Roșia Montana: victory of solidarity over greed [AUDIO]

A Cbt episode with the Swiss-French strategist for the campaign against the gold mining project in Romania,which stirred a lot of popular resistance through the years and had its final resolution

Stephanie Roth – the strategist behind the campaign against the Roșia Montana gold mining project in Romania – is a guest on this episode of Cross-border Talks. She talks about her own history with the fight to protect the nature and people of Roșia Montana, the strategy of the movement to protect it, what’s been achieved and what’s next. Stephanie Roth has dual Swiss and French nationality and has been a journalist and activist on environmental and social issues for decades.

Roșia Montană is a gold and silver mining project. The project is located in Alba County in Romania and started in 1995. It is controlled by Roșia Montană Gold Corporation (RMGC). 80.69% of the company is owned by the Canadian company Gabriel Resources, whose shareholders are American billionaires. 19.31% of RMGC is owned by the Romanian state through the state-owned company Minvest. Gabriel Resources controls RMGC through a network of sub-companies in offshore jurisdictions – Barbados, Jersey, the Netherlands. Gabriel Resources is headquartered in Canada, because it has the best laws for international mining companies, as revealed by journalist Mihai Goțiu in his book “The Roșia Montana Affair” (2013). The book explains that taxes in Barbados are very low. On the island of Jersey, there are no taxes on transactions. According to Goțiu, the Netherlands has the best laws for investors in corporate auctions. The investors in “Roșia Montana” wanted to use cyanide to extract gold. According to the project’s supporters, 3,600 jobs would have been created. After signing the contract with the investors, the Romanian state was to receive 6% of the value of the gold and silver extracted – in cash or in kind. Supporters of the project estimated that if gold had cost $1,200 per troy ounce, the Romanian state would have received $2.3 billion over the life of the mine.

The project was notorious for shadowy, high-level state contracts, provoked discontent among environmentalists because of the cyanide technology used, and nationalists were also unhappy that national wealth was being sold cheaply to foreigners. Other social groups also took part in the struggle for various interests in relation to “Roșia Montană”. Thousands of Romanians have been protesting against the project for years. The peak of the protests was in the autumn of 2013, after which the development of the project was stopped. In early 2015, many of RMGC’s employees were fired. In July 2015, the investor launched an international arbitration case in Washington after declaring that it had not reached an agreement with the Romanian state.

At the beginning of March 2024, the international arbitration was concluded and it was decided that the Romanian state doesn’t have to pay compensation for stopping the gold mining project. An important factor in this decision was the popular opposition to the gold mine project. Stephanie Roth was the strategist behind the campaign that saved the Roșia Montana area from the inevitable destruction.

The entire transcription of the audio recording is available below.

Vladimir Mitev: Welcome to another cross-border talk, where we will focus on a very interesting case of a gold mine project in Romania that has aroused a lot of passion over the years. At one point, the protest against this gold mine project was called the protest of a generation or led to the political project of a generation. I am talking about the Roșia Montana gold mine project. In March 2024, an arbitration court in the USA ruled that the Romanian state did not have to pay compensation for the fact that it had basically stopped the implementation of the concession for gold mining in Roșia Montana. 

Today we are going to talk to a person who is much admired by all the activists of the Roșia Montana protests. This is Stephanie Roth, a Swiss-French journalist and environmental activist who has been involved in the Roșia Montana movement since 2002. She has been involved in the strategy and tactics of the movement. Stephanie, we are happy to have you here. I will now hand it over to my colleague who will ask the first question.

Malgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat: Yes. Before the first question, I would like to thank Stephanie again for being with us. And I would like to ask you about your first reaction, a very spontaneous first reaction, when you heard that the arbitration court decided that there was no compensation to be paid by Romania. How did you feel? What did you think?

Stephanie Roth: Hello everyone and thank you for having me here today.

Well, the moment we got the results, it was a huge relief. An incredible relief. I mean, it was so heavy, what was on our shoulders. Just days, hours before the verdict was announced, the Romanian media and the Romanian state continued a propaganda campaign that they started on the 1st of February 2024 saying that Romania would lose the case and that Romania might have to pay $6.7 million in compensation. And it was a very aggressive campaign organised by the Romanian state, which is going into an election campaign. And they pointed the finger at us, of course, saying that the activists were guilty and that the activists should pay. They pointed to the moment when Roșia Montana was nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and said that the politicians who supported it were corrupt and evil. And so that was just for you to understand the context in the weeks or hours after the award. So it was a huge relief. 

