I didn’t need any television reports to tell me last night that the protests against mining in Rosia Montana were going strong – I could hear the drums and whistles well past 11 pm from my apartment here in Cluj-Napoca. A review of the media today tells me that similar large-scale protests occurred in Bucharest and other cities around the country.
And yet the question everybody keeps asking me (including Romanians who participated in the protests) is are the protests working?
Since today is officially the first day of school in Romania there will be two versions of my answer.
Way back in the mid-1990’s the Romanian government thought there might be some money to be made by mining in Rosia Montana, an area so rich in resources that the Ancient Romans dug there to extract precious metals.
Knowing that more advanced and expensive mining methods were needed, the government sought investment from an outside firm, eventually choosing Gabriel Resources. Later the Romanian government and Gabriel Resources formed a new company, Rosia Montana Gold Corporation (RMGC), Gabriel Resources holding the majority share and the Romanian government holding a minority share.
RMGC’s goal is to extract several hundred tons of resources from the area of Rosia Montana however full-scale mining has yet to be given the go-ahead from the Romanian government more than 10 years later.
Starting last week and continuing yesterday, thousands of people have demonstrated against RMGC’s proposed mining operations. On Monday, September 9 (a week ago), the intrepid AP journalist Alison Mutler reported that Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta “predicts” that the parliament will not approve RMGC’s mining operations after facing pressure from protesters.
So did the protests work? Let’s have a look.
Using the Yahoo! Finances website you can see the stock prices here for Gabriel Resources LTD, the mother company that owns a majority share in RMGC (which isn’t traded publicly). It’s pretty obvious that the protests in Romania “worked” in the sense that they dealt a huge blow to the stock price.
Here’s another view, expanded out to the last month. You can see a minor fluctuation as the protests began to pick up steam but Ponta’s announcement that the parliament would not authorize the RMGC mining operations sent the stock price plummeting.
Pulling back even further to show the last 12 years, you can see how Gabriel did well when Emil Boc, perceived to be friendly and sympathetic to the RMGC project, was elected prime minister. Despite all the chatter however, the RMGC project was never given the final authorization in the 3+ years of Boc’s time in office as the PM.
Ponta, during his time in the opposition, was perceived to be against the RMGC project so Gabriel’s stock sank like a stone when he assumed power in the coup of 2012. However, since becoming prime minister he started “coming around” to the idea of supporting RMGC. This however was given a major setback by the large-scale protests and now Gabriel Resources’s stock price is in the toilet.
The short answer is protests = pressure on Ponta = no authorization for now of RMGC = Gabriel Resources stockholders will revolt = every delay is good news for anyone opposing mining in Rosia Montana.
So yes, the protests “worked”.
The Long Version
I never really researched the history of this entire debacle before but it’s quite an interesting tale. It begins way back in the Communist days, when Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej was the Supreme Ruler of Romania and a baby boy named Vasile Timiș was born in a tiny village in Maramures in 1963.
At some point when he was a teenager, he and his family managed to emigrate to Australia where he began calling himself Frank. He learned to speak English and developed a taste for fast, easy money. Frank got mixed up with the wrong kind of folks and was arrested for possession of a sizable quantity of heroin in the late 1980’s.
Frank learned from his mistakes and soon realized that there was far more profit to be made in spending other people’s money instead of taking personal risks. All you had to do to become rich was to convince people that you owned a (literal) gold mine.
Starting in Australia, that’s exactly what he did. He and his partners would form a limited liability company, acquire mining rights on a piece of land, gin up some feasibility reports and leverage this into getting investors to fund operations. If gold was actually found then everybody went home happy and made a profit. If little or no gold was found, Frank and his partners still walked away with a sizable chunk of the investors’ money.
After doing this several times, Frank realized there was far more money to be made if he moved to Britain, where he now lives. He repeated the same formula of forming limited liability companies, owning or being on the board of dozens of them, and branched out into diamond mining and petroleum extraction in many former British colonies, including Sierra Leone.
While occasionally some of these companies made a profit for his investors, most of Frank’s commercial ventures have been complete failures. He drew heavy fire in the British press when one of his companies, “Regal Petroleum” fraudulently reported that it had discovered enormous oil deposits in Greece in 2003. Once the announcement drove up share prices, Frank liquidated his position in the company, making a substantial profit for himself but left the investors to take the fall once it was finally discovered that the oilfields in Greece were not even worth drilling.
Along the line someone from the old country (Romania) told Frank about the largely abandoned mines in Rosia Montana. Frank used one of his companies, Gabriel Resources, which is listed on the Toronto stock exchange (but originally set up in Barbados for tax evasion purposes) but no more Canadian than Roman Copper, the company which almost bought Cupru Min last year, to set up a partnership deal with the Romanian government.
Originally the first partnership was between the Romanian government and Newmont Mining (an American mining company with its own shady history) but Newmont was acquired by Gabriel Resources (which is only an investment firm and not a mining firm) a couple of years later.
Like all big contracts involving the Romanian government with foreign firms, the exact details of the deal are entirely secret and have never been revealed to the public. All we know (via the media) is that supposedly Gabriel Resources owns 80.69% of the RMGC company, 0.23% is owned by “minority investors” who have never been identified and the rest is owned by the Romanian government under the auspices of CNCAF Invest, formerly Minvest Deva. There is a persistent rumor (until the documents become public, no one will know) that Newmont Mining “won” the contract the day before it was supposedly put to a public bid.
Since RMGC was formed in 1997 with the potential of extracting several tons of gold and silver and other resources, it looked like it would be clear sailing ahead. The government under the leadership of President Constantinescu in cooperation with Prime Minister Victor Ciorbea was ready to help fast-track all the environmental studies and permits that RMGC would need to begin mining.
