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Mountains of Gold

[clock] 34-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Winter 2012
The Rosia Montana mine is one of the oldest mines in the world, but now it threatens to destroy the ancient village it long ago built.

A geologist employed by the Rosia Montana Gold Corporation stands amid the mine’s waste-rock rubble. The company has proposed four new open-pit mines, which would generate 200 million tons of waste rock—and bury the nearby village.

Mrs. Moldovan, a Roma woman, in her home in Gura Rosiei, at the bottom of the Rosia Montana valley. Many members of the Roma community used to work for the state mine, but now are unemployed, living in abject poverty, without sewage and running water. Over their village towers a recultivated dam of cyanide tailings, a legacy of the state-run mine.

Arpad Pallfi, the preacher of the Rosia Montana Unitar- ian church, delivers a Sunday sermon. The village’s dwindling population has sapped Arpad’s congregation.

The organ moans and the preacher sings off-key, but the music is majestic. The whole church resounds with the hymn, creaks like a ship in a storm, dips and rises, dips and rises, as if any moment now it will founder under the foaming waves, into the fathomless depths. The steel-gray wooden pews are empty, abandoned by the faithful. Only three old women sit in the front row, holding hymnals in their hands, heads slightly bowed in resignation. The large gold-painted letters on the paneling of the organ loft spell out EGYAZ ISTEN—“There Is Only One God” in Hungarian.

The hymn ends and the last chords gradually fade away. Shafts of spring sunlight stream through the high windows and birdsong arrives from somewhere outside. Calm descends for a moment, and the blank, austere walls are softened by the silence, the chill air inside the church feeling somehow warmer. Even the mildew in the corners has grown fainter.

The preacher and his assistant walk down the stairs of the loft, the planks groaning under their feet. The assistant takes a seat in one of the side pews, while the preacher surveys his tiny congregation with a look of disappointment. Then he catches sight of me, with my photographer and interpreter, sitting in the back, and nods at us with a smile. Three more sailors on board today.

He climbs into the pulpit, a gaudy semicircular structure with a wood-carved canopy painted maroon-red and richly decorated with faux gold elements and tassels. A naked light bulb hangs high above an open Bible, and every time he moves forward to read a passage, it bathes his balding head in a nimbus of light.

And the same day, when the even was come, he saith unto them, “Let us pass over unto the other side.” And when they had sent away the multitude, they took him even as he was in the ship. And there were also with him other little ships. And there arosea great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the ship, so that it was now full. And he was in the hinder part of the ship, asleep on a pillow: and they awake him, and say unto him, “Master, carest thou not that we perish?” And he arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, “Peace, be still.” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. And he said unto them, “Why are ye so fearful? how is it that ye have no faith?” And they feared exceedingly, and said one to another, “What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

“Why did I choose these words?” the preacher asks loudly after reading the passage and snapping the Bible closed. “These words came to me last night, when I was threatened with physical violence. I was nearly assaulted for standing on the other side, for standing against the gold-mining company. I know the gentleman, but I didn’t call the police.”

He waits for his words to sink in, holding onto the pulpit with both hands and staring somewhere in the distance, beyond the blank walls of the church. With his gray beard and open black frock he resembles a human thundercloud, his blue-patterned tie the tongue of a lightning bolt. Then he raises both of his hands, palms up, and bursts into speech again.

“For if we have faith in our Savior Jesus Christ, we can cross on the other side without fear in our hearts and souls. For fear excludes faith. Faith gives us strength and protects us from those who threaten us and want to do us harm. Do not be afraid, have faith and you will be saved now and forever, Amen.”

Sunday mass is over. The preacher turns off the light bulb over his Bible and descends the pulpit.

The Unitarian church of Rosia Montana, a Romanian village in the Apuseni Mountains of Transylvania, stands near the top of a bucolic valley, its white steeple rising high over trees and houses, higher than anything else but the mountain peaks around. Built in 1796 by Hungarian-speaking residents, while the region was still under the official rule of the Habsburg Empire, it belongs to the Unitarian Church of Transylvania, one of the oldest surviving Unitarian denominations founded back in the sixteenth century. The congregation has dwindled today to a couple of elderly residents, but not long ago it still prospered, as did the entire Rosia Montana community. The reason was simple and elegant: gold.

