Canadian investor disappointed after Rosia Montana mining landscape added to UNESCO’s world heritage list
The historic site of Rosia Montana, a gold mining site dating back to the period of the Roman Empire, was included on UNESCO’s world heritage list on July 27, prompting the most diverse reactions
The most expected one came from Gabriel Resources – the Canadian TSX Venture Exchange listed firm that operates Rosia Montana Gold Corporation, the project company for the gold mining project located in the area subject to UNESCO decision. It previously asked for damages of USD 4.4 billion from Romania at the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) in Washington for the blocking of the mining project. And Romania asking for UNESCO protection may serve its lawyers in demonstrating the country breaches its agreements.
“Such application [for UNESCO protection] and the inscription [in the list of protected areas] are fundamentally incompatible with the rights the Gabriel group acquired to develop the Project and the continued existence of an exploitation mining license for the Project area. These acts, promoted by the Romania government, ignore the existing and valid decisions of Romania’s Ministry of Culture, removing the vast majority of the Project area’s status as a protected archaeological site and clearing the area for mining activities. Furthermore, most of the cultural heritage for which protection is sought through the UNESCO Application and which was identified by the extensive archaeological research programs funded by Gabriel would have been protected in any event by the Project irrespective of the Inscription”, the company says in a note to investors.
The company stresses that “UNESCO Application and Inscription are fundamentally at odds with Romania’s obligations under its investment treaties in relation to Gabriel’s investments and these acts, together with other measures taken”.
In Romania, the reactions were diverse and broadly politically biased.
Rosia Montana in Romania, UNESCO protection and value of civic action
A French-Swiss citizen, Roth moved to Romania in 2002 and soon after started coordinating a campaign to save Rosia Montana. She moved to Rosia Montana at a time when few in Romania had heard of the village and learnt Romanian by communicating with her neighbours. She speaks the language with a distinctive “ardelean” or mountain accent.
The picturesque village of Rosia Montana is nestled in the Apuseni Mountains. Canadian mining company Gabriel Resources has for two decades tried unsuccessfully to build Europe’s largest gold mine. Recognising the value of the site, the International Council on Monuments and Sites, a UNESCO expert advisory body, recommended in 2018 that Rosia Montana be included on the UN cultural agency’s list of world heritage sites in danger. It was the latest hitch in a string of delays to an application process that started three years ago. In the end, the Romanian government reactivated the file on the application.
Romania’s last-minute decision to seek UNESCO protection for a mountain village threatened by gold mining speaks volumes about the value of civic action, an award-winning environmentalist says.
Critics say the plan in the mineral-rich Western Romanian Carpathian mountain range would deface the village and surrounding peaks and place a giant cyanide pool in the area.
The region is rich in architectural and cultural heritage, including the most extensive mining system known from the ancient Roman world, remnants of Roman, medieval and modern mining settlements as well as churches belonging to five denominations.
Experts were confident that if Romania completed an application to have Rosia Montana added to the list, UNESCO would give it protected status. Yet on January 22, the Romanian government said it would not file the application by the end-of-month deadline.
Locals and activists were not surprised by the government’s foot-dragging. In early 2017, a previous Romanian administration had also left it to the last minute to submit the paperwork. Then in the summer of 2018, yet another government (led by the then ruling Social Democratic Party, or PSD) suspended the application.
January 31 of this year was the last moment the government of the National Liberal Party (which has since collapsed) could reactivate the file.
Why all the reluctance?
In 2013, when Gabriel Resources came close to building the mine, massive protests across Romania forced the government to pull back.
In 2015, Gabriel Resources sued Romania at the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes, the World Bank’s commercial arbitration court, reportedly seeking up to $4 billion (3.6 billion euros) in damages. That case is ongoing.
The company argues it has invested close to $1 billion in the project and that it needs to be compensated for losses caused by the Romanian government’s indecision. Successive Romanian governments have feared the UNESCO status could be used against Romania in the arbitration case.
“Gabriel Resources’ bill is in the amount of between three and four billion US dollars,” Stephanie Roth, a prominent environmental activist, told BIRN in a phone interview.
