awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize - the closest thing the green movement has to a Nobel award. The mine plan is,' she says, 'a uniquely destructive proposal. Here we have a very sleepy valley, populated by farmers and people going about their own business. Beautiful place, small communities, traditional life. You also have very special archaeology: Roman mine workings, a mausoleum, temples, the remains of a great Roman civilisation. And what Gabriel want to do is build an open-cast mine. This means basically you blow up mountains, take away the rock in trucks and then use cyanide to extract gold from it. You're left with an extremely toxic sludge, laced with cyanide and
mercury and other poisons. This is then dumped into a tailing pond - essentially a lake of poison which will cover hundreds of hectares of this valley.They propose to do this in a place where 2,000 people live. And you know something else? The whole area is protected by law. So why is the government allowing this to happen? You tell me. Locals are suing them at the moment. Maybe we'll find out.' The story of what Gabriel Resources plans to do to the small, rural communities of Rosia Montana is indeed chilling. The open-cast gold mine the company plans to build would destroy the homes of around 2,000 people: 730 houses, 138 flats and 16,000 hectares of agricultural land would go. As well as
destroying or damaging some of the most remarkable Roman ruins in Europe, it would also trash 10 churches and nine ancient cemeteries. The poisonous sludge that would result from the corporation's
attempt to extract 500,000 ounces of gold from the mine over its proposed 16-year life would form a cyanide storage pond measuring up to 600 hectares in size. The lake would be held up by a 185-metrehigh
dam, would drown a nearby village and threatens to pollute the drinking
water of 100,000 people. More remarkable than this, though,
is the story of what Roth and the community around Rosia Montana have done to fight the mine proposals. Roth wound up in Rosia Montana, she explains, almost by accident. 'I was working out my notice at The Ecologist back in 2001,' she says, 'and one day I read some documents about a planned Dracula theme park in Transylvania that a company was planning to build near the medieval town of Sigishoara and it sounded horrendous to me. I contacted the people who were campaigning against it, and I asked them, "hey, would you mind if I come along as a volunteer?" And they said no. So I ended up in Romania.

'We managed to stop them building the park, and we had a lot of fun doing it - Romania is quite a serious country, and people aren't used to campaigning in a humorous way. For such a long time they were under a dictatorship with a secret police... There still is a secret police, which harasses campaigners. But I think what I did for that campaign was
introduce the fun factor. We sent garlic cloves and Dracula postcards to the Ministry of Tourism - things like that.And that liberated a lot of people, I think.'

Fresh from her victory seeing off the Dracula park, which would have
destroyed an ancient oak woodland and a medieval citadel, Roth was kicking about in Sigishoara wondering what to do next when she met a journalist who had come to cover the theme park story. 'He told me he had just come from a place called Rosia Montana, and he had found a story no one else had written about. A mining company was proposing a huge mine, 2,000 people would have to be moved, and he said, "you should go and have a look". So the next weekend I packed my bags and I hitchhiked to Rosia Montana. I met the local opposition; we had a chat; we spent a whole day together; they explained the project to me and why they opposed it. And I thought that they made a lot of sense but, given the mining company's power, they needed unprecedented support.'

Support was exactly what they got--and a friend who turned out to be one of the most effective campaigners in Europe. Up to that point Gabriel Resources had assumed its mining project was a shoo-in. It seemed to have everyone from the local council to the Ministry of Culture in its pocket. At that time the only opposition came from a group of local residents and farmers with little experience of fighting anything so big, ruthless and international. From this unpromising clay,
the campaign to save Rosia Montana has been moulded into the biggest civil society movement in Romania, and one of the most effective environmental campaigns in Europe.

'You have to see this in the context of globalisation, and of Romania's
forthcoming entry into the EU,' Roth explains. 'The Romanian government is selling off everything it can. There's a small state-owned mine in Rosia Montana at the moment and the government has to close it, because EU entry means it can no longer give it state subsidies. Now, the government has a responsibility to close it and do an environmental rehabilitation. Instead of doing this, though, they decided to privatise it - to hand the land to Gabriel. For them this is a win-win
situation. They can sell it off, save money and sell off also the responsibility. And instead of closing the mine and cleaning up the area, they are selling it to a company which plans to build a mine which is 50 times larger.' If Gabriel Resources and the reason for its activities were global, Roth decided, the opposition to them had to be too. 'The first thing we had to do,' she explains, 'was make the campaign international
- get it into the English language so the world could read about it. We set up a website, got press releases going, started to explain
what people could do to help us. We also needed to make alliances within Romania. In the summer of 2002, we organised together with an NGO from Bucharest a one-day public meeting in Rosia Montana. We invited 50 Romanian NGOs to come and find out what was going on. We started a national working group to fight this project. Outside Romania I got in contact with Greenpeace, and they came to Rosia Montana and made a commitment to help us. We talked to NGOs in Canada, where the mining company is based, and slowly the opposition began to grow.' The company and the government, though, were not going to take any of this lying down: as the campaigners worked to expose them, they were working equally hard to push the project forward. The Romanian Ministry of Culture, in particular, which was supposedly responsible for safeguarding the unique archaeology of Rosia Montana, seemed more interested in ensuring that Gabriel Resources got its mine working in time.