Rosia Montana is one of the oldest, continuously settled gold-mining sites in Europe. In 106 AD the Roman Emperor Trajan finally conquered the unruly kingdom of Dacia, north of the Danube, a territory that roughly encompasses present-day Romania, and seized one of the richest gold reserves in the world, what was named at the time Alburnus Maior. It was a bonanza, even by imperial standards, an America for the Roman conquistadors: 165 tons of ready gold from the treasury of the Dacians and plenty of deposits still veined inside the mountains. Thousands of engineers and artisans and slaves from all over the Empire flocked to work in the underground mines, ushering in one of Rome’s greatest periods of prosperity. To commemorate his victory, Trajan organized lavish celebrations at the Circus Maximus: 10,000 gladiators and 11,000 animals kept 350,000 citizens entertained for 123 consecutive days. The stores of gold also paid for the construction of new buildings and public works in Rome on a truly grand scale, turning the city into a wonder of the Ancient World. The 30-meter-high Trajan’s Column, a pillar depicting in great detail the campaign against the Dacians, still stands today as a monument to one of the most fortuitous events in the history of the Empire.

Those who oppose the pit mines say that the area could prosper by reopening the ancient underground mines of Rosia Montana to tourism. Sealed-off mines, like this one, are among the best-preserved Roman mines in Europe.

The open pit of Rosia Poieni, a large copper mine not far from Rosia Montana, shows the devastation of strip mining.

After Rome collapsed—for no amount of gold could support its profligate ways—Alburnus Maior lost some of its productivity, but it was never completely abandoned. During the Middle Ages, various local principalities exploited the resources, expanding the network of trapezoidal galleries that the Romans had dug, following the rich, aureus seams with less skill but no less passion. The miners would build fires to heat up the hard rock and then sprinkle a mixture of cold water and vinegar to crack it before moving in with chisels and hammers. It was backbreaking work, but a lust for gold drove miners ever deeper.

Larger-scale mining operations in Alburnus Maior—or Rosia Montana, as the place wassoon to become known—were once again revived under the Hapsburg Empire in the late seventeenth century. In 1733 Charles IV funded the construction of a series of artificial ponds in the area called tauri, which helped to power the stamp mills that crushed the ore into smaller chunks. The site was deemed so important that for a while entry was allowed only with special permission from Vienna. A few years later Empress Maria-Theresa visited the settlement and donated a miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary with a necklace of black pearls: gold needed every protection possible, earthly or divine. It was around that same period that Rosia Montana began to truly flourish, as prospectors from all over the Hapsburg dominions—Austrians and Germans and Hungarians and Slavs—started to arrive in droves. Churches and bars, banks and casinos (many of which survive to this day) sprang up everywhere during the nineteenth-century gold rush.

When the Austro-Hungarian Empire (the heir of the Hapsburg Empire) fell apart after the First World War, Transylvania became part of Romania and many of the mining galleries of Rosia Montana were given out to locals as cuxe, fixed-length concessions. Private enterprise continued to thrive until 1948—there were three hundred stamping mills at the time—when the Communists took over the Romanian government and nationalized all industries, including mining.

Under the reign of Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania’s brutal dictator, the mines were forcefully industrialized—and, in the 1970s, with most of the gold-bearing seams exhausted, the state turned to strip mining. Two of the mountains were partially destroyed, but poor management and the worsening national economic situation forced subsequent Romanian governments to gradually scale-down operations, until, in 2006, the pollution-spewing mines were finally shuttered as one of the preconditions for the country’s acceptance into the European Union.

But Rosia Montana’s millennial mining saga remains far from over.

For a few years now, a company called Rosia Montana Gold Corporation (80 percent owned by the Canadian company Gabriel Resources and 20 percent owned by the Romanian state) has been trying to reopen and expand the gold mines, as it discovered that what Romans and Hapsburgs and Communists took away was just one part of the wealth buried in the mountains. Although the main veins have been exhausted—55 million ounces, or about 1700 tons, in two thousand years—there are still enough minute gold flecks dispersed in the rock to make Rosia Montana’s reserves the largest in Europe and one of the three biggest deposits in the world. According to calculations, the measured and indicated resources in the area currently stand at 14.6 million ounces (about 450 tons) of gold and 64.9 million ounces (about 2000 tons) of silver—and possibly much more in what is now being called the “Golden Quadrilateral” of Transylvania. (At current gold and silver prices that would equal some $25 billion.) Mining has never been a sustainable business; the metal runs out eventually and booms go bust. But on a human scale, Rosia Montana has been the champion of longevity, the Methuselah of Mines.