It’s a bittersweet decision for us. We’ve been fighting for eight years in the courts, in the arbitration courts. We filed three briefs in the arbitration court taking the role of amicus curiae. We filed three of them. And the court case took eight years. The Romanian courts had already annulled the gold mine and the licensing procedure. And now, for eight years, the suffering of the people of Roșia Montana continued until the private arbitration court made a decision. So of course we’re delighted that Romania will not have to pay compensation. But it’s a bittersweet decision, because certainly Roșia Montana would not have had to wait eight years to start living a normal life in dignity. It was a relief and a bittersweet feeling.

If we could go back to the very beginning of this story, what was at stake? What was the mining project like when it was first presented, and why was it so important to stop it?

In April 2002, I visited Roșia Montana for the first time. I was a journalist then. I visited the place and talked to the locals and the engineers. They had all worked in a nearby mine, they were experts in mining, and they showed me the mine. It was designed to make maximum profit for the company. And the mine project proposed to use huge amounts of toxic cyanide to separate the gold from the ore. 

If you remember, in 2000 there was a huge accident in Romania at Baia Mare, where cyanide leaked into the environment. It killed tonnes of fish and decimated the livelihoods of the fishermen. It polluted the Danube as far as Hungary and neighbouring countries. This had happened in Romania just a few years earlier. The company that managed Baia Mare had gone bankrupt and left overnight. 

The Roșia Montana company only existed for the Roșia Montana gold mine. They’d never done a mine before and had no experience of mining anywhere else in the world. They wanted to build Europe’s largest open-cast gold mine in Roșia Montana without any experience. And they wanted to use huge amounts of cyanide.

From a technical point of view, in order to develop the mine, they had to relocate the local population who live there. These are farmers. They get a much more stable income from their land than they would if they worked for a company. They wanted to stay and work their land. They didn’t want to leave. The government abandoned them and wanted to expropriate them. And I think that was a very high price to pay. Also, in order to build the mine, they would have had to cut down all the trees. There are a lot of forests around Roșia Montana. They would have had to cut down all the forests. They wanted to divert two rivers, which is against the EU Water Framework Directive. 

Also, gold has been mined in Roșia Montana since Roman times. They left a lot of archaeological heritage. It is unique in the world. We have kilometers of tunnels in the mountains that date back to Roman times. We also have temples and burial grounds from the Roman period. They would have destroyed all that because the gold was exactly where the people live, where you have the archaeological artifacts, where you have the river and the nature. They would have had to take all that away to create huge craters, several kilometers wide and several kilometers deep. 

They wanted to excavate 13 million tonnes of rock a year. That is a huge amount, 13 million tonnes. I don’t know how many elephants that would be. I don’t know, millions of elephants. They wanted to use cyanide every day. They wanted to use huge quantities of cyanide. That is very risky. And so it seemed a very high price to pay. That is why it was so important to stop the project in the name of the people, nature and heritage. And against greed.

You said “against greed”. And we know that the project was stopped because of the mass protests that took place. If there were protests, it means that the project actually had supporters among the Romanian political elites of the time. So if the whole mining project was so damaging to nature and also to the historical heritage of Romania, why would anyone want to support it? 

Well, first of all, you know, Romania is known for corruption. I would argue that this was also the case in Roșia Montana. For example, in 2010, the Ministry of Culture signed a contract with Gabriel Resources. And they wanted $70 million from Gabriel Resources, and in return for the $70 million, they would give them all the permits for Roșia Montana that they would not otherwise be able to get under the law. Okay, so that is the first thing. 

The second thing is that in Roșia Montana we had a company called Roșia Montana Gold Corporation, which is a joint venture between the Romanian state, which owns just under 20%, and Gabriel Resources, which owns the rest. And so what often happens is when mining companies come into a country and they want to build a big project and they know there’s probably going to be some shit going on. What they tend to do is they tend to do a joint venture with a government, because then the government gets all the permits for them and all the things, and they hope that they can keep everything under wraps so that people don’t hear about the mine. They try to do everything quickly under the table between the state and the company. And then, and only then, when the mine has the green light, do they tell the people the truth. But by then it’s too late. That was the case in Roșia Montana. There was a lot of corruption.  And there was this joint venture. It meant that the Romanian government declared Gabriel Resources a strategic partner. And that’s why every authority automatically puts its stamp on every permit without thinking. That is what happened.

What you and your team, or your collaborators, did was a major campaign. I would like you to tell us more about the tactics and strategy of the campaign, who you consulted and in what ways it was successful. What were the successes or the great realisations of this campaign?

Thanks for the question. Well, the campaign to save Roșia Montana has been the biggest social campaign in Romania since 2002. Roșia Montana was the revolution of our time and it inspired a lot of young people and old people in Romania. And now they tend to take to the streets and start demonstrations much more often. But this was not the case before Roșia Montana. And so Roșia Montana organised many actions and many demonstrations between 2002 and 2013, and they were always the biggest of their time.