“Even if a deal is cut and the amount is reduced, it would still be billions of dollars. No government would want to have to explain to its citizens why it must pay this much money from the budget to a Canadian company. That’s not how you win elections.
“While locals from Rosia Montana went to courts of law in Romania, where effort-by-effort they proved the corruption and illegalties during the manifold permitting processes, these commercial tribunals are there to let you get away with murder.”
She added: “All the permits ever granted to Gabriel Resources for the gold mine were struck down by courts of law in Romania. Yet, the company can still turn to this tribunal to circumvent rule of law. All the proceedings are shrouded in secrecy and handled in far-away places such as Washington D.C. Commercial arbitration is complete bonkers because it ignores those who pay the real costs: the locals of Rosia Montana and the citizens of Romania.”
Roth worked closely with a group of committed architects, lawyers and activists to build what became Romania’s most prominent environmental campaign — and one of the most high-profile in Europe.
In 2005, she received the Goldman Environmental Prize — widely known as “the Nobel of environmentalists” — for her efforts.
For the first time in two decades, Roth said she feels Rosia Montana is safe, even though a no-confidence motion toppled the Romanian government just days after it refiled the application.
“Ever since the arbitration case started, I’ve been constantly aware that the Romanian government could cut a deal with Gabriel Resources, allowing the company to build the mine in exchange for reducing the compensation amount,” she said.
“UNESCO status means that Gabriel will face enormous international reputational costs if it still pushes to build the mine there.”
Asked how it feels to have victory within reach after two decades of campaigning, Roth said her happiness was increased exponentially by knowing that it is shared with so many people in Romania and abroad who have contributed over the years to the success.
“Back in 2013, the call on the street was, ‘Together we Save Rosia Montana,’ and that’s the call I feel closest to,” Roth said.
Over two decades, the campaign to save Rosia Montana drew in so many people that it became a national endeavor, from the locals who never gave up on their village to the activists who moved there and the architects who restored Rosia Montana’s historical buildings.
Then there were the pro bono lawyers who went to court over mining permits and the tens of thousands who protested weekly in 2013 in dozens of towns in Romania and abroad.
“The government only filed the application because of public pressure,” Roth said. “Just look at the incredible mobilisation since the government said it would not file. Through [activist group] Declic, people sent 15,000 letters to the prime minister, huge panels shaming the government into filing were placed in the centre of Bucharest, then the president was approached.
“You could see people wanting to act. This liberal government has always wanted to present itself in opposition to the Social Democrats [the party that withdrew the UNESCO file in 2018]. They want to be associated with the energy of street protests in the last years, and now they were doing exactly the same as PSD. People got really angry.”
To many, including Roth, protests in defence of Rosia Montana in 2013 had a cathartic role for Romanian society. They helped restore people’s faith in civic action, their belief that they could have an impact on the politics of the country. The tactics developed during those weeks were used to defend other causes, from forests to the rule of law.
“This truly was the revolution of our generation,” Roth said, referring to a well-known slogan from the 2013 Rosia Montana protests.
“If you look around to the region, to [Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor] Orban in Hungary or Law and Justice in Poland, you know Romania is in a better place.”
When Culture Minister Bogdan Gheorghiu announced the resumption of the UNESCO application process on January 31, he also said the government would develop a general urban plan for Rosia Montana and channel EU funds to the region.
So far, those trying to renovate buildings or open businesses in Rosia Montana had been prevented from doing so by the lack of an urban plan — a legal limbo that benefited Gabriel Resources, which could claim the locality was dead and the only salvation was mining.
“If someone asked me what are my three most burning issues before Friday [January 31], I would have said precisely that: the UNESCO application, the urban plan and money for the region,” Roth said. “We got it all, by people power.
“Now’s the time to head to Rosia Montana and do what we couldn’t before: restore houses and the community. The more we do this, the less weight the Gabriel Resources arguments will have.”
Will Roth herself, now based in Berlin, be heading back to Rosia Montana?
