ROSIA MONTANA, Romania (AFP) - It's a rare day when a mayor balks at proposals that his town be entered on the World Heritage List next to such illustrious sites as the Taj Mahal.
But Mayor Eugen Furdui of Rosia Montana -- a picturesque Carpathian mountain village with rich gold deposits and ancient galleries that tell the story of mining back to Roman times -- is adamant.
Mining is still his priority, but the modern sort: a Canadian open-cast gold mine project that is backed by officials but has split this town of 3,000 and drawn criticism from environmentalists, archaeologists, historians and some high-profile activists like British actress Vanessa Redgrave.
|A Greco-Catholic church in the western Romanian town of Rosia Montana
"If Rosia Montana were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List, that would automatically mean that mining cannot go through. And we want this mining project to be carried on," Furdui told AFP. Ahead of a January deadline that could tip the balance, the "pros" and "cons" have mobilized anew at headquarters long set up in the town's Old Square.
Rosia Montana's green hills are said to hold more than 300 tonnes of gold, one of the biggest deposits in Europe and all the more attractive now with gold prices hovering at record highs and Romania battling a severe economic crisis.
For Mayor Furdui, the lucrative mine deal far outweighs the boost to tourism brought by a World Heritage listing.
In 1999, the Rosia Montana Gold Corporation (RMGC), the daughter company of Canadian firm Gabriel Resources -- which holds 80 percent of RMGC while state mining company Minvest Deva holds nearly 20 percent -- obtained a concession license to exploit the local gold.
More than a decade later, the firm has still not been granted all the required environmental and archeological permits.
Eager to push things along, Romania's Economy Minister Adriean Videanu said last year he wanted the mine, which will use a cyanide-based extraction process, to start work as soon as possible.
But the opposition won't back down, not only locals but groups like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the environmental watchdog Greenpeace, neighbouring Hungary and even the Orthodox and the Unitarian churches.
In 2002, archaeologists and historians from around the world joined in, saying the mine would damage one of the most extensive remaining networks of Roman mining tunnels -- an allegation rejected by RMGC.
"Rosia Montana concentrates an exceptional cultural heritage when we talk about the history of mining", Virgil Apostol, architect at The National History Museum in Bucharest, told AFP. Traces also exist of gold mining from the medieval, Renaissance and Austro-Hungarian periods.
And mining brought development so "many houses in the centre of the village are listed as historical monuments in Romania because of their classical and baroque architecture," Apostol added.
He and the Romanian group Architecture, Restoration, Archeology, want the Culture Ministry to include Rosia Montana on a "tentative UNESCO list", a first step in the long process towards a World Heritage listing.
The International Council for Monuments and Sites, one of the three formal advisory bodies to the World Heritage Committee, supports the move but the culture ministry has until January to decide. "Rosia Montana obviously is an important site for Romania," said Csilla Hegedus, an advisor at the ministry. "Our specialists are currently analyzing the issue."Irked by the manoeuvre, Furdui, a member of the ruling Liberal Democrat Party, shot off a letter this summer saying the ministry had no right to propose his town as a heritage site.
A rare move, according to UNESCO, which told AFP some 90 percent of mayors of proposed sites are keen for a heritage listing.
Furdui maintains that his "community as a whole supports the mining project" and does not want the UNESCO listing.
But banners displayed in the Old Square show differently, with one saying "We Want Mining" while another proclaims "Save Rosia Montana".
"I am against the gold mine. It feels like we are occupied by the Canadians", said Sorin Jurca, the owner of a grocery store on Old Square.
He pointed to several historical houses bought by RCMG that now display signboards with the company's logo, promising: "This house will be renovated when the mining project starts.""I agree to preserve history but we cannot block such a colossal gold reserve," said Valentin Rus, director of the state mining company.