There is, of course, a hitch. To dig out the last treasures of Rosia Montana, the Rosia Montana Gold Corporation (RMGC) would have to bury dead the ancient town of Rosia Montana itself. The proposal calls for four enormous open pits—hugely expanding the two existing ones and opening two more—which would generate 200 million tons of waste rock and would effectively wreck the spectacular landscape and overlay the village. The nearby Corna Valley will be turned into a tailings dam holding up to 250 million tons of cyanide-laced waste from gold leaching. In order to initiate and commence with the project, RMGC is required to buy out all private and public properties in the area, including churches and cemeteries, some of which it plans to demolish. The historic center has been slated for preservation, but it will remain a souvenir in the middle of a sea of rubble: a beautiful mummy.

Only a few people like Arpad Palffi, the preacher of the old Unitarian church of Rosia Montana, have decided to stick it out to the hard, bitter end.

Arpad is sixty now but has been working as a preacher in the village for thirty-five years and knows each and every corner of Rosia Montana. “I will not leave until the last person leaves,” he tells me when we go out into the warm May sun after the Sunday service. He takes out an orange cigarette case from his breast pocket and lights up. “I get threatened sometimes because of my position, but I’m not afraid. Don’t be afraid—that was the message of my sermon.”

A recently exhumed grave at Rosia Montana. The company has paid for exhumations and reburials of dead relatives for those who decide to leave Rosia Montana.

As could be expected, the mining proposal has polarized the community, pitting neighbors against each other, often leading to direct and open conflicts. Faced with up to 80 percent unemployment after the state operation closed down, a portion of the residents has decided to side with RMGC: to hell with the houses and the mountains and the heritage. If someone can provide them work, even if temporarily, that is worth the exchange. In its promotional ads, the company promises eight hundred direct jobs for sixteen years—and many are eager to believe. The less-patient citizens have just packed up and left. And, then, like Arpad, there is a third group, determined to defend their homes at all costs, reasoning that the history and nature of Rosia Montana hold far greater importance and financial potential than any large-scale mining development.

Even though Arpad’s flock has been steadily eroding in the last few years and today numbers only fourteen congregants, he hasn’t given up hope. He is known to preach at his church on Sundays, even when there is no one in attendance. There are stories of him going to the local bar, where he would joke (in a very non Unitarian way) that, in fact, he had four people listening to his sermon: the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost … and himself.

Whatever the difficulties, Arpad can boast some faithful followers. Eugen (Zeno) Cornea, who pumps air into the organ while Arpad plays, is Christian-Orthodox, but he and his wife Maria Cornea, are regularly attend Arpad’s Unitarian services because of his stance on the mining controversy. Zeno and Maria are both retired topographers; they have spent their whole lives working for the local gold and copper mines, and now the same industry that once employed them is their biggest enemy.

It’s complicated. “I know everything there is to know about mining, I know the dangers, and that’s why I’m against this project,” Zeno says. “At the same time, I can’t approve the destruction of two thousand years of mining history.”

Zeno’s and Maria’s real motives for staying on, however, seem to be more personal. “All of my ancestors are from here,” Maria says with a sigh and looks up at the distant mountains, trying to hide a tear. Her husband agrees: “You can give me the entire world, but I will not leave. I want to die and be buried here. There are three sacred things in life: the house, the church, and the cemetery.”

The mining company does not seem to share Zeno’s old-fashioned sentiments. In fact, it has been sponsoring exhumations and reburials of dead relatives for those who decide to leave Rosia Montana. In the Unitarian graveyard, I see five freshly re-excavated graves, with decades-old tombstones. Altogether, about seventy exhumations have taken place in the last few years, a church bell tolling at each mournful occasion.

“When the priest buries the dead, he seals the body with the words ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in certain hope of resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ,’” Zeno says. “The mining company is not Jesus Christ. It shouldn’t be raising the dead from their graves.”

The village of Rosia Montana huddles low in a narrow, green valley. A single main road meanders along the valley floor, following the course of a mountain stream. Most of the houses—painted white and blue and pink—are scattered to the roadsides, backed by rolling meadows. Songbirds chirp in the beech trees and birches, their notes occasionally drowned by the shrill cry of a cockerel. There is the peal of church bells; the jingle of cowbells.

