This article is courtesy of VICE Romania
It's a cold March evening when I join a young man pushing a baby stroller up a narrow snowy street in Roșia Montană, a remote village in Transylvania, Romania. It's not easy, as he lives on a hill, and the higher we go, the thicker the snow gets. The baby seems to be having fun at least, unbothered by the barks of village dogs.
The three of us eventually reach the man's wide front-yard. I look above to the fir trees and down onto the town below, and I think to myself that this guy did the right thing, defending this town from being changed forever by a bunch of gold diggers.
Because that's what both the village and the man next to me are famous for in Romania. Six years ago, Tică Darie, just 18 years old at the time, took on the Canadian mining conglomerate Gabriel Resources, which wanted to open the world's largest gold quarry right here in Roșia Montană – a project that would have involved the use of thousands of tons of cyanide, causing severe damage to the local environment.
At the time, Tică Darie was a Romanian student on a multimedia scholarship at the School of Design and Technology in Copenhagen, Denmark. But when he heard about the company's plans, he decided to do something about it. "I'd visited Roșia Montană a few years before and really grew attached to this place," Darie said to the Romanian press at the time. "I just knew I wanted to help somehow."
"Hey! I'm Tică and I plan to cycle across Europe, from Copenhagen to Roșia Montană," he said in a promo video ahead of the 1,500-mile journey he decided to go on, in the summer of 2012. He had a small PayPal donation button on his blog, through which he received around €300 for his travel expenses. But, more than anything, his purpose was to raise awareness. "I ask all Romanians to open their minds and hearts to what's happening in Roșia," he urged.
After a month on the road, eating canned food and sleeping in a tent, Darie arrived at the village square on the 15th of August, 2012, on the first day of Roșia's annual FânFest – a local music festival organised to raise awareness about the dangers of cyanide-based mining exploration.
The battle over the area's gold and silver reserves started in 1999, when the newly created Roșia Montană Gold Corporation, majority-owned by the Canadian company Gabriel Resources, announced it planned on extracting over 300 tons of gold and 1,500 tons of silver. Their plan to use large amounts of cyanide sparked controversy. And it wasn't just that – a few mountain peaks around the village would disappear, as well as the village itself, as it was going to be relocated to make room for a cyanide lake.
Over the almost two decades that followed, successive Romanian governments couldn't decide what to do. Some pushed for the project, while others tried to ban it completely. But thanks to the efforts of people like Darie, whose use of the internet and social media helped push the story from being a local issue into a national one, huge protests started to spread across the country. In 2016, this movement eventually led to the Romanian government declaring Roșia Montană a "historic site of national importance", protecting it from any mining activities. But Tică Darie didn't stop there.
Roșia Montană eventually became Darie's permanent home. The 25-year-old is originally from Suceava, a large town in northeast Romania, where his parents and brothers still live. "My mum wasn't really into me moving to Roșia," he says. "She thought people here were constantly fighting and protesting, and she wanted me to continue my studies in Denmark. But after a year here, my family started to warm to the idea of me staying to see what I could do to help."
And the village has been good to Darie, too. He met his wife Larisa here, and they had their daughter Mira, who's now seven months old. Roșia is also where he found his passion for social activism.
"I started the Roșia Montană Scouts in 2013 as a way of showing some young people in the area how to respect nature and each other," he tells me. Of the nearly 70 children in the village, 15 are currently enrolled in Darie's scouts. He puts on hiking orientation classes, book clubs and other activities that he says are "typical of mountain life".
From there, he actively sought other new ways to get involved in the local community. In 2013, he joined the FânFest organisation team. That year, though, he caught the flu after attending the show and his landlady had to drive him to the hospital.
While in hospital, an elderly woman in the village sent him some woollen socks to keep warm. The gesture gave Darie an idea, and soon his second project, Made in Roșia Montană, was born. Local women knit woollen socks, sweaters, scarves and other items that he sells to local suppliers and online. It's a social enterprise that helps supplement the incomes of 35 local families.
Next up, the entrepreneur hopes, will be a bistro, serving organic, locally-sourced products. From there, he wants to set up a range of B&Bs which – in conjunction with the restaurant, music festival and Made in Roșia – will fall under the umbrella initiative Visit Roșia Montană, offering weekend breaks around these mountains.
However, not everyone is a fan of Tică Darie's efforts. The current mayor, Eugen Furdui, for example, is sceptical. "I will only believe that tourism works for us when I have proof," Furdui tells me. "Everyone says they want to do something in Roșia. But until I see the long-term benefits for myself, I'll be a Doubting Thomas."
Furdui and Darie were political opponents in the 2016 local elections when the newcomer decided to try his luck and run. "I was 100 percent sure I was going to win," Darie laughs. "We recently watched a report from that time. We were like, 'Check this guy out, he's vying to become mayor, but barely has a functioning toilet at home.'"
While he had no campaign headquarters or a specific ideology, Darie was certain that he wanted to revive the village through environmentally-friendly policies. He remembers being disappointed when his flyers and posters weren't ready during the first two weeks of campaigning. But also because, as he canvassed from gate to gate, a lady grabbed a rock and chased him off when she heard who he was.
At the end of a tough campaign, he came third, with 106 votes. The top two, representatives of the largest parties in the country, scored 891 and 222 votes respectively.
For now, at least, the Roșia Montană mining project seems completely blocked. However, if the project is revived again, as it has been many times over the past years, Tică Darie is ready to fight back. He came to Roșia Montană to stay.