Mining threatens 1600 hectares of forest in Gorj County.
“Romanians are brothers to the forest,” old Romanian saying.
For Romanians the forest symbolises “protection and life” says the writer Raluca Besli. This bond is expressed in numerous poems and folk songs, and stretches deep into the country’s past, with forests providing sanctuary for those fleeing medieval as well as more recent conflicts18.
Yet since the fall of communism great swathes of the nation’s forests have disappeared, and around half of all the logging in Romania is said to be illegal19, with some of the last expanses of ancient old-growth forest in Europe under threat.
In spring 2015 thousands took to the streets the length and breadth of the country to protest against the corruption that drives much of this. Mass rallies though, are only one way Romanians are resisting the destruction of their precious forests.
“There used to be forests in this area. We had beautiful forests. Lands were full of trees: apple trees, pear trees, plum trees, cherry trees, vineyards. Now they’ve gone because the mines have come.”
In the Rovinari basin in Gorj County, south east Romania, the proposed expansion of 10 lignite (or ‘brown coal’) mines will increase pollution, damage the fragile ecosystem, see hundreds of families evicted from their homes, and 1600 hectares of forest - an area the size of 2,560 football pitches - destroyed.21
When the photojournalist Mihai Stoica visited the villages surrounding the mines last year for the NGO Bankwatch Romania, he found communities - as well as individual families - torn. Some welcomed the expansions because of the promise of more than 700 new jobs by the state company Oltenia Energy Complex (OEC), which runs the mining operations. Others were bitterly opposed, their hostility fuelled by the misery that the existing mines had already brought.
In Runcurelu village local resident Severin Sperlea recalled better days. “There used to be forests in this area. We had beautiful forests. Lands were full of trees: apple trees, pear trees, plum trees, cherry trees, vineyards. You always found some fruit to eat when you went to work in the field. Now they’ve gone because the mines have come.”22
He greeted the lure of new jobs sceptically. “If you destroy a man’s land and don’t hire him, what’s he going to live on? What’s he going to do for a living? That’s the problem.”
When mines expand... Video courtesy of Bankwatch.
In nearby Stiuncani, a forgotten village of just a few houses, Olimpia Jilavu had spent much of her meagre pension for the past two years taking OEC to court, arguing that her land is incessantly flooded by water containing waste from the company’s mine. “Will it ever get dry here? Water keeps coming in. I don’t know what to do. Nobody cares about us. They will find us dead in these hills, in cracks, burning, or taken away by flooding,” she despaired.
Jilavu is not the only one using the law to take on the might of the mining company.
Bankwatch Romania has brought a series of legal cases against the expansions using the country’s Forest Code and other environmental laws, and has managed to get 27 deforestation and three environmental permits annulled - although the decisions can be appealed. Bankwatch has also lodged an infringement procedure case with the European Commission, claiming that the mines’ expansions violate the European Union’s Environmental Impact Assessment Directive (EIA).
The judgements in these cases will be felt far beyond Gorj County.
18 Raluca Besliu points out that Romania’s woods provided sanctuary in ancient as well as recent times, ensuring a safe haven for anti-communists opposing the communist regime from the late 1940s to the mid-1950s.
19 According to the Romanian Court of Auditors, six percent of the country’s total forested area has been illegally logged since communism ended. As well as the environmental cost, they calculate this has resulted in financial losses of €5 billion. See also, Clear-Cutting Romania: Logging Threatens One of Europe’s Last Virgin Forests, Der Spiegel, May 8, 2015. In April 2015 the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) exposed how an Austrian timber company was offering bonuses for illegal Romanian timber. Read article >
20 Lignite is the youngest form of coal and is almost exclusively used for electric power generation. Read article >
21 In response to comments by Bankwatch, the regional Environmental Agency in Gorj County stated that 1698,99 hectares of forest needs to be cleared for the expansion of the 10 lignite mines. Read article >