Still, the pastoral crumbles upon closer inspection. Many of the town’s properties, where once houses and barns stood, are vacant today—bought up by RMGC, all traces of previous habitation removed. The village is like a mouth with half its teeth pulled. Many of the houses that remain look run-down, paint peeling off their walls, fences broken or tilted to the side. The couple of concrete apartment blocks, built by the Communists to house the flood of incoming miners, now look dreary and out-of-place amid the valley’s still-rich and gratuitous greenery. At the end of the road is the historic center, but its stunning eighteenth-and nineteenth-century architecture has been tarnished by time, with the exception of a single house, which was restored by the mining company and turned into a tiny, virtually unvisited mining museum.

Horses wandering among the ruins of one of the many abandoned, tumbledown houses in Rosia Montana.

But the most visible indicator that something in the village is not quite right are signs attached to the outer walls of many houses in the historic center. Some of them loudly feature the twisted gold ring branding them as property of RMGC, while the rest, more modest in design, say in Romanian: this property is not for sale. The fight over Rosia Montana looks like a slightly deranged game of tag between the mining company and the local citizens. RMGC already owns about 60 percent of the required 1,257 hectares and about three-quarters of all the homes within the project footprint. Out of the roughly two thousand residents who lived here a few years ago, barely a quarter remain.

Businesses and services have almost disappeared, as the mining company has pushed out residents. It’s a simple scheme: the more people leave, the more businesses disappear, and the more businesses disappear the more people leave. The pharmacy is gone; also the newsstand and several other enterprises. A few bars and a small general store remain open, but their future is uncertain. When Rosia Montana turns into a ghost town, the company will have won.

Rosia Montana has one hostel, though, where life continues to hum with the energy of the past. La Gruber is a house in the middle of the village, with two of its front rooms converted into bedrooms for lodgers. A huge banner SAVE ROSIA MONTANA, the name of the anti-mining campaign, unambiguously declares the sentiments of the occupants. It’s the place where I’m staying for a week.

Andrei (Bizzy) Gruber is the proprietor of La Gruber, where he lives with his girlfriend, twenty-two-year-old Anamaria Rus. Andrei is twenty-six, with a long ponytail and shades, a fresh pack of Lucky Strikes always stuck in the breast pocket of his blue overalls—but he is also the heir to one of the oldest and most eminent mining families in the region, the Grubers. Originally German, they moved here many years ago, in search of gold and happiness, and seemed to have found it. Andrei’s grandfather, Alexandru Gruber, was a wealthy prospector between the world wars, owning a number of mining concessions, a supply store, and a small advertising business. Sometime in the 1930s he bought the first car in this part of Transylvania: a giant Ford. In some of the creased black-and-white photographs Andrei shows me, the men are in suits and fedoras while the women wear silk dresses and cloche hats. They are on their way to a restaurant, perhaps, or the casino, to fritter away the money they had just exchanged in the bank for the weekly crop of gold.

“The luckiest miners would binge and gamble all night,” Andrei explains, flipping slowly, reverently, through the pages of ancestral albums. “I’ve heard how one of them would go back home in the morning in three carriages: the first for himself, the second for his cane, and the third for his top hat.”

Andrei (Bizzy) Gruber, proprietor of the bed-and- breakfast La Gruber, barbeques meat for his guests. He uses a miner’s headlight to illuminate his work.

The Grubers lost their stake and property in 1948, when the Communists nationalized mining. Many locals, including Alexandru Gruber, were rounded up and tortured by the police, who hoped to extract information about purportedly buried treasures. Unbending, Alexandru was later convicted for allegedly stealing firewood. He was thrown in jail, where he died in the 1950s. His son, Andrei’s father, became a regular miner in the service of the Romanian state, though he never forgot his origins and kept his family stories alive.

That history is evident everywhere at La Gruber: the ancestral home that Andrei converted into a hostel about three years ago with small grants from friends. There are mining helmets hanging on the walls in one of the bedrooms, old gas lamps, paintings of miners and mining machinery. In the small courtyard, shaded by its apple and pear trees, there is a Roman mortar for crushing ore; there are ancient millstones, and the foundations of what had been, before it was destroyed by the Communists, a California-style stamp mill for gold and other ores.

