Today, the 6th of February 2019, the Romanian town of Roşia Montană celebrates its 1888th year of existence. Its Latin name, Alburnus Maior, was mentioned for the first time in a wooden-wax tablet dated from 6th February 131 AD.
Over the past 20 years, residents have fought against a proposed multi-billion dollar mining project, which would have destroyed their homes and the surrounding environment. Joined by neighbouring villagers, environmentalists, students, priests, academics, and citizens at large, “Save Roşia Montană!” became what was then the largest people’s movement since the country’s 1989 revolution.
In a remarkable show of people power, they succeeded in stopping the mine.
But the project’s majority owner, Canadian company Gabriel Resources, is now using ISDS, the parallel legal system for foreign investors, in order to demand Romanians pay US$4,8 billion in compensation for lost profits. This represents more than two per cent of the entire value of Romania’s economy.
A toxic project
If approved, the Roşia Montană mine would become Europe’s largest open-pit gold and silver mine, with huge amounts of rock blasted away and processed.
To extract the gold from the rock, 12-15 million kilograms of cyanide, a highly toxic chemical, would be used and released into the environment every year. Over the 16 year-long life of the mine, 240,000 tons of toxic cyanide would have been used – the equivalent of lethal doses for 600 billion adults! The mine would leave behind a waste lake of heavy metals and cyanide contaminated water the size of 420 football fields.
Four mountains would be blasted away. 975 houses and churches would be demolished, 42 of which are considered national heritage sites. The livelihoods of 6,000 people living downstream from the waste lake would be at risk.
An inspiring resistance bites back
Residents of Roșia Montană were the first to speak out against the gold mine, more than 20 years ago. Together with other activists from across Romania and the rest of Europe, their movement developed into an impressive decade-long campaign. They revitalised the whole area, highlighting its beauty and cultural heritage, organising festivals and restored ancient buildings.
Anti-mine protests reached their peak in autumn 2013. For many weeks, every Sunday, 30,000 people took to the streets. Rallies happened every night in the capital, Bucharest. Support actions were held in over 40 cities in Romania and abroad, including the UK, Germany, Spain, Denmark, Canada and Belgium.
Ultimately, the mining project was halted in the Romanian courts. Environmental and community-based groups had challenged several procedures and permits. The Ministry of Culture had classified the entire community of Roșia Montană as a historic site of national importance.
The corporation’s true gold mine? ISDS
Democratic and legal opposition prevented Gabriel Resources from opening the mine. But the corporation is now trying to reverse this community victory via a legal backdoor. Since July 2015 the company has been suing Romania via investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS), arguing that the country breached several obligations in its bilateral investment treaties with Canada and the UK because it ‘failed’ to issue the required permits.
The company is seeking up to US$4,8 billion in compensation for the gold and silver it was unable to extract in Roșia Montană – about two per cent of the Romanian economy or half the country’s annual health budget.
ISDS is included in thousands of international trade and investment agreements which span the globe. It allows companies to sue governments if actions by Parliaments, governments and courts allegedly violate the overly generous ‘rights’ these treaties grant foreign investors. In practice, this has meant that companies are sometimes able to sue governments for policies they just do not like. These lawsuits bypass domestic courts and take place before an unaccountable international tribunal presided over by corporate lawyers. And it is a system that only works one way. Only corporations can sue states – not the other way round.
Key documents of the ISDS case remain secret. Local communities from Roșia Montană who have been fighting the mine for 20 years are denied the right to take part in the proceedings.
No super-powers for mining companies – what they need it more rules!
The Roșia Montană situation is not an isolated case. According to UN data, there are 147 known investment treaty cases related to the mining industry. Twenty-nine countries from the United States to Indonesia have defended themselves against mining companies before investment arbitration tribunals.
Denying or revoking mining permits because of environmental concerns or the violation of the human and social rights of indigenous peoples has led to at least 10 investment treaty cases. Like for Roșia Montană, most cases relate to the exploitation of gold. These cases provide enough evidence to show how investors’ right to sue at international tribunals poses a direct threat to environmental regulation of the mining industry.
Worldwide, the mining industry is notoriously responsible for large-scale human rights abuses. Rape, killings, beatings, forced displacement, death threats and environmental degradation have been documented by human rights watchdog organisations. Victims and affected communities have little to no way to gain justice and to keep companies accountable.
Help us make the European Union and EU member states end corporate courts, and create a tough global system that can punish multinationals for their crimes.
From Bucharest to London, campaigners and social movements are uniting. Join us.
- Gold-digging with investor-state lawsuits, Corporate Europe Observatory, CIDRM, Mining watch Romania, Alburnus Maior Association, 2017, 16 pages. Available in English, German and Romanian
- Signing away sovereignty – How investment agreements threaten regulation of the mining industry in the Philippines, TNI, Alyansa Tigil Mina, Focus on the global south; 2016, 30 pages