SAN FRANCISCO — Can economic development enhance environmental quality? That's the big question being worked out in the tiny village of Rosia Montana in Romania - a place of enormous natural beauty and grinding poverty, atop one of the largest gold deposits in the world. And that's the challenge, as mining practices employed from the regimes of Caesar through Ceaucescu have left the region's people washing their kitchen garden vegetables - and watching their children play - in a river running red with toxic tailings.
As a reasonable condition of Romania's entry into the EU on Jan. 1, 2007, the unsustainable state-run mine will be shut down. With unemployment in the area at 50 percent - and expected to rise to over 90 percent when the mine closes - the consequences are severe.
So, too, is the environmental impact, as Romania lacks the resources to clean up Rosia's soil and water supply, and the EU could only put the site toward the end of a list of hundreds.
Enter Gabriel Resources, a Canadian company petitioning the Romanian government for permission to develop a new mine at Rosia. In contrast to the environmentally destructive Freeport-McMoRan - which contracted the Indonesian military to cordon off a corner of Papua and perpetuate its mining abuses - Gabriel proposes to submit an independent environmental and social impact assessment by a Romanian and international panel, bring in the best modern technology, operate to standards that meet or exceed those of Romania and the EU, and fund the cleanup of 2,000 years of uncontrolled mining. Total investment would be more than $770 million, with revenue to Romanian companies exceeding $1 billion.
You'd imagine such a prospect would prompt a spirited and serious exchange of ideas. But when Gabriel tried to enter the forum with a TV ad explaining its intentions, activists from the antimine NGO Alburnus Maior filed a complaint with Romania's National Council for media, declaring Gabriel's ad "immoral" and petitioning to have it pulled and the stations running it fined. While the National Council rejected that claim 9 to 1, Alburnus drove mass e-mail into affiliates of the Discovery Channel and National Geographic, which eventually pulled the ad.
If you think economic development and environmental protection are inevitably at odds, you're in good company. When hung up in frames of vivid conflict, such goals tend to clash in the black-hat/white-hat game that funds activists' grants, feeds Nielsen ratings, and draws advertising into adversary-hungry media. Along the way, some people have accepted the misperception that there's an inherent trade-off between economic growth and environmental integrity, when in fact they can be mutually reinforcing.
Here's how: Wealthy, democratic nations have the means to make better environmental choices. They can support a mature regulatory regime and sophisticated enforcement, and can afford the advanced technology to avert environmental degradation that poorer nations can't. And nations that protect their environmental assets reap economic rewards: While the forests of impoverished Haiti were stripped for fuel wood, the adjoining Dominican Republic preserved its environment and prospered. In Botswana and Zimbabwe, wildlife ventures have proved more profitable than cattle ranching.
Good intentions exercised irresponsibly can be even more damaging than disengagement. In Romania's case, applying censorship is an irony as toxic to free exchange as the river that runs like a red scar through Rosia Montana. The romantic prospect of "saving" a highly intelligent but impoverished people from development will have unintended consequences affecting generations there, and reinforce exactly the wrong approach in developing regions around the world.
Absent Gabriel, Rosia will be deprived of the only economic engine that can reclaim its environment. There is no Romanian Superfund.
No project like this comes without costs. A lot of earth - and in some cases, the people on it - would have to move to make it happen. As Americans were reminded last month, mining can be a dangerous business. But so is cutting off the exchange of ideas and capital in a region of the world desperate for both. Rather than assume we have to destroy a village's economy to save its ecology, allow the citizens of Romania to weigh their alternatives, and determine their economic and environmental future. They have a chance for the best of both.
• Mark Lange is a former presidential speechwriter and a student of public policy.