'The Ministry of Culture are crooks,' snorts Roth. 'For the last few years the mining company has been carrying out archaeological excavations, which it has to do by law. But they only excavate in areas which are archaeologically not important, and then they ask for the de-protection of huge areas on this basis. And because the company is so influential, the Ministry of Culture gives them these de-listing permits 'We challenged these de-listing certificates in court, and just recently we won a major victory on a very important protected area, which has been re-protected. Unfortunately for the company, this is the mountain that contains the largest amount of gold. It also contains really important archaeological treasures. Without this mountain, the mine project is dead.' Roth grins at the prospect. Nevertheless, I say, surely even now the economic interests at work are hugely powerful. It's gold and vast profits versus Roth and some farmers. Can the campaign against the mine really win?

Roth replies: 'The farmers are not just farmers. They are also property owners who are refusing to sell their properties to the company, which needs them for the project to go ahead. Plus, for the first time in Romanian history, all Romania's different churches have united - behind us and against the mining project. The churches also own a lot of property in Rosia Montana, and they have refused to sell any of it to
the company. And because it's a private project not a public one, the land can't be forcibly expropriated. Without this land, there can be no mine. And, you know, there are just more and more reasons piling up why this mine cannot ever happen. For example, Romania is desperate to join the EU. But just last year the European Parliament, which had been monitoring the project, passed a resolution warningthe Romanian government that the mine poses a serious environmental threat to the whole region. So Romania's accession will be conditional on the Rosia Montana project. I think this all adds up to one thing: Gabriel Resources is dead in the water. This mine can never happen. There is just too much opposition.' Gabriel, though, is not giving up that easily. Nor are the mine's supporters, many of whom stand to profit heavily from it. And when legal methods don't work, they are happy to resort to more underhand, and dangerous, tactics, as Roth has become grimly aware.

'I couldn't care less about threats,' she asserts. 'You might get a miner coming to you and saying, "if I lose my job because of you I'm going to cut your throat". It happens. The company itself doesn't threaten you, of course. It doesn't need to: it can mobilise the local miners to do it  instead. Let me give you an example. Two days ago the mining company held a meeting in Rosia Montana and the managing director said to their employees and local miners, "we can't give you any jobs this year, or buy you any houses or do anything for you. We have to concentrate on the opposition. We have
to invest all our money in fighting them".

He said to the miners, "if I was you, I'd stand up for my rights, and I'd act now to protect my job". And the very next day one of my colleagues was attacked by one of the miners who had attended this meeting. The mining company is the moral author of that attack. It was very convenient for them: they don't need to get their own knives out. Others do it for them.'

Roth was herself the victim of such an attack last year. She tells the story matter of factly, although she knows very well that she is lucky to be alive. 'There is a valley,' she says, 'where they want to put the tailing ponds, and I was physically attacked there by one of the town's councillors. It was violent. He was very strong. I was lucky, because my reaction was to cry out and a young lad I knew was nearby and he came and saved my life.' It makes you wonder why she does it.Romania is not her home country, and yet for three years she has dedicated every waking hour, at great personal risk, to saving this community from destruction. Why did she go on way beyond the point where most of us would have given up?
She considers the question. 'I don't know,' she says. 'It's about doing the things you believe in. It's wonderful to find what you believe in; to find what you are looking for; to find meaning'. I found it in Rosia Montana. The members of the local opposition don't want to give up their land, because to them their land is the true gold. They are my friends and they are my family, and they are fighting for their lives and their survival. And if laws on environmental protection mean anything, if property rights mean anything, if laws on the use of cyanide mean anything, then this project simply cannot go ahead. But you know what makes me happiest? It's when I see the farmers of Rosia Montana giving the finger to the mining company. In a way the campaign has made them also aware of their rights and has liberated them. They've been told to shut up for so many years, but they're not shutting up anymore, and seeing that is he best prize of all.'

ROSIA MONTANA TIMELINE
1999 Gabriel Resources is granted a concession of land on which to site its planned open-cast gold mine in Rosia Montana.

2000 Alburnus Maior, a local protest group, is founded to fight the proposed mine.

2001 Stephanie Roth arrives in Rosia Montana and begins to expand the campaign.


2002 The World Bank refuses to support the mine as a result of the growing protest movement. A coalition of Romanian churches joins the movement against the mine.

2003 The Romanian Academy, the country's most senior scientific body, attacks the mine proposals. Frank Timis, founder of Gabriel Resources, is replaced as CEO amid 'panic' restructuring. More than 1,000 international historians, archaeologists and classicists protest about the proposed mine. Under increasing pressure, Romania's prime minister accepts that the mine 'poses grave risks' and that the government is not obliged to approve it.

2004 Gabriel Resources acknowledges that the project may never get off the ground. Its shares begin to nose-dive. Demonstrations against the project spread to Canada, where Gabriel Resources is registered. Greenpeace activists stage a high-profile demo in Bucharest as opposition continues to spread. 2005 The European Parliament comes out against the proposed mine. Rosia Montana is included on a list of the world's 'most endangered sacred sites'. Stephanie Roth is awarded the world's largest environmental prize for spearheading the campaign against the mine proposals.

WHAT YOU CAN DO
The Romanian government is in the process of evaluating the proposed mine's environmental impact. Please write to it, urging it to reject this hugely damaging and unnecessary project.Send letters to:


Sulfi na Barbu
Minister for the Environment and Water Management
Boulevard Libertatii Nr. 12
Sector 5
Bucharest
Romania
Email: ministru@mappm.ro
COPY YOUR LETTER TO:
C‹lin Popescu T‹riceanu
Prime Minister
Piata Victoriei Nr. 1
Sector 1
Bucharest
Romania
Email: premier@gov.ro

 

This article first appeared in the Ecologist June 2005

 

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