“Tourism is the best alternative,” he tells me, “but one of the strategies of the company has been to make any kind of alternative impossible. Personally, I believe in the tourist option. There are good opportunities for hiking, archeological tourism, artisinal mining.” To illustrate his point, Andrei takes out a wooden trough and scoops some earth and gravel from the yard with it, then pours in a bit of water. After a couple of minutes of panning back and forth, most of the dirt is gone and a few microscopic flecks flicker at the bottom. Voila!

Local tourism is not just a pipedream. The surrounding mountains conceal more than 140 kilometers of underground galleries, seven kilometers of those from Roman times—some of the best-preserved underground Roman mines in Europe. A portion of that heritage has been partially damaged by the two open pits the Communist government started in the 1970s, but they were closed down in time, before the destruction got out of hand. It was in those ancient galleries that twenty-five ancient wax tablets— mining contracts—were discovered, documents that have become an important source for the better understanding of Roman law. Recently, the Romanian Academy and several other scientific bodies have proposed Rosia Montana for inclusion on Romania’s tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Of course, RMGC bitterly opposes tourist enterprises which would be at odds with the plans for large-scale mining development. Claiming that environmental and archeological tourism could not be a viable alternative in the region, RMGC managers have gone so far as to suggest that mining operations would actually draw tourists—people who would want to see how mountains are demolished for the extraction of gold.

Andrei finds such ideas ridiculous. “I don’t care about the technical details of the project, I don’t need to know them,” he says, “I just don’t want somebody to destroy my home.”

On one of the evenings, Andrei organizes a barbeque in his backyard. The idea is that his hostel guests would not simply spend the night at Rosia Montana, but would be offered good food, and conversation, and hikes in the mountains and the mines—but the latter he’s saving for the next day. He has put on a headlight, throwing a beam at the sizzling meat, looking like a miner who has found a new calling. Andrei’s brother, Chris, who lives in the house but works in Information Technology support for RMGC is also enjoying the evening with us. The two of them don’t argue about the mining project. Chris is firmly on his brother’s side, but has no other job opportunities for now.

“Gold never brought happiness to this region,” Andrei says, as we’re all savoring his barbeque and swigging beers in the warm May evening. “The Romans conquered the Dacians for the gold. The Austro-Hungarians came here for the gold. And now this company. Before they were called invaders, now they are called investors. This is evolution, I guess.”

The next morning, after a hearty breakfast of eggs, tomatoes, cucumbers, and coffee, Andrei offers to take me on a hike around the mountains. La Gruber is at the foot of Cetate, the peak that the Communists carved into an open pit and that spoils the otherwise idyllic mountain views. It looks like a dead volcano now; the top, where a Roman fortress once stood, has been blown off: rock debris overflowing the sides. In the early light, the rubble is tinted rose and has a certain raw beauty. The grandeur of wastelands.

We put on our backpacks and start up the hill. Andrei wears a t-shirt that says “Rosia Montana is me.” Andrei’s German shepherd, muzzled for the good of strangers and company employees, runs in front of us. Gradually, the slope grows steeper and we come across an abandoned mine gallery, sealed off by rusty iron sheeting. There is a Communist star and the miners’ coat of arms—crossed pickaxe and hammer—etched into the crumbling concrete over the entrance. The Communist state continued to exploit some of the underground mines until the late 1960s, when finally they were deemed too unprofitable to operate.

Two thousand years of mining have been merciless to the environment, and in the morning light at this mine’s entrance, the consequences are obvious: a reddish rivulet full of oxidized metals, the result of acid-rock drainage, flows from underneath the iron door of the closed mine and, down the hill, toward the other streams. It is how Rosia Montana—Red Mountain—got its modern name. According to studies, the levels of arsenic and cadmium in the local river are three times over the legal limits, while those of iron and zinc are respectively 64 and 110 times over limit. RMGC has promised to clean up the historic pollution if it is allowed to go ahead with its own mining development— a situation that has the ring of absurdity, like pledging to cure a person of rheumatism while harvesting his organs.

In fact, RMGC’s central line of argument has been to condemn the “dirty” mining of yore and contrast it with its own more-modern and “clean” techniques, which would allegedly produce minimal effect on the landscape—at least on the surface, RMGC’s arch-enemy is not the environmental movement or sourpuss locals, but the “bad” mining companies of the past. Its website is littered with buzz language like “sustainable development,” “environmental awareness,” and “corporate social responsibility,” while it has pushed its advertising stratagems so far as to claim that its operation will be “the mine to clean up the mess”—which seems something akin to “the war to end all wars.”

