Monday, December 18, 2006

BBC News: New gold mine draws fire

New gold mine draws fire
By Mike Wooldridge BBC world affairs correspondent, Romania

As Romania prepares to enter the EU, a long-running controversy has sharpened over plans for a new gold mine. A Canadian company is promising "salvation" to a community suffering from soaring unemployment but has met local resistance from environmentalists.

For a man who has played a large part in holding up a multi-million pound mining project, Eugen David lives well off the beaten track.
A turn off a twisting road through a spur of the Carpathian Mountains takes you towards Rosia Montana, Red Mountain.
You pass the sign to a village of new homes, in the local style, planned for those being relocated to make way for the new mine.
You pass rusting wagons at the abandoned railhead of the old state-run gold mine in Rosia Montana.
Featherbedded by subsidies the EU will not tolerate, it closed down recently - adding significantly to unemployment in the area.
Then you turn off the road, bottoming the car along a stony track until you reach a farmhouse on the hillside.


I arrived to find Eugen David leading his young daughter down the track on a horse.
Soon the family are gathered around the sort of tiled stove that heats many a Romanian kitchen in winter.
Gabriel insists that its environmental safeguards will be world-beating
"My life is in Rosia Montana", the former miner says. "I don't want to leave. And they will never start the new mine unless we do."
The David family smallholding is right on the "front line" of what has often seemed to be a battleground.
Eugen took me out into the yard, past the haystacks and the barn and up a muddy path.
He gestured through the woods to where one of the open-pit mines would be, bordering his land.
With more than a twinkle in his eye, he said he had also bought a few acres within the boundary of the proposed mine.
From Eugen David's house there is a panoramic view across the Transylvanian countryside.
At this time of year a morning mist clings to the valley floor and there is frost on the fields and the branches.

Cultural attractions

His central argument is that there is no need to revive mining here, with the new disruption it would cause.
He claims that the combination of natural beauty and historic interest - including the relics of gold mining dating back to Roman times - means that tourism could help to save Rosia Montana. And Eugen has taken steps to add to the cultural attractions.
One of his fields now has several sculptures in it, carved by sculptors from each continent.
Eugen has clearly been astute in cultivating international support in six years of campaigning.
But Gabriel Resources, the Canadian company that plans to build the new mine, has also stepped up its efforts to convince its critics that they are wrong on every count.
Gabriel eventually expects to invest as much as £450m ($900m) in the project.
It would be one of Europe's biggest gold mines.
The opponents have raised concerns about the risk of spillage of the cyanide used in extracting gold.

Activists under fire

Gabriel insists that its environmental safeguards will be world-beating, and a tabletop model on display in the village shows the landscaping the company says would leave the area looking a lot less scarred than it does today.
Its public relations offensive has included partially funding a documentary which took a swipe at anti-mining environmentalists.
It is called "Mine Your Own Business", and its star was a young jobless miner from Rosia Montana.
Gabriel's team in Rosia Montana believe local opposition is declining and the company should be able to produce the first gold in 2009.
They talk about the possibility, as a last resort, of asking the Romanian authorities to take over compulsorily the properties of the most diehard opponents - describing them as a few individuals inspired by foreigners.
Eugen David says he does not think the Romanian government would "have the guts" to force anyone out of Rosia Montana.
And so the battle lines remain drawn. And the stakes grow - Gabriel suggests that if it does not get the final go-ahead, other foreign investors will be discouraged.

Long-term future

As the winter sun set over Rosia Montana I went to see Gheorghe Ivascanu - a widower who is now 76, the 10th child of a miner's family, 39 years in mining himself "day in, day out".
From his yard he can see the old workings of the pit where at the age of 12 he first dug for gold.
From his shelf he takes down a piece of rock with gold in it. His eyes reflect the sparkle, but also a long hard-working life.
Gheorghe did not support the new mine initially.
He had wanted to start a new mining project in the village himself, training the young, but it turned out to be too ambitious.
He still wants the Canadian company to do more to secure the long-term future of Rosia Montana and jobs for local people.
But he is now prepared to move out, so that he can live nearer his daughter.
He makes no bones about it being hard parting from what he calls the place of his forefathers.
It is, he says, "something of the soul".


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