So how did it all begin? Quite simply. I moved to Roșia Montana in 2002 because the local farmers asked me to come and help with their campaign. They were busy looking after their land and couldn’t sit in front of a computer and check the share price and make strategies. So I moved to Roșia Montana in 2002 and I was very lucky because I met a lovely girl called Stefania. She was a student from Cluj and she also wanted to come and help. And so we both moved into a house in Roșia Montana and we started to strategise. 

In the beginning, there was nothing except the local opposition – the most important ingredient. And so we had to build, so to speak, our partnership, our strategic reach. And so we had to find strategic partners. So the problems of the Global Resources project were environmental, the cyanide and the destruction of the forests, lands, rivers: ecosystems. They were social because of the forced relocation of people. They were economic because the real cost of the mine is a loss for Romania and not a gain.They were cultural, because of the destruction of the unique cultural heritage of Roșia Montana. 

Those were the big issues. And so we started to build partnerships with experts in all these areas. So for the environment we approached Greenpeace Central Eastern Europe. And so Greenpeace Central Eastern Europe came to Roșia Montana in 2002. And they became one of our closest buddies and friends. They are also our partners now in the case at the Washington Tribunal. So that was the environmental side. 

And then we looked at the archaeological or cultural side. So we went to Hungary, where they have ICOMOS. ICOMOS Romania was not so strong at that time or we didn’t know them. So we went to ICOMOS Hungary. But luckily there were also some amazing archaeologists in the city of Cluj and professors like Professor Piso and others and, um, they were also against the project. And so they also helped us. They joined our campaign.

 And then for the economic argument we went to Bucharest. We worked  with ASE (Academia for Economic Sciences), which is very strong in economics. And then they did assessments of the true cost of the mine. And so we built the arguments and we built the case for Montana so that ordinary citizens could understand the different issues. 

As citizens, we don’t think in one way. We have many things we care  about at the same time. We really wanted to build arguments that everybody could understand. Whether you are interested in the environment, whether you are interested in culture and all of that together. And then we created a website, and then we started making requests for access to information to the local town hall in Roșia Montana. 

We wanted access to all the documents relating to the contract. Everything that had happened, so that we could understand the case better. And in those days Romania didn’t like to give you access to documents. So we often had to go to court to get access to those documents, but we were incredibly lucky. And that was the lady who had moved in with me, Stefania Simion, who is a legal genius. There is nobody as smart as her. And so Stefania started our legal department. She was the one in charge of, um, taking care of all these legal aspects. And so what happened was that we started protesting in the streets of Bucharest and so on, and after a while we realised that the government was patting us on the back and saying, thank you very much for coming, but actually goodbye. We saw that there was no change. 

We saw that we had to do other things. The Romanian government wanted to develop the biggest gold mine in Europe. And so you can imagine that you need a lot of permits, not just environmental permits, you need archaeological permits, electricity permits, water permits, all the permits in the world. And when the authorities, who were as corrupt as Gabriel Resources, stamped all the permits, my friend Stefania took them to court and sued them. She was very good and she canceled all the permits. And that was the biggest problem for Gabriel Resources, because they wanted to start mining the gold in 2003, and in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, no bloody gold was dug. That was because we stopped them in court. My friend Stefania did all the work. She was very successful and she managed to stop Gabriel Resources Gold Corporation in the courts. 

At the same time, we continued to protest. We went to the Canadian embassy because it was a Canadian mining company that was doing all these things. There was a lot of political pressure because this was going to be the biggest mine in Europe. There was a lot of money involved. Gabriel Resources was putting pressure on the government. The Canadian ambassador was pressuring the government, going in and out of government meetings, shouting and saying that if we don’t get the mine in Romania, Canadian investors will leave Romania, threatening diplomatic outrages. 

And so in 2010-2011, while the environmental impact assessment was going on, Gabriel Resources went to the Romanian government and said – OK, we want the bloody mine and you need to get your ass in gear. And the Romanian government said, ‘Well, we’re sorry, we can’t give you the permit for the mine because your project is in breach of the EU Water Framework Directive, and it’s also in breach of several Romanian heritage laws. And we can’t expropriate people for a commercial project.” So they decided to declare the project was overriding national interest. Because if you declare that something was overriding national interest, like your motorways, then you don’t need any environmental permits. You can just do it. 

And in 2013, Victor Ponta, the Prime Minister at the time, presented a bill to declare Roșia Montana of national interest. And so we could expropriate the local people. They could destroy the archaeological heritage, and they could bypass the EU Water Framework Directive. And so the people took to the streets because it was a law made for one company – Gabriel Resources – and you make laws either for everyone or for nobody. The people were very angry. And they took to the streets. A lot of them had come to Roșia Montana for the FânFest Festival.

