Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.

Deborah Orr

Deborah Orr: A gold-rush tale of greed and despoliation

Rosia Montana is merely a microcosm of a situation that plays out worldwide every day

It's difficult, even for the most vehement of Europeans, to regard the entry of Romania into the EU with anything less than trepidation. The country is so very poor, its economy and its people so very degraded, that one can understand only too well why many European countries, including Britain, are keen to batten down the hatches in fear of mass migration.

Nothing quite encapsulates the position of Romania, poised so precariously between the developed world and the developing one, as does the ongoing saga of Rosia Montana. The battle for hearts and minds that has been raging for some time now in this ancient mining town, has so much more in common with similar situations in Africa or South America, than it does with Europe.

Like many a far-off, desperate cause, the battle of Rosia Montana would have received barely a ripple of attention in Britain, were it not for the support of one Vanessa Redgrave. The actor and activist has thrown her weight behind a local campaign against an open-cast goldmine proposed by the Canadian company, Gabriel Resources, which is fighting to stop the mine for environmental reasons.

Her intervention, though it has brought international attention to the cause of Alburnus Maior, the locally supported NGO that has organised the protest, has also provided some grist for Gabriel's counter-attack.

Celebrity endorsement may excite the media (rather too much), but it also alerts all those who distrust gesture politics, and offers an easy way of implying that all causes they espouse are necessarily shallow, capricious and divorced from reality.

An early sign this was to be a viewpoint exploited by Gabriel came some while back, when the company ran an advertisement in The Guardian, abhorring the interventions of international environmental groups, and claiming that the people of the town were keen for work and to begin and the local economy to flourish.

With reference to a symbolic metre-patch of land given by locals to Redgrave, the advertisement stated: "If you help a small group of outsiders stop the new mine, without having any connection with our community, they will leave our village and go on to the next battle against development. You will have your one metre of land in our village - and your fine home in London. Where will we go? How will we live?"

Now, the technique has been further refined, with a 23-year-old unemployed local, Gheorghe Lucian, recruited as the presenter of a documentary film, part funded by Gabriel, called Mine Your Own Business. Screened last week for the first time, at a conference of gold-mining companies in Denver, Colorado, its contents sound partial, to say the least.

It takes Lucian around the world, to other poor countries where similar clashes over mining are taking place. A report in The Sunday Telegraph describes Lucian, in Madagascar, as barely able to "disguise his horror as an official of the World Wide Fund for Nature, showed off his £20,000 catamaran before arguing that the poor were just as happy as the rich".

All good knockabout stuff, no doubt. Yet, it is rare to find an NGO or an environmental charity batting away over local issues such as these without the invited and ardent support of the local people themselves. This pertains across the globe. Indeed, the fact remains that the only thing stopping Gabriel from getting on with its project, is local opposition - people who simply refuse to sell their land to the company, because they perceive that their own short-term economic gain is not going to help their community in the long-run. A village housing 2,000 people is to be relocated to make way for the project, along with five churches and four cemeteries.

Gabriel responds with the promise of a purpose-built model community instead, and points to the creation of 1,200 jobs during construction, 600 during operations, and a further 10 indirect jobs in service and catering - which seems somewhat extravagant - for every one provided directly by mining. Personal enrichment for those who sell up, is chunky and tempting as well. But many of the locals still aren't biting.

The concern is that the proposed mining method, open cast and employing a technique called cyanide heap leaching, leaves behind cyanide-infused slag, and can pollute ground water and rivers.

It does cause widespread environmental degradation, and since the project is going to last for only 16 years, this does seem an extremely high price to pay for such a short burst of regeneration.

It is, of course, merely a microcosmic version of a situation that plays out worldwide every day, with environmental concerns over rapid expansion in China and in India, balanced in the short term but not the long-term by economic prosperity. Rosia Montana is an interesting local story, but a crucial metaphorical grand narrative.

There are more cerebral concerns as well, even than the environment. Rosia Montana is the oldest recorded mining settlement in Romania. It features mining galleries that have existed since Roman times, is designated as a significant archeological reservation, and boasts 36 houses dating from the 14th century. Much heritage will be lost in the construction of the mine. It is difficult to imagine that such environmental and cultural despoliation would be encouraged in western Europe.

Though we may be about to find out, and very close to home as well. There's already an open-cast mine close to starting extraction in Omagh, and a different Irish mining company has become very enthusiastic about the idea that large swathes of Scotland may be simply riddled with gold.

(It's not as bizarre as it sounds. Growing up in Lanarkshire, we children were told constantly by the grown-ups, quite seriously, that there was gold to be found it we fancied our chances, and some families claimed heirlooms that were rings of Scottish gold.)

The company declares itself relaxed about its ability to meet environmental requirements, buoyed no doubt by expert opinions declaring that while gold prices are already at an all-time high of $630 per ounce, Scottish gold could fetch anything up to $1,000.

In the developing world, though, there's little need for relaxation, as much of the time companies simply do as they please, whatever the locals may think. What appears to be exercising Gabriel Resources is the fact that it's not so easy to do so in the West, even in a nation as desperate as Romania.