Is the listing of the Rosia Montana mines as a UNESCO heritage site realistic?

Michael Bird
A quick look at the facts and stats in a guest blog by environmental legal analyst Adam Cernea Clark

Mining heritage from Bronze Age to the Modern Age: Rosia Montana (Photo copyright: Radu Salcudean)Those familiar with the conflict around a proposed multi-billion-dollar gold mining project in Romania’s Apuseni mountains, Rosia Montana, are aware that the protestors demand to list Rosia Montana as an UNESCO Heritage site.

They believe if the historical mining area receives protected status, it will stop Canadian firm Rosia Montana Gold Corporation from constructing a mine on the site, which will see the destruction of four mountains and the use of cyanide in the extraction process. 

The project itself is currently on hold, so the protestors are pushing to use this window of opportunity to push for a UNESCO listing.

However Razvan Theodorescu, an ex-Minister of Culture and a senior member of scientific think tank the Romanian Academy, suggested before a parliamentary commission that such an idea was “laughable”.

But what exactly does UNESCO Heritage listing mean, and how comical is submitting Rosia Montana for such a listing?

The Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage distinguishes between "cultural heritage" and "natural heritage".  

Certain places may enjoy listing as both sites of cultural and natural heritage. The Convention notes that the "deterioration or disappearance of any item of the cultural or natural heritage constitutes a harmful impoverishment of the heritage of all the nations of the world."  

UNESCO sites are not only sources of national patrimony, but also of human patrimony writ large - they are of "outstanding universal value" from the perspective of history, art, science and conservation.  

The Convention defines “outstanding universal value” as “cultural and/or natural significance which is so exceptional as to transcend national boundaries and to be of common importance for present and future generations of all humanity.” 

UNESCO status can apply not only to a single monument, but individual locations and entire landscapes.

Rosia Montana was a significant source of gold in the Roman Empire. Research suggests that this was an extension of previous Bronze Age mining in the Transylvanian area, known as the “Golden Quadrangle”. Mining continued through the subsequent millennia.  While more archaeological work needs to explore Rosia Montana, it is possible that Roman artifacts across Europe may be wrought from gold exported from Rosia Montana. Indeed, Transylvania appears to have been a source of gold in Europe as early as the 3rd millennium BC and some scholars have suggested that ancient Dacian artifacts of gold may well trace their provenance to this very area.


Is Rosia unique enough?


Is Razvan Theodorescu’s claim accurate that there is nothing unique enough about Rosia Montana to merit UNESCO listing?

There are twenty-four mining sites - including individual mines, mining landscapes and mining towns that are UNESCO Heritage sites.  

They range from salt mines in Poland dating back to the 13th century, a hundred-year-old mining town high in the Andes, German industrial coal mines, to a first Century AD Roman gold mine in Spain. 

There are six cultural criteria for a UNESCO Heritage site listing of which a site must satisfy at least one.

In summary they are


1. A masterpiece of human creative genius.

2. An important interchange of human values including developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design.

3. A unique or exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or vanished.

4. An outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates a significant stage in human history.

5. An outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture or human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change.

6. A settlement directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance.


Twenty-one of the twenty-four the mining areas with UNESCO Heritage status were found to have satisfied criterion 4. Following criterion 4, the next most frequent criteria for mining sites are 2 (16 mining sites) and 3 (12 mining sites).  

No doubt, the most obvious criteria for UNESCO status for the Golden Quadrangle would be criterion 4.  

Rosia Montana, with its rich, multi-ethnic mining history would seem clearly to be “an outstanding example” of a “technological ensemble or landscape” illustrating significant stages in human history. Like the Roman gold mines at Las Medulas, Spain, they may be seen to be an exemplar of gold mining technologies, be they those of the Roman Empire or of migrant Germans in the Middle Ages.  

Criterion 3 seems a good fit, as they are an excellent testimony to the full ambit of the Roman Empire. The last two criteria may be applicable so, at the very least, Mr. Theodorescu’s claim appears to be specious. 

If Rosia Montana is not unique, it is only because it has some two dozen precedents, which makes it a candidate for a listing. This is the irony of UNESCO.

Whether Rosia Montana should be submitted is a separate question. 

To a certain extent, the fight over whether the Rosia Montana Gold Corporation mining project should go forward or  whether the site should be submitted for UNESCO listing has allowed the latter to be painted as a blunt instrument in the arsenal of those trying to stop the former from happening.

This has arguably obfuscated the notion of whether a World Heritage listing is an important goal in its own right.

Also Romania's Minister of Culture must make the submission for a listing and the present Minister - Daniel Barbu - is against such a move.


Heritage means cash


UNESCO has global brand recognition. Many of the most incredible places on earth are listed, drawing hordes of tourists every year. The Convention was written in the seventies, when the notion of sustainable development was beginning to take a hold in international discourse. The Convention envisions both maintaining existing patrimony and promoting development.

While the data is sparse, there seems to be a relationship between an EU country’s annual visitors and the number of World Heritage sites listed in that country.  

According to Eurostat, among seventeen EU countries, only Romania and Bulgaria had fewer annual visitors in 2012 than citizens. 

From these, Romania has the fewest number of UNESCO sites per capita, while the average number of visitors to a country per site per year is nearly 2.5 million.  

Although it is difficult to draw conclusions here, it is clear that the EU leaders in World Heritage sites are also leaders in tourism.

World Heritage listing does appear to have an impact on tourism and  local economies.  

This is felt at multiple levels of a country’s economy, from local direct cash expenditures to state-level taxes.  

According to congressional testimony by the United States National Parks Service, the agency found that “World Heritage designation appears to be economically beneficial and a lure for foreign tourists. It correlates closely with increased visitation.” 

One study in Australia concluded only that World Heritage sites did receive large numbers of visitors and that many of these visitors were foreign.  

One interesting finding in the Austrialian study was that significant increases in visitations were tied closely to major environmental controversies.  

Rosia Montana is such a controversy and it is likely that the present protest - which has amassed 10,000s on the streets of the major Romanian cities of Bucharest and Cluj-Napoca - has received more international attention than Romania as a whole has received in years. 

Ironically, it would appear that if the gold mine does not go forward, the current conflict may well be sowing the seeds for a strong growth in Romanian tourism. 

UNESCO World Heritage status would, of course, be only a part the picture, but it appears to neither be as absurd as Mr. Theodorescu has opined, nor merely a means of halting the gold mining project.