These ten years went very fast because each year since 2004 we were organizing a huge music festival and event at Roșia Montana called Fân Fest (Hay Party) for young people to come to Roșia Montana and see this beautiful place. And so hundreds and thousands of people came and saw that beautiful place and fell in love with it. And when in 2013, the special law was proposed, they took to the streets and they came out to defend their friends in Roșia Montana, and defend the place that they loved so much from coming here in the summer.

It was really amazing when, in 2013, very different types of people came together to protest in the name of Roșia Montana. You had the NGO type of people. You had the ecologists. I dare say you even had patriots, Romanian nationalists, who were somehow sceptical about foreign capital. And they were really the protests of a generation, as they say. I think it’s fair to say that the party that emerged later, called Union Save Romania, was born as a kind of continuation of those protests, because during those protests people were gathering and discussing and looking for some change, let’s say. So I would also like to ask you about this – how do you value the legacy of the Roșia Montana protests of the last ten years? What is this legacy? What did the Roșia Montana protests change for Romania?

Well, I feel very uncomfortable answering this question because I’m not Romanian. I think only a Romanian can tell you how important the protests were for them. But I can tell you, as a fighter and as a woman and as a person who lived in Roșia Montana for ten years, at a time when the reality was that there was a war going on, because you have to imagine that the company was trying to get everybody to leave and they were setting brother against brother and sister against sister to get their land. It was a real war when we lived in Roșia Montana. That’s no exaggeration. 

As a woman,  as a campaigner and as a person who lived with the locals of Montana the solidarity and the persistence and the stubbornness of people from so many sectors of Romania to come to the rescue or to support the struggle of the local people are some of the most beautiful moments of my life. These people are a great inspiration to me. If I have been able to fight or carry on after all this time, until last Friday’s verdict, it is because I can still see all those beautiful faces in front of me who believed in Roșia Montana, who were stubborn and took risks and went out onto the streets, united and saved Roșia Montana.

You mentioned that these were really emotional moments for you. I’d like to end our episode on the story of Roșia Montana by asking you what’s next in your life as a campaigner, an activist, a fighter for change. You have been involved not only in Roșia Montana, but also in other projects or struggles in Romania. And you were also a protester who coordinated the fight against the TTIP, this free trade agreement, even on a European level. I have the feeling that you have the instinct to fight for social issues in your blood. What’s next for you now that Roșia Montana seems to be behind you?

That’s a very, very nice question. On a personal level: when I was young, I wanted to move to Roșia and grow old there. I want all my friends to find a home there. I want all my friends and everyone who has ever helped Roșia Montana, if they need a home, to have a home there too. So that’s what I’m going to do now. I’m going to find a house in Roșia Montana, because hopefully there will be a lot of houses for sale now that the project has been abandoned, and I’m going to buy a house and maybe another one next to it. I will open it to activists and friends who need moments of rest, good friends or shelter. I want to live in Roșia Montana until the end of my days, which I hope will be many years. And in the meantime, I want to help rebuild Roșia Montana, because Gabriel Resources has depopulated the area. They bought a lot of houses, which are monuments, but they let them fall into disrepair. So now we want to restore Roșia Montana and make the place accessible to a lot of tourists. Roșia Montana is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. So hopefully this will bring a lot of guests. And I think it’s the heritage and the people and the nature that are the real gold of Roșia Montana. And I hope that many people, including you, will come and visit us. And if you wait until I have a house, you will have a bed, you will have a table. You will have food. And we will live and celebrate life. And if there are any battles in the meantime that are worth fighting, and if I have any energy left in me, then I will try to support any other battles that need help. That’s how I see it. That’s my vision.

It’s a beautiful message of solidarity and praise of life, and I’m really happy that we’re going to have these words on Cross-Border Talks podcast. I really wish you many years in Roșia Montana in Romania. I wish you to see Roșia Montana flourishes again. I wish you to see everything that is beautiful and that has been destroyed, to be restored and to be seen by people from all over the world. And I am sure that one day these visitors will include me and Vladimir. 

Thank you for being with us today. Thank you to everyone who has listened to this cross-border talk. I just want to remind you that you can watch and listen to Cross-Border Talks on YouTube, SoundCloud, Spotify and other social platforms, and you can also subscribe directly to our website so that you never miss new releases. Stephanie Roth, an activist who helped save Roșia Montana and organised one of the biggest examples of solidarity in Romania and the Balkans in recent decades is our guest today. Thank you and see you again.

Read also an interview with activist working for just transition of post-industrial region of the Jiu Valley:

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