Monday, September 30, 2013

Romanian Vignettes

There is a system of heating and hot water in Romania, whereby for the (many) blocks of flats, there is a centralised building where they heat the water and pump it around the buildings, providing hot water all year long and heating in the winter. The heating gets turned on round about October 1st and turned off again in April.  (Round here anyway, down in some of the warmer parts of the country these dates may be different).

Now this system would actually be quite a good one, were it not for the fact that the facilities and infrastructure are old and they've never been updated since the communists built them.  So there is massive inefficiency, and loads of leaks and so on.  So the amount of money you pay each month for your heating and hot water is not related that closely to how much you've used.  Because of this most people try to get off the system and install their own gas boiler water/heating system, so that they only pay for what they use.

Our apartment was already off the grid when we bought it, and has been for something like 10 years, but because the pipes run through our flat we still have to pay something.  (When we first moved in they were all clad in insulation so we didn't pay that money, but then the law changed, so we took off the insulation - since we were paying anyway.  But I digress).

Last week, the one remaining apartment on our side of the building that still used the central system, installed their own system, and someone from the building came round telling us that we could finally get rid of the pipes and stop paying the (ridiculously large) monthly amount of money.  As ours is the lowest apartment in the building (one floor up above some shops), it was decided that it made sense if the pipes would be cut and capped in our apartment.

So, last week the blokes came around and sawed off all ten pipes that ran through our apartment, bottom and top, and welded them shut.  It was a surprisingly quick and not too disruptive a job. Until another resident of the building from some floors higher up on the other side, came in to see what was going on and got very upset because she said that the system went up one side of the building and then back down the other side, so when the heating was turned on (a) they wouldn't get any; and (b) we'd all get flooded by all the water going round the system.  

Now, it is at this point that the story becomes a truly Romanian* story. Because when we asked the workmen if it was possible that she was right, their answer was not "No, that's not a problem, we would never have cut these pipes if that could happen", but instead.  "Hmm.  We have no idea.  I guess we'd better check". 

(*By which I mean a story that takes place in Romania, rather than a story that is Romanian in its ethnicity :-) )

[Turns out that they did need to do some work up on the top floor to ensure that this problem didn't arise, but it wasn't the absolute clusterfuck that it would have been if they'd needed to re-install the pipes that they had just removed.  But it is a good job that the neighbour checked]

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Democracy and Rosia Montana

There has been a big story in Romania for years now - that of the proposed gold mining operation at Rosia Montana.  Anyone in Romania can skip the beginning of this since you all know the ins and outs of this question, but for people who are not familiar, here is a very brief summary of what has been happening and especially the last few days:

The basic background information

In Transylvania, Romania, in the Apuseni mountains, an area of stunning national beauty, there is a small village called Rosia Montana. it is a village built on mining, where mining - for gold mostly - has been going on since Roman times. Indeed under the village there are excellently preserved Roman gold mines. 

The village has been at the centre of mining operations ever since, though mostly on a very small scale. As with most such industries at the end of communism the mine shut down (inefficient, dangerous, polluting, needing tons of investment to continue)

14 years ago a Canadian company called Gabriel Resources acquired the rights to develop the mines and mine the gold. They set up a company called Rosia Mountain Gold Corporation (hereafter RMGC) which is 81% owned by them (Gabriel) and 19% by the Romanian state.  Since then there has been an incredibly long and convoluted process to finally get this mining under way. RMGC's plan was basically to relocate most of  the villagers to nearby town Alba Iulia, and knock down 4 mountains in the largest open cast mine in Europe. It's a massive operation. they bought up much of the land, with the majority of the villagers - desperate for work - happy to go along with the plan and to be employed. Some, of course , did not go along and held out, refusing to sell their land.

The environmental movement is also, obviously up in arms, since not only does this plan pretty much trash a massive area of extremely beautiful countryside, but it also involves the extensive use of cyanide. Cyanide is used in gold mining as standard, and the plan would create a large toxic lake of cyanide which would pretty much stay there for ever.  15ish years ago in northern Romania, a much smaller cyanide lake burst its banks and entered the river system, killing fish all the way down the Tisza and eventually the Danube in Hungary. RMGC argues that they have modern methods and there is absolutely no danger of this happening again, and that even in environmentally conscious countries like Finland this kind of thing goes on. (This conveniently ignores the fact that this project will on its own use about ten times as much cyanide per year than is used per year in the whole of the rest of Europe.)

Then of course there is the ever present suspicion of corruption. Nobody in Romania trusts any politician not to be on the take. And in the case a huge multinational corporation trying to make a bunch of money, there is widespread (universal) assumption that there are some dodgy dealings in the background.


So, the whole project has been tied up for years in legal and political arguments, with successive governments trying to push through laws to make the whole project start (like forcing people to sell up etc). The President has been in favour for years, and the last government (of the same party as the President) doing the same. But they couldn't get it through in time, before they got voted out last year. The new prime minister was on record in opposition as being against it, so it seemed like it might be finished. Last month however, his government put forward draft legislation to approve it (he claimed that as an MP he was opposed,but as the leader of the country he was for. The best flip-flop argument ever).