RMGC (via Gabriel Resources) used the assurances by the Romanian government to raise huge amounts of capital which they then used partly to start buying up property. While the area of Rosia Montana had been mined since Ancient Roman times, what RMGC was planning was a leviathan of open cast mining, essentially leveling four mountain tops and digging a gigantic pit. All of that ore-bearing soil would then be soaked in cyanide, burning off the dirt and leaving the precious metals to be easily extracted and the lake of cyanide to remain behind in perpetuity.
Despite some limited but fierce opposition from local residents, who formed an organization called Alburnus Maior (the Ancient Roman name for the area), RMGC steamrollered ahead, disinterring bodies from several cemeteries and buying up church-owned and private property until they owned a vast swathe of land. Most of the residents were in support of the project because the RMGC project promised to provide thousands of mining jobs, which are very well paid in this country (about four times higher than a teacher’s salary).
And all was well for RMGC until a stubborn Swiss woman named Stephanie Danielle Roth heard about what was going on.
As a journalist focusing on environmental and ecological issues, Stephanie Roth was working at the time in Sighisoara to oppose the proposed creation of Dracula Park, a vampire-themed amusement park (that never came to fruition) in 2002. She heard about what was going on at Rosia Montana and decided to investigate, a decision that changed her life.
She was so moved by the issue that she emigrated to Romania, living and working in Rosia Montana full-time while writing regularly on the subject for an influential British magazine called The Ecologist. This helped to bring global attention to Rosia Montana for the first time and she and her supporters credit her work to influencing the World Bank not to invest in the RMGC project in 2003.
Stephanie Roth’s reporting netted her a coveted Goldman Environmental Prize in 2005, which came with a large cash payout (125,000 dollars), allowing her to continue to finance her opposition to the RMGC project. It also allowed her to parallel the activities of her adversary, leveraging the prestige of winning the Goldman Prize to raise funds from other NGOs that oppose RMGC on environmental and political grounds.
Now Stephanie Roth and Alburnus Maior had the money and organizational support to organize the first wide-scale protests, which led to more media attention. At one point the Soros Open Foundation also became a sponsor of the anti-RMGC movement and despite my best ability to research it, I don’t know whether this is still true today.
What I do know is that the battle lines have been drawn ever since. Protests against the RMGC project have been incredibly well-organized, far better than anything I have ever seen or heard about in post-1989 Romanian history. Mining experts, cultural experts, ecological experts and a wide coalition of NGOs and activists have coordinated to sustain their ongoing opposition to the project.
Over the years the subject of Rosia Montana has become a household topic where everyone knows at least a little about it. Annually there are musical concerts held in Rosia Montana to sustain the town’s cultural heritage and organize opposition to the RMGC mining project.
The opposition also have an professional logo in the form of a red and green leaf that you can see absolutely everywhere:
Large-scale protests did not begin in 2013 but have been ongoing for years. In 2012 some anti-RMGC activists “took over” the Hotel Continental here in downtown Cluj, covering the building with enormous signs (all bearing the branded red/green leaf logo). Flags, T-shirts, stickers and posters, not to mention spray-painted “graffiti” on town walls are also a regular sight.
The opposition to the RMGC also has successfully gotten many op-ed pieces published in widely-read news portals such as The Guardian and the Huffington Post, which help backend AP wire pieces like the ones Alison Mutler sends out. Likewise the opposition has richly detailed and colorful graphics such as this one (click on the image for full-size):
Despite a few spelling errors, it’s a powerful graphic and it’s been used in posts all over the world, including several campaigns on Facebook.
On one side therefore you have a few politicians (including President Basescu, who is currently professing complete neutrality on the issue) who clearly were or are supporters of the RMGC project. Many residents of the Rosia Montana region, who depend on mining for their livelihood, have also protested in favor of the project, with a handful of miners threatening to hold a hunger strike and remain underground indefinitely last week.
Ponta’s bitch and former partner in crime, Dan Sova, is trying to keep the RMGC project afloat by uttering scary pronouncements about Gabriel Resources suing the Romanian government for “billions” of dollars for breach of contract, which is largely why the protests continue. However I highly doubt that Frank and his fast cash buddies have the stones to endure lengthy litigation and so Sova is mostly crying wolf here, in my opinion.
On the other side you have a well-organized and well-financed opposition which yes, does include the genuine and voluntary support of thousands of mostly young, well-educated city dwellers in Romania.
I personally know a dozen people who sincerely oppose the gigantic cyanide pit, the leveling of four mountains, the destruction of an entire town all for the sake of a handful of jobs and that’s why they were protesting in the past few days and weeks (and some for years). But it’s clear that there’s a hidden hand at work here, paying for the banners and flags, printing up the flyers and coordinating the protest permits.
And so this news story is being sold to the domestic and international press as a triumph of democracy with thousands of people peacefully demonstrating in the streets, which I suppose it is, but underneath it all is the tale of a greedy Romanian con man and a hippy Swiss woman.
The thousands of people in the streets are genuinely upset but the seed that first grew this opposition came in the form of a single woman, Stephanie Roth, who used her global exposure to bring attention and raise funds to support the work of the handful of Rosia Montana residents that dared to resist the RMGC project.
And somewhere in a luxuriously appointed home in London, Vasile “Frank” Timis is cursing and pulling his hair out because a nerdy Swiss journalist’s persistence has just outfoxed him, causing his shareholders to lose millions of dollars, ruining his decade-long dream of polluting his former country for fun and profit.
AND NOW YOU KNOW!