In the quest to rebrand its image and deflect criticism, RMGC has even started dabbling in archeology. Knowing full well that almost the entire ancient network of mining galleries would have to be sacrificed in the new open pits, it has given so far $11 million for archeological work, while pledging another $35 million during the life of the mining operation—additional amounts that Romania’s Ministry of Culture and National Patrimony can ill afford. That research has already yielded some important finds like Roman public buildings, sacred areas, and numerous cemeteries of ancient mining communities, but the company has been careful not to overexpose any of these successes. After all, if it stumbles across the Holy Grail, all dreams of mining development in the area would be over.

While we are hiking, I ask Andrei about those environmental and archeological proposals, but he dismisses my question with a wave his hand. “Before we started our campaign, the company did not care about nature or patrimony or the community,” he says. “Now this is all they talk about, as if they don’t want to do mining, but community service.” He then keeps on walking.

Soon we’re scrambling up the debris of Cetate, trying not to tumble down the steep slope. From time to time, Andrei stops and turns around to show me a type of rock: quartz, dacit, bipyramidal sulfur, pyrite. He is at home with all their names, a true heir to miners. Andrei studied archeology for a while at the local university, but dropped out because he didn’t like living in the city and missed Rosia Montana. He has kept his interests alive though and served as the guide of a French archeological team, which visited Transylvania in 2002. The galleries are hiding many, many more secrets, he believes, but if the mining project gets the approval, they will be irretrievably lost. 

To illustrate his words, he points up: there are large stone arches of a yellowish color that were once the entrances into Cetate’s mining galleries. Nothing is on the other side now—just naked blue sky where the darkness of the mountain used to be. It is an uncanny sight. We go under one of the arches and unexpectedly find ourselves into another world, as if we have just stepped through an intergalactic portal. Before us is the open pit of Cetate.

It is difficult to make up metaphors for something as horrifying as an open-pit mine. A shark bite; a whirlpool of earth; the empty spiral of civilization. Only a mad species can do such violence to its own habitat. In its pursuit of sublimity, the human imagination has turned suicidal. I walk around the pit, horrified and enchanted at the same time, the way I remember feeling the first time I visited Death Valley. To stare at the exposed rock, at the madding perpetuity of geology, is to stare at your own annihilation. Even iron appears ephemeral against rock: down there, at the bottom of the pit, are abandoned excavators and mining machinery, rusty and already falling apart.

Andrei does not share my apocalyptic view. He has grown up around here and has learned to ignore the pit. It is not as big—not yet—as are some similar mines around the world. For now it is just a lesion in the landscape that could perhaps heal one day if left alone. He even has an idea of how to put it to use as part of a tourist enterprise. In Austria, there is a motocross competition organized in one of the country’s derelict mine pits, called the Erzbergrodeo. Something similar, he imagines, could be done at Rosia Montana. His dream is to one day buy his own dirt bike and compete.

After a few minutes at the rim of the pit, we are already bored and decide that it’s time to go to greener places. It is amazing how fast we are out of the mining hell and back amid fields and trees. The old state mining company has done grave damage, but it is limited to Cetate and a slice of the adjacent mountain, Carnic. The bulk of Rosia Montana, however, remains untouched, and the wide vistas of the surrounding mountains and the village below are magnificent. Very soon we are strolling through pastures speckled by spring-time flowers, vetch and yarrow and buttercups and dandelions; through copses of spruce and Scotch pine, elder and birch. A huge rabbit jumps out of the bushes, but way too far off to give Andrei’s dog a chance at it. A herd of domestic horses trots across one of the meadows, neighing and shaking their heads.

When I look up at the sky, I see an eagle— a snake writhing in its talons.

There is no paved road to Eugen David’s house in Rosia Montana. To find him, a visitor has to walk up the blooming meadows, on a path of gravel and grass freckled with fresh cow patties. A dry stone wall, large boulders strewn about, runs on one side. Under some oak trees hides an ancient cemetery: crosses overgrown with moss and ferns. A brook gurgles nearby. After a few more twists in the path, and then behind a squeaky garden gate stands his house.