“Of course I will,” she said with a smile. “I’ve only heard about this news, so I just need a bit of time to figure out the logistics.”
She continued: “I can’t wait to contribute to the place free from Gabriel Resources’ fear. And to be honest, I can’t wait to do this with my close friends from Rosia Montana. There is no place like home. Rosia Montana is my home.”
People Power in Romania stopped a mining project – Now the corporation is suing for billions of dollars
Recently, a colorful group gathered outside a World Bank building in downtown Washington, D.C. to defend a community 5,000 miles away in Romania. Most had never met each other but when each pointed to her or his hand-drawn sign it was smiles and nods all round. And before you knew it, they were chanting slogans together as if they had done this before, including one in the Romanian language: “Uniti Salvam Rosia Montana!”
Several Romanian citizens were joined at the demonstration by activists from the Center for International Environmental Law, the Institute for Policy Studies, Earthworks, the AFL-CIO, and other U.S. environmental justice organizations. All had come together to defend a place called Rosia Montana.
Nestled in Romania’s mountainous and resource-rich region of Transylvania, Rosia Montana is a pretty town with a history dating back 2000 years. This place, however, holds an ineffable importance that goes beyond its historical significance. Today, it is an inspiring example of how a group of stubborn local farmers fought for their homes, their community, their lands, and their cultural heritage in the face of an assault by a Canadian mining corporation, Gabriel Resources.
This corporation wanted to destroy Rosia Montana by turning it into Europe’s largest open-pit gold mine, posing a severe environmental threat due to the use of toxic cyanide. It was David against Goliath. Gabriel had the money, it had connections to the highest echelons of power, and it controlled Romania’s media via million-dollar publicity contracts. In Rosia Montana, they waged nothing short of a war — buying up vital communal infrastructure, such as shops, the local dispensary, etc. to close them down. They also offered money for homes and so divided the community, setting family members against each other.
Many locals gave in. But a group of property owners resisted. To them, a home and roots meant more than any money in the world. They ganged together, set up a powerful campaign,and sued to block permit after permit. And when they blocked the mine proposal from all legal corners, Gabriel’s shareholders grew impatient and ever more nasty. They pressured its partner in crime or joint venture, the Romanian government, to pass a law to fast-track the mine. Those refusing to leave could be quickly expropriated.
Luckily the locals’ 15-year-long struggle had not gone unnoticed. It had spread by word of mouth and later, via social media. In 2013, when the government proposed that illicit law, when everything seemed dark and bleak, an entire nation inspired by the stubbornness of Rosia Montana’s resistance came to their support.
Hundreds of thousands took to the streets until the government backed down. Together they won. This moment, known as “Romania’s autumn” was equivalent to a revolution, to a national awakening. People, whether young or old or urban or rural, realized that if you fight together, you can win together. The slogan that coined this moment is “Uniti Salvam Rosia Montana!” — united we save Rosia Montana.
That moment forever transformed the country’s political landscape, too. The spirit, the wit, the feistiness, the organizing, and the tactics used in 2013 catalyzed movements such as #rezist, which halted political attempts by corrupt politicians to weaken the judiciary’s independence.
You might think, “Cool! A happy ending! So what was all the fuss in D.C. last week about?” Good question. It’s about profit and how to make one when there isn’t even a millimeter of reason to make one.
Rather than admitting the gross injustices and illegalities they committed, Gabriel was very miffed that all their Corporate Social Responsibility endeavors, public relations exercises, mitigation, and you-name-it stunts didn’t result in a permit for their mine.
They now want their money back. And because they are greedy, they not only want compensation for what they already spent, but also what they hoped to make in the future with an operating mine. In 2015, Gabriel submitted a legal claim, demanding at least $3.3 billion and as much as $4.4 billion (the equivalent of about 2 percent of the country’s GDP). To do so, they invoked bilateral investment treaties between Romania and the UK. These treaties allow corporations to sue governments in international tribunals through an investor-state dispute settlement system (ISDS). The most-used tribunal for such cases is the International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), which is associated with the World Bank.