In early December Hungary’s parliamentarians voted with a virtually unprecedented majority to ban all metal processing based on cyanide.
Cyanide is a chemical compound used to separate the ore from precious metals such as gold and silver. Hungary is the first EU member state to have taken such progressive step; this almost ten years after the tailing dam at a gold processing plant in the North Romanian town of Baia Mare broke and 100.000 cubic meters of toxic cyanide and heavy metal-laced waste water escaped into the River Tisza and into Hungary. More than 1,400 tons of fish died and the accident destroyed the livelihoods of hundreds of fishermen.
A second somewhat similar accident happened again in Northern Romania just a few weeks later in March, and spills from these sites have continued to occur at regular intervals.
What, you may ask, does a cyanide spill in Romania have in common with a cyanide ban in Hungary ten years later? A lot; is the answer. With the current gold price rendering previously uneconomic gold deposits feasible again, gold mining proposal have been mushrooming in the CEE region; including Hungary. 90 per cent of these expect to use large quantities of cyanide.
Cyanide is highly toxic but it’s also dead cheap. If you want to know just how toxic it is, then consider this: during the Second World War hydrogen cyanide was used in the Nazi gas chambers of Auschwitz and Maidanek where it was released from Zyklon B pellets.
Rather than promoting existing and far less toxic alternatives, the EU currently allows for the use of cyanide with complex and, some would say, highly ineffective management plans. Roughly 80 per cent of Hungary’s rivers feed the country from its neighbours which are precisely the countries with those sizeable gold deposits. The EU may care for environmental protection but it also cares for economic competitiveness with its resource hungry trade partners such as China and India.
When countries such as Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania joined Europe there was hope amongst civil society that EU membership would lead to greater environmental innovation and less risk. To a certain extent this may be true but many would point to the example of cyanide and argue that, from a practical point of view, it hasn’t gone far enough. Whilst the Baia Mare accident is very much still in living memory, it seems unbelievable to many that vast amounts of cyanide - several tons per mine every year - may still be used in gold mining in modern-day Europe.
An opinion poll carried out in Hungary in early December 2009 showed that 74 per cent of the electorate favours a cyanide ban in mining, and in Romania an opinion poll asking the same question in April 2008 showed 66 per cent in favour of a ban.
Joinging the EU, understanding its characteristics and finding the vigour and space to act within it is perhaps one of the reasons why this change for better has taken that long. But now that it’s happening, it is occurring fast and with impressive results.
A coordinated campaign
The ‘Cyanide-Free Hungary!’ coalition which campaigned for the ban consisted of several environmental NGOs, such as Protect the Future (Védegylet), Greenpeace Hungary, Friends of the Earth Hungary, and LMP – Hungary’s green party.
It was joined by 50 Hungarian NGOs and 13 NGOs based in the EU including several from Romania and Bulgaria. The bill which aimed at amending Hungary’s mining law, was promoted by five cross-party Members of Parliament (MPs) and the vote in plenary resulted in 365 votes for the cyanide ban and one vote against.
Cooperation between government and opposition is extremely rare, and such active and overwhelming support from the part of the MPs is virtually unprecedented in Hungary. It took the campaigners a mere two months to pass the bill. The commissioning of an omnibus opinion poll has been their sole expense.
According to Javor Benedek, one of the campaigners, the cyanide ban in Hungary is hopefully just the first step:
'We wanted to show that banning cyanide in metal mining is possible even as an EU member state and even simple when "will-ed". At a time when concessions for gold and silver deposits have been issued in Hungary and the CEE region, this is a vital step to safeguarding environmental and human health. We hope that our neighbours will use this example as a precedent.'
As the tenth anniversary date of the Baia Mare accident draws near (31st January, 2010), the coalition’s partner NGOs in Bulgaria and Romania are gearing up to lobby hard for a cyanide ban in their respective countries during this year and the Hungarian NGOs are pushing for an EU-wide cyanide ban.
It has taken ten years for this change for better to take place. Seeing it happen from close up I have come across a colourful and uncompromising group of campaigners for whom environmental protection is utterly unrelated to national boundaries. Judging by the speed of their campaign and their determination, they are likely to continue shaping their countries in the years to come. I am ‘hope-full’ again.
Stephanie Roth is an environmental campaigner and former news editor of the Ecologist
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