Eugen David is not some kind of Romanic poet. He will not be seen in a pensive mood, a pencil in his hand. Eugen David is a subsistence farmer and the president of Alburnus Maior, the Romanian NGO most actively involved in the opposition against the gold mining project. He has become something of a legend in this country— an ordinary small-time farmer who has taken a stand against a billion-dollar corporation.

When I first meet him, he is chopping wood, sweat gleaming on his tanned face. He wears threadbare work pants, a yellow Greenpeace t-shirt, and a beige bucket hat. “I’ll be there in a minute,” he shouts in lieu of a greeting and keeps on chopping like a maniac. The giant shed behind him is stacked up with firewood to the brim.

Eugen David is a subsistence farmer and the president of Alburnus Maior, the Romanian NGO most actively involved in the opposition against the gold mining project.

A few minutes later he joins me at a rough-hewn wooden table in the middle of the yard. Without a word, he proceeds to pour himself, consecutively, three glasses of water from a pitcher, and downs each of them ravenously. “I read somewhere it’s good to drink a lot of water,” he says. Then he lights up a cigarette. His hands are calloused, with dirt under the nails. “These are illegal Ukrainian cigarettes,” he tells me. “I don’t like paying import duty to a corrupt Romanian state.”

Eugen David is forty-six, with small, cunning eyes, grizzled stubble, and bad teeth. He is originally from Bucum, a neighboring village, and moved to Rosia Montana in 1996 after he got married. He still resides there, with his wife and fifteen-year-old daughter, Diana. The family doesn’t own a whole lot: a two-story farm house, a vegetable garden with potatoes, carrots, and onions, a few acres of pasture and a few acres of forest, ten cows, some pigs and chickens, a draft horse with a cart (“My Mercedes,” Eugen calls it) and a wooden sleigh for the winter months. His property, however, happens to lie in the area of the proposed mining site, what is slated to become another open-pit, and the project cannot proceed until RMGC acquires all of it.

But Eugen would not sell. There is a stubborn peasant streak in him, mixed with a good measure of wiliness and native wit. His two dogs are called Greenpeace and Sorosica (the female version of George Soros, the multi-billionaire and philanthropist who has been a supporter of the anti-mining campaign at Rosia Montana). He chuckles every time he mentions the mining project. Without a college degree or any special language skills, without even knowing how to use a computer (his website, Facebook page, and e-mail are run by other activists), he is nevertheless a formidable foe, armed with his homespun philosophy.

“As long as I have my land,” he says, “I am the owner of this world. And I am very strong. And I can’t be manipulated. The land gives me the power and strength to rely on myself. Every time I meet the company managers I ask them a question. ‘What will you do if I refuse to leave?’ They never have the answer. They have answers to the complicated questions, but not to the simple ones.”

Eugen David’s daughter Diana in the family’s barn. The family has ten cows and a few acres of pasture— just enough to get by—but David has refused to sell to the company. “As long as I have my land, I am the owner of this world,” he says.

Eugen doesn’t care about arguments, one way or the other: the number of jobs, the economy, the environment, historical monuments—all the fashionable words the two sides are hurling at each other. He doesn’t care about getting a real Mercedes, a bigger house, a new fridge, a plasma TV. He doesn’t like working on a fixed schedule—a few hours in the morning, a few in the evening, but definitely a nap in the middle. He seems to operate beyond modern systems of thought and there is something of the libertarian in him, but this is precisely his strength. Everything he needs, he already has. The company relies on the assumption that consumerist desire drives every person alike, shareholders in New York and residents of Rosia Montana, but Eugen appears to occupy a separate universe with impenetrable boundaries.

“I have a principle,” he says with a chuckle, “the less informed I am, the less disinformed I am. I follow my instincts. I watch TV only to get informed by disinformation.”

He pours himself another glass of water and lights up another cigarette.

“The project could be the best project in the world, but if it interferes with my life, I can’t accept it,” he goes on. “The company can put forward any argument, but they can’t come up with a solution for what I need to do if I don’t want to change my life. I don’t fight against this project because I want my daughter or anybody else to stay here, but I’m fighting for the way I want to live.” Then he pauses and smiles. “After I die, maybe my daughter will become the manager of the mining company … who knows?”

It is impossible not to take a liking of Eugen David and his eccentricities. In 2006 he hosted in his yard an environmental event called “The International Symposium of Monumental Sculpture.” Huge slabs of limestone, carved into abstract shapes, are scattered all over the grassy field now. They look like the remains of some kind of ancient archeological site.