This brought people on to the streets in protest and all major cities, especially Bucharest, have seen ongoing demonstrations since that date (Aug 27th). Yesterday the PM flip flopped again saying he would vote against the legislation as would most of his government. The project is assumed to be dead in the water and the Gabriel share price has dropped like a stone (amid threats from Canada to launch legal action). 

Other links

Those are basically the facts.  It's a bit of a brief outline of the situation by necessity, and therefore there will be bits that I have omitted, but essentially the salient facts are as above.

If you want to read further then the wikipedia page is pretty good, though obviously as this is a hot issue, I'm guessing that page is in the front line of the different points of view, so it might change fairly regularly.

This Reuters article from last year is also very good and puts both sides of the story well.

And to give a well-argued counterpoint to my view (below) on this, Craig at Bucharest Life has written a good post (a number of the commenst below that are excellent too) 

My view

Not that it matters to any degree, and I've gone back and forth with this question anyway, but my gut reaction, backed up by stuff I've read since then is to side with the anti-RMGC side of the debate.  I haven't been to Rosia Montana, so I can't really comment on the town, but I have been to some villages fairly nearby, and it is a stunning area and incredibly beautiful.  I have also been to Balan, a town not far from here, which I guess is similar in some ways - a copper mining town which grew under Ceausescu, and which now is home to just over 5000 people (very similar to Rosia Montana), most of whom live in the concrete blocks beloved of communist architects.  In the time that I've lived here, Bălan has gone from being almost a ghost town when the mine closed down, to actually finding its feet again.  Despite the architecture there is something attractive about the town, over and above the stunning scenery that surrounds it. That scenery does attract people with it being the starting point on the climb up to Egyeskő / Piatra Singuratică, and the mountains around.  Other small industries have been set up, including large scale collection of wild mushrooms to be shipped off to Western Europe, which seem to be enough to make the town self-sufficient.  That's not to say that it's an easy life for people there, but it does seem to have turned the corner.  The mine entrance building looms over the town, closed and silent, and when you climb up to the the mountain it is then that you can see the area of the valley that has been stripped bare and the toxic lake left in the middle from the mining operations.  I am sure there a large number of people in Bălan who would like the mine to reopen, thus providing work, but in the bigger picture, the town has a more sustainable economic future ahead of it, even if it takes a while to really build up.  

So while I haven't been to Rosia Montana itself, and I am fully prepared to believe that a large number of its residents are very much desperate for this mine to go ahead, my feelings lie with the desire to not destroy this area, and leave a huge scar across the middle of Romania.  In addition, when it comes to large multinational corporations making vast amounts of money, I have no faith that these deals are above board and fair.  Nobody knows what the contracts are between the State and Gabriel Resources.  Nobody knows whether RMGC will pay much in the way of tax.  Nobody knows what kickbacks and deals have been done behind closed doors.  RMGC say they will clean everything up, that they will make everything incredibly safe, that they will offer good wages, and so on.  But why would anyone believe a massive company whose main aim is to make as much money as possible as quickly as possible? They could very well be a hugely ethical company who are less interested in their shareholders than they are about the villages  and villagers of rural Romania. Or not.


And so to the ultimate point of this post. The people who have come out on the streets to protest against this, have, it seems, won.  The government has backed down and the deal seems dead (though one should always be cautious).  People power has won out, and the scenes of young Romanians out on the streets standing up for what they believe in have been powerful.

But, is this democracy?  That's the question that thoughtful people are now posing.  Tens of thousands of people demonstrated, in a country of nearly 20 million.  Is it democratic to give in to their demands?  It's a fair question, i think.

Those who are appalled by the government's change of direction, refer to these people out on the streets as "hipsters".  It's a cheap shot, immediately downplaying them, giving them a name with negative connotations, to lessen then, make them seem like they don't really care.  In truth they are a wide range of people, mostly young, mostly well-educated, mostly middle class, it seems at least.  But not only these groups.  Its a fairly broad protest.  But while the hipster label is unfair and demeans their efforts and their motivations, they are still a fairly small group of people.  So, again, is this democratic?

Well, it is worth turning this question around and looking at the other side.  Who supports this project?  A majority of residents of the village of Rosia Montana.  And then a massive wealthy well connected Canadian corporation. And possibly some politicians.  That's it.  Beyond this there is a large swathe of the country who probably don't know much about it and who in the long run don't really care. So, is it democratic to build this mine in order to satisfy the shareholders of Gabriel Resources?  

Democracy itself is in some danger.  Corporations and governments work together to subvert it all over the globe.  Is it democratic to change policy based on tens of thousands of protestors?  Not in the traditional model of democracy, where everyone has an equal say in who governs.  But we don't live in that world any more, we live in one in which large corporations and the 1% drive policy that suits them with the aid of bought off governments and compliant media.  

So, frankly, I'd rather trust tens of thousands of well educated, well read, thoughtful young people to fight for the right things than a massive corporation and some corrupt politicians.  Perhaps this is what democracy will be in the future.   I for one welcome it.