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Gold Rush Standoff In Tiny Romanian Village As Canadian Company Eyes Billions

With the price of gold climbing throughout the financial crisis, a Canadian group grows more eager to mine a huge quantity of gold discovered in the Romanian village of Rosia Montana in the region of Transylvania. But local opponents refuse to given up th

A quarter of picturesque Rosia Montana risks being stripped away. (AndreDea)
A quarter of picturesque Rosia Montana risks being stripped away. (AndreDea)
Mirel Bran

ROSIA MONTANA - A small fox agonizing in the middle of the road after being hit by a car takes one last look at the hustle and bustle that has taken over the area and its heavenly landscapes.

The constant flow of cars at 6 a.m. on a Sunday is a sign of the intense activity in the "golden quadrilateral." That's the name of the 500-square-meter area, located in Transylvania in western Romania, where precious metals are hidden in the lower depths of small mountains.

The explosion of the price of gold in the context of the current financial crisis has a visible impact on this Carpathian Eldorado. In the small village of Rosia Montana, the Canadian firm Gabriel Resources, which is listed on the Toronto Stock exchange, has discovered Europe's biggest gold deposit.

"Over the next 16 years, we will extract every year quantities of gold and silver that will exceed the production of all European Union members," says Catalin Hosu, a representative for the Rosia Montana Gold Corporation (RMGC). "We're banking on about 314 tons of gold and 1,480 tons of silver."

But this Carpathian gold rush isn't pleasing everyone in Rosia Montana. Part of the village will be torn down to allow extraction. The Alburnus Maior association, which brings together opponents of the Canadian project, has declared open war on the RMGC.

Eugen Cornea, a retired minor and one of the project's staunchest opponents, lives in a small house on an upper stretch of the village. "I will never leave my house and the land where my ancestors are buried," he says, his voice edged with emotion. "Our fight against the company is like the one between David and Goliath. David won, and so will we."

The conflict between the farmers and the RMGC is already more than a decade old. It started in 1997, when Gabriel Resources experts came to Rosia Montana to drill into the mountains in search of metal.

This small village of 4,000 inhabitants was already famous in the gold business as the center point of an intense 2700-year-old exploitation. The Daces, the Carpathian Gauls, were the first to discover the regions large gold mines. Conquered by the Romans in 106 AD, they had to hand over the mines. The Romans dug impressive underground galleries that can still be visited today.

After Rome, the mines got into the hands of the barbarians who invaded the former Roman Empire. German colonizers took over in the 13th century. Gold mining truly peaked four centuries later when the Austro-Hungarian Empire annexed Transylvania. When Transylvania was reunified with Romania in 1918, the Carpathian gold went to Bucharest.

Tons of gold, tons of fish

"It's unbelievable that a Canadian company would have the nerve to come and teach us how to extract gold," says Cornea. "We have been doing it for 2,700 years. What was Canada in 700 BC?"

Some of the local farmers want to believe that it is possible to resuscitate their village through tourism, and fear that the cyanide-based technology used by RMGC to extract gold, will destroy the environment. Everyone still remembers the 2000 accident at the Baia Mare mine, in western Romania, which was exploited by an Australian company. At the time, a big quantity of cyanide was poured in the Danube River, killing 1,200 tons of fish.

The Canadian company, which has been keeping a close eye on Rosia Montana since 1997 drills revealed that the mine's gold was far from being exhausted, immediately created the Rosia Montana Gold Corporation, controlling 80% of the shares, with the rest given to the Romanian State.

"On average, there are 1.5 grams of gold in a ton of rocks," explains Hosu. "We are going to create an open air mine and a technology based on cyanide, while respecting the European rules on environmental protection."

But the RMGC exploitation project means tearing down a quarter of Rosia Montana. That's the core issue between the company and its opponents who refuse to leave the premises. To encourage them to leave, RMGC built a brand new neighborhood for them in the suburbs of the neighboring city of Alba Iulia. Since 2002, about 80% of the farmers accepted the offer.

But the small group that is still in the village promises to fight until the end. "Even for all the money in the world, I will never leave my home," declares Cornea. "I want to rest on my land when I die."

The financial crisis that led to the explosion of the price of gold is putting increasing pressure on the farmers: an ounce of gold was worth 200 euros in the early 2000's; it is now worth about 1,200 euros. Rosia Montana's gold mines could be worth tens of billions of euros in the future, a quarter of which would go to the Romanian State.

The Culture Ministry has already lifted the archeological constraints that protect the region's Roman sites. On August 18, Romanian President Traian Basescu announced his intention to support the project. "Show me one country in the world that would have such wealth in its soil and would do nothing to exploit it," he declared.

The mining project's opponents fear that the course of history is not in their favor. Still, there was that victory of David over Goliath.

Read the original article in French

Photo- AndreDea

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