The last-minute decision to submit the UNESCO application came as a surprise for everybody. At first glance, it represents the final step toward ending the struggle. But ultimate victory remains uncertain.
Local farmers and activists in the Romanian village of Rosia Montana - located in the western part of the Carpathian Mountains - gathered for a special celebration last week.
Filling their glasses with palinca, a local homemade spirit, they toasted not the new year, but rather the Romanian government's decision to sign off on an application requesting that UNESCO make their village a World Heritage site.
If approved, such a status would protect the picturesque commune - a green haven for tourists and travelers alike - from the ecologically and socially-damaging impacts of a gold mining project led by the Canadian firm Gabriel Resources.
It would also cement a victory 15 years in the making, thanks to the efforts of local farmers, environmental activists and Romanian civil society as a whole.
When Gabriel Resources began its plans to exploit one of Europe's largest gold deposits in 2000, it did so without the consent of the local population and attempted to buy off farmers and town officials, so as to get the necessary permits for the project.
A few families from the village, however, refused to move or accept the company's money. They instead launched Alburnus Maior - an NGO to represent the resisting farmers in court - and eventually, two years later the campaign Save Rosia Montana.
What followed were years of court battles delaying the project and numerous campaigns trying to convince the local population not to give in to the gold corporation's promises. For years Alburnus Maior's lawyers demonstrated in court how Gabriel Resources' lobbyists were spreading corruption throughout local and national institutions.
A change in the law galvanised nationwide protest
Then, in August 2013, the social democrat-led government - after an intense lobbying campaign led by Gabriel Resources - decided to change the mining law so as to permit the company to start mining.
The government showed poor timing, as the information came out just a few days after that year's FanFest, an annual awareness festival held in Rosia Montana. Facebook filled with protest events calling for people in Bucharest, Cluj and other major cities throughout the country to take to the streets on September 1 and protest the government's decision.
Organizers and activists had low expectations since past efforts to organize on social media hadn't succeeded in drawing people into the streets. But they were soon proven wrong, as tens of thousands of people showed up to support this small village in the mountains.
While the government's decision to create a special law certainly stoked anger on its own, it's the work of Alburnus Maior and FanFest (see photo) that deserves the most credit for inspiring large masses of people to take action.
Since its inception in 2004, the festival brought thousands of activists, tourists and citizens from Romania and abroad to the small but picturesque village of Rosia Montana each year. This helped create a direct bond between them and the people from that community, as well as show that tourism can represent an ecological alternative to mining.
The Uniti Salvam citizen network
In the first few weeks following September 1, 2013, people would take to the streets in the daytime. Every evening they would gather in the squares and block the streets. Since more experienced activists knew this energy would eventually dry up without more organizing. So, they began meeting in bars and talking in secret and public groups on Facebook.
It didn't take long to create an identity, a banner under which they could rally around. They called it Uniti Salvam, or United We Save. It was a network of experienced activists and citizens who wanted to get involved, and it set the tone for the rest of the protests.
Actions, demonstrations and all other decisions made in the meetings were disseminated through the network's online platform, quickly making it the most trusted source for Rosia Montana information on the Internet. The network was comprised of people from numerous informal groups, communities and NGOs, and their first order of business was to keep the protests alive.
First, they decided it was important to hold protests only on weekends, so that people would not tire out. Second, they decided they needed to reach people living outside the big cities where the protests had been taking place - especially since the media had been ignoring them.
So they began marching through one of Bucharest or Cluj's outer neighborhoods every weekend, which proved to be a key decision for the entire campaign. The marches would start with just a few thousand people, but grow to tens of thousands, in Bucharest alone, by the time they reached their endpoint in the city center.
The Victor Ponta led government chose not to intervene with force, waiting instead for things to die down. When that happened, the people's assembly - under the Uniti Salvam banner - decided to inject the protests with new creativity in order to entice people to stay.
Support for Rosia Montana only increased
On one occasion, this led to a human chain surrounding the Parliament building, while on another thousands of people formed a giant red and green leaf (the campaign's logo) by synchronizing their bodies in front of the government building.
Gradually, all these actions began attracting more and more supporters. When the government saw the campaign stretch into Spring 2014, they decided not to vote the law into place - despite Gabriel Resources constantly threatening to take the Romanian state to an international arbitration court (which it eventually did in 2015) for blocking their project and causing them losses.
According to Claudia Apostol from ARACIS, one of the oldest NGOs opposing the project alongside Alburnus Maior, "The 2013 protests and the movement that appeared in the process played a crucial role - not only because they defeated the law, but because they were also able to break the media embargo on the subject."
Mihail Bumbes, a key organizer behind Uniti Salvam, seconded this opinion, saying, "The protests were decisive because they changed the views of an entire country in favor of Rosia Montana."
A World Heritage Site in the making
While the protests eventually died down, the people from Rosia Montana and Alburnus Maior knew that things could turn around in a flash. So they started to petition for the inclusion of the Rosia Montana region in the UNESCO World Heritage list, a move that would give them the international protection they desired.
Ten successive culture ministers in Victor Ponta's government ignored the application, again expecting the opposition to fade. But the tragic fire at the Colectiv club in October 2015 forced Victor Ponta and his cabinet to resign. A new government of technocrats led by former European Union Commissioner for Agriculture Dacian Ciolos took office.
Ciolos knew that the Rosia Montana project was a sensitive issue and that the people who brought him to power were the same ones who struggled to save it, so he publicly declared that his government would not back the project and instead send the application to UNESCO. In February 2016 the village and its surrounds were added to the Romania's 'tentative list' for new World Heritage sites.
The online petition remained available throughout 2016, gathering signatures to pressure him to keep his word. As the year progressed, and the December elections neared, the pressure grew strong again. The Social Democrats swept the elections, earning 45% of all the votes and forming a calm majority in Parliament with their coalition of allies from the Liberals and Democrats Alliance.
As Ciolos appeared to be wavering on his pledge, a group of activists took a stand in front of the government building during the last few days of December. They dumped buckets of red and green pens on the street to remind the prime minister of his promise to sign the order to send the application to UNESCO.
Finally, as a last ditch effort, Alburnus Maior sent the petition to the government on January 3, two days before the new government was set to take over. Just as Rosia Montana supporters were beginning to feel demoralized, thinking that they would have to fight the next government all over again, Minister of Culture Corina Suteu announced on January 4 that the application had been submitted, leaving everybody in shock.
A huge victory - but continued vigilance will be necessary
"Taking into consideration the constant political opposition to the [UNESCO] inclusion, the betrayals of certain intellectuals and the gross unprofessionalism of people in the mass media, this is a huge victory", said Doina Vella from Militia Spirituala, an NGO promoting active citizenship and human rights watchdog.
Claudia Apostol agreed, but added, "We will remain watchful until there is a final decision from UNESCO and the Romanian state fully accepts the development of Rosia Montana along those lines."
The last-minute decision to submit the UNESCO application came as a surprise for everybody. At first glance, it represents the final step toward ending the struggle once and for all. But ultimate victory remains uncertain.
In their more that 15 years of resistance, the people of Rosia Montana and their supporters have suffered numerous betrayals. As such, they are determined to keep a constant watch, so as to protect their communities from future threats.
Alexandru Predoiu is a student at SNSPA (National School of Political and Administrative Studies), studying the effectiveness of nonviolent actions applied in democratic countries. A long-time activist for different human rights watchdog groups, he is working to establish Romania's first nonviolent action training program for activists. See more of his articles here.
More information: Rosia Montana campaign website (English).