“I’m just a farmer, and I don’t know much about art,” he says with his usual wily smile. “After the event, the sculptures had to remain on my property. But why not?”

Behind his jokes and antics, however, lies a mind deeply engaged with the world around it. Eugen is very much like one of those farmer-philosophers of the Enlightenment: a modern-day Thomas Jefferson. “I learned philosophy with my skin,” he says, then immediately launches into a discussion of democracy and individual rights. For him, and for many others like him, the case of Rosia Montana is not just a controversial mining project, but a litmus test for the principles of political freedom and law in post-Communist Romania.

“We don’t have original democracy here in Romania,” he says. “The way I understand American democracy is that it is based on the rights of the individual. If the individual is strong, he can build a strong community. I don’t care about percentages. 90 percent opposed—or 90 percent supporting the mining project. I’m an individual and I have my rights. If they change the laws to deny me my rights, then they are welcome to come and kick me out of here.”

And what if they decide to forcefully relocate him, I ask.

“If they try to forcefully relocate me, I’ll go to Ceausescu’s grave, light a candle, and say: ‘Comrade Ceausescu, you were a dictator, but I’m sorry we killed you. You were right and we were wrong.’”

I walk down the steep stairway, down, down, into the bowels of the mountain. One-hundred-fifty-seven steps into darkness, which even the powerful electric light bulbs on the walls cannot dispel. Blasts of cold, stale air hit me in the face and I start to shiver.

This is what the journey into the Underworld must feel like.

“Today you are visiting something unique in the world. An underground Roman mining gallery in situ, preserved for 2000 years in the rocks,” says the guide, a lanky man with a pompous, heavily accented English and almost manic flash in the eye. “The beauty of Rome was built with money from this place. And the beauty of Vienna. And the beauty of Budapest.”

This is the only restored Roman gallery open to tourists in Rosia Montana. The original entrance was never found, so another one, with a special stairway, was finished in 1974. It leads deep into the Orlea massif, on the top of which, among pastures and trees, stands Eugen David’s farmhouse.

As we descend farther down the stairs, the temperature drops even more. It is slightly above freezing. Dressed with only a light spring jacket, I am shivering, but I don’t plan to turn around. I want to see the cold heart of Rosia Montana; I want to see where it all began.

At the bottom we enter a narrow, horizontal passage: it is the Roman gallery. The trapezoidal shape of the tunnel is exquisite—perfectly regular—as if the main purpose of the miners was not to hack through rock for quick gold, but to create a thing of beauty and balance for future generations to admire. To turn the most utilitarian of jobs in the most hostile of places into a work of art must be what it means to have a soul. The guide points out the chisel markings in the rock and the little niches in the walls for tiny oil lamps.

“The Romans were very skillful workers. The gallery would advance thirty, perhaps forty centimeters in a day of work. I want you to imagine,” he says and pauses, drawing a sharp breath, “I want you to imagine how they dug: how they worked in that time, how they made those galleries. How they worked by just the light of an oil lamp, taking the material out by baskets, and yet managing to do this very skillful work. A lot of very skillful miners. They made a real a masterpiece.”

Desperately poor, residents near Rosia Montana will set abandoned cars on fire, in order to more easily scavenge and recycle the metal scrap.

It is perhaps how the citizens of Rome imagined their country’s gold mines: like works of art done by very skillful workers; like very organized, effective operations, somewhere far away, in places whose names they probably even didn’t care to remember. The gold coins they handled every day were clean and sparkling, so shiny they could see themselves reflected in them. The gold was the proof that their Empire was rich and prosperous, that everything was going just fine. The more gold mines, the better.

But it was the voice of one of their writers that shattered the myth. Describing the underground mines of the Roman Empire, Pliny the Elder offered the following report:

What happens is far beyond the work of giants. The mountains are bored with corridors and galleries made by lamplight with a duration that is used to measure the shifts. For months, the miners cannot see the sunlight and many of them die inside the tunnels. This type of mine has been given the name Ruina Montium. The cracks made in the entrails of the stone are so dangerous that it would be easier to find purpurine or pearls at the bottom of the sea than make scars in the rock. How dangerous we have made the Earth!

Reporting by Dimiter Kenarov and Nadia Shira Cohen was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.


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