Comment: If I had EUR 1.25 billion….

A common retort to those who disagree with the Rosia Montana gold mining project in Romania is that they are, de facto, opposing local economic regeneration and willingly undermining Romania’s economic development as Rosia Montana is a test case that will show that “Romania is open for business”. The latter phrase does seem to ignore the already de facto foreign ownership of, for example, Romania’s banking, telecoms, food retailing and petrol distribution sectors.

To say that Romania is not open to business is comic; especially if you are a multi-national who, crucially, does not require unfettered control over significant land areas. It is not difficult unless you are either a small enterprise or, as in the case of Rosia Montana, wishing to exploit Romania’s natural resources.

Okay, so what to do about economic development and the creation of employment? Hence, I thought to myself, now what would I do if I had USD 1.7 billion or EUR 1.25 billion to invest? The challenge: could I come up with some ideas that would create more than 3,000 jobs for three years and 900 jobs for 16 years thereafter as per the proposed investment by the Rosia Montana Gold Corporation?

As some readers will be expecting, I will turn to agriculture and forestry; two sectors where Romania has abundant potential. I will, however, take note of a comment that was made on this very website: that the mining industry causes less environmental damage than agriculture and forestry in Romania. Although some will argue that Rosia Montana has, however remote, the potential for a major, single-source catastrophe (as per some nuclear incidents) it will not be as detrimental, across a wide landscape, to the environment as some agricultural and forestry activities. Given the deforestation of recent years the comment has validity.

As to agriculture, it was ‘responsible’ for the deforestation of the southern plains. To that one can add erosion, soil exhaustion, acidity and localized damage from, for example, communist-era attempts to grow rice; not to mention pollutants from poor farm waste management and animal parasite contamination through itinerant and illegal grazing. The truth is that the picture is far from rosy.

Far from precluding agriculture or forestry as investments, it shows the care that has to be taken when redeveloping those industries. They need to minimize their impacts on the planet and to be developed in a long-term, sustainable fashion. So what would I do with EUR 1.25 billion? I would invest it in an agro-forestry-environmental-rural-regeneration project and I would focus it on the southern plains where deforestation occurred first in the 19th Century and was then completed under communism.

My project proposal is, therefore, to map the southern plains in terms of what can (rationally) be irrigated, what is inherently low-yielding (which could be taken out of food production and forested), and what can be strategically planted to provide windbreaks for irrigated land, to protect irrigation and drainage channels and, not to forget, to protect villages and transportation links from drifting snow in winter.

One target would be to enhance the performance of the remaining agricultural lands so as to compensate for any food production loss incurred by taking farm land out of production. A not inconsiderable challenge but one that would create a forestry/biomass project that would not impact upon the food production capabilities of the planet. I would, of course, not ignore the potential for producing food products from within the new forests.

At this point I would like to apologise; this project suggestion of mine is not supported by a pile of papers a metre high. It is a suggestion based upon the instincts of a farmer and countryman who has spent a lifetime in agriculture. If, however, as some suggest, the likes of George Soros is backing the anti-Rosia Montana campaign, maybe he would like to fund a feasibility study.

Apart from the environmental benefits I have suggested above, I would be curious to know just what would be the full benefits of my agro-forestry project in terms of economic regeneration and employment creation. Just what would, say, 100,000 hectares of forestry generate both directly and indirectly over many decades?

The jobs created by my project may also be more suited to the skills base available in rural Romania. They may not be as well paid as being employed in mining but then is economic regeneration and community development about creating highly paid jobs for a few or it is about something less well paid but accessible to the many.

I for one am not convinced that requiring EUR 1.35 million to create a single full-time job exemplifies a socially-focused project in rural Romania where unemployment is very high and average incomes extremely low. A project that is concerned with employment creation should do far more.

Hence to summarize what I would see as the objectives for a EUR 1.25 billion agro-forestry investment project on the southern plains of Romania. They of course do need more clearly quantifying.

  • an improvement in the general environment and air quality in the region
  • reduced soil erosion and wind-blown siltation of open irrigation channels
  • lower stress on growing agricultural plants through wind break provision
  • to lessen snow drifting that buries villages and inhibits transport movement
  • forestry employment in propagation, planting, maintaining and harvesting
  • extensive job opportunities that suit to the existing local labour resources
  • providing timber for industry, fuel for home use and biomass for energy
  • producing ‘forestry-extracted’ products and other natural food products
  • utilizing the grant money that is offered by the EU but too little utilized
  • showing how a non-exploitive project can also be the modern approach
  • placing Romania’s image in a positive light on the international stage

My choice would be to create a social enterprise vehicle to own those aspects of the project that would best function under community ownership. This would be in preference to the government managing such a project. Such a vehicle would also facilitate the use of leased rather than owned land when the land owner does not wish to relinquish actual ownership; land access being a particular problem in rural Romania.

That is not to say that long-term forestry projects cannot successfully operate within a private enterprise structure. I am just aware that the culture within much of the private sector in Romania is not mature enough to undertake and manage what would be a multi-generational project.

That said I would certainly not preclude private woodland ownership within the overall framework of the project; not least when individual people and businesses wish to invest in woodland to provide the raw materials for a vertically-integrated investment that, in turn, creates further employment and greater community wealth.

Perversely, one keeps hearing about the enormity of the funds available to Romania from the European Commission whilst also reading about how poor the country is at absorbing those funds. Clearly one of the major shortfalls in Romania is in the ability to create projects to access those funds. Well maybe the above outlines one such project.

Ultimately, I would humbly suggest that this project has the potential to be one of Europe’s most extensive and important environmentally-linked, economic-regeneration projects; and one that could also do wonders for Romania’s too often embattled national image.

By Stuart Meikle, guest writer

 

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