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The Transformation of Commons in Roşia-Montană. Which Property Regimen for Which Development?

Radu C. Barna
Traduction de Anca Simescu
Cet article est une traduction de :
La transformation des « communs » à Roşia-Montană : Quel régime de propriété pour quel développement ? [en]


Roşia-Montană, village des Carpates de Transylvanie (Apuseni), en Roumanie, a connu aux xviii- xixe siècles une période de prospérité grâce aux gisements d’or existant dans la région, ainsi qu’une période d’épanouissement social et culturel grâce à l’autonomie accordée par Vienne (la Transylvanie était une province de l’empire des Habsbourg). La communauté de ce village s’est structurée autour des biens communs pour des raisons liées à la rudesse du milieu montagnard et aux risques inhérents à l’activité minière. Le communisme et ensuite la transition vers l’économie de marché ont réduit l’autonomie en transférant les propriétés à l’État et par la suite aux entreprises multinationales, avec des conséquences significatives sur ces biens. Ces changements ont ensuite déterminé les villageois à s’organiser autour d’un nouveau « commun ». Afin de mettre en évidence l’influence positive des « communs » sur le développement, l’article effectue une analyse historique des quatre étapes marquantes de la commune de Roşia-Montană. Dans les conditions où chacune de ces étapes est caractérisée par un régime de propriété et des libertés d’action spécifiques, nous avons, pour chaque étape, essayé de mettre en lumière le degré de co-activité dans la vie des gens, la capacité à convertir la dotation en or en libertés réelles et la satisfaction de leurs variés besoins. C’est ainsi que nous avons pu conclure sur la permanence du lien entre « communs » et développement.

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1Roşia-Montană is a rural commune in Transylvania, in the Romanian West Carpathian range of Apuseni, at 876m altitude and is known for its gold ore mines that date back to the Roman Empire (the ancient castrum Alburnus Maior). Being exceptional from an historic, organizational and landscape point of view, the territory of the commune has been integrated into the UNESCO World Heritage in 20211.

Map 1: Localisation of Roșia-Montană

Map 1: Localisation of Roșia-Montană

Radu C. Barna, 2022

2The inhabitants had organized their community around some common goods owing to the harsh environment of mountain living conditions (lack of accessibility or services, activities rendered difficult to perform due to the morphology, isolation during wintertime, etc.), as well as to the risks inherent to the mining activity itself. But if gold has forever fascinated humans and has often destroyed communities, could it be that the commons might explain the development of this community? How strong is the influence of the mountain environment? And what about the today’s common?

3In order to answer the above questions, we shall place the organization of four cornerstone periods of the village in the right perspective by using an historic approach. To this end, we will use the concept of development, defined as “the improvement of the possibilities of local populations to satisfy their needs” (Barna, 2008). But because human needs are varied and, moreover, shaped by the time, the culture and the degree of information, we shall use as a landmark the concept of capability as defined by Sen (cited by Robeyns and Morten, 2021). We do this seeing as the common values and human interactions create synergies that breed an integrated development, i.e., the local control over the economy, it all integrated into the cultural, social and political life (Jayet, Puig, Thisse, 1996). This is why not only resources endowments shall define development, but also the capacity of people to turn them into true freedom. In its turn, freedom depends on the degree of autonomy granted by the State, or on an alternative vision for social and economic rationale that may stem from the community or from outside it. Said aspects might explain the reciprocal influence between development and commons, as well as the building of today’s common in Roşia-Montană.

4To Bollier (2004, cited by David, Le Dévédec, 2015, p. 3), commons are defined as “a resource + a community + a set of social rules”. These rules depend on governance, because prior to the resource being used in an effective and equitable manner the people had to agree to the use of said resource (Ostrom, Hess, 2007). The common then arises following ideas and willingness and must be regarded as co-activity, not as co-belonging, co-ownership or co-possession (Dardot, Laval, 2015).

5David and Le Dévédec (2015), as well as Buchs et al. (2019) explain the transformation of commons, meaning a system made of resources and/or institutional shapes in correlation with the sharing of resources towards a common, which is a value system that devises the collective action taking. This one can be defined as “the material, institutional or cultural facilities that the members of a community make available to all the members of that community with the aim of taking care of common interests” (Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, 2018). For that to be effective, Dardot and Laval (2015) stress the importance of a shared culture and an inherited history. To that we add the culture of sharing, which in case of hardship of the environment, like in mountain areas, where possible activities are more restricted and the need for collaboration is more significant, might have constrained the inhabitants to co-operate for a long time.

Photo 1: Overview of Roșia-Montană in winter

Photo 1: Overview of Roșia-Montană in winter
Radu C. Barna, 2020

Methodology of Research

6In order to analyze the four aforementioned periods (18th—19th centuries, Communist era, post-1989 era, current times), we shall set as landmarks the development in the fields of economy, politics, social and identity/culture throughout certain aspects:

  1. In what concerns the economic development, we shall take into consideration the material security, the possession of goods and the means of production.

  2. In what concerns the political development, we shall look into autonomy, in the sense of freedom to decide over the territory and to get organized, but also concerning the sharing between public, common and private property.

  3. Seeing as the social capital is essential to the mobilization of territorial resources, we captured it as an atmosphere of confidence and solidarity.

  4. The cultural development is characterized by specific items like shared values and norms.

7We chose these general ideas because human needs are hardly comparable throughout the four stages we determined, and also because more precise indicators are not available. Regardless of whether during a stage—like the 18th to the 19th century—there were periods of crisis, or whether during Communism there were periods of blooming, we captured the overall tendency.

8Thus, the article places the development of the village historically, by trying to identify, on the one hand, the elements that drive the building and functioning of the commons in conjunction with the development, and, on the other hand, the elements of continuity through the historic stages. This emphasizes the importance of co-activity and the arrangements to make that possible, as well as all aspects that stress the capability of the townsfolk. In what concerns analyzing the commons of the 18th century, the difficulty may stem from a lack of information, whereas the difficulty in analyzing the current common may derive from the pre-eminence of immaterial and intangible aspects. All the more so due to the fact that a complexity of the outer, global environment adds to the internal complexity.

9In order to complete the historic and documentary data, we conducted six interviews. The interviews were semi-directive and lasted an average of two hours each. Marked E1 to E6, they were:

  • E1 (commercial entrepreneur and former mining engineer with the State Mines),

  • E2 (retiree, former topographer with the State Mines),

  • E3 (owner of an agritourist B&B, president of the Alburnus Maior association in defense of the local heritage),

  • E4 (employee of the Canadian company currently owning the sole exploitation license for the gold ore of the commune, museum guide at the Mining Museum, former engineer with the State Mines),

  • E5 (journalist and member of Parliament) and

  • E6 (lawyer).

10The interviews were conducted based on the interview guide that had as major topics the satisfaction of needs, autonomy and co-activity. Besides the formal interviews, we also collected reports of numerous other persons (inhabitants and volunteers), which were useful in order to confirm information and to better understand the current atmosphere.

Roşia-Montană during the 18th-19th Centuries: A “Capable” Community

11In 1691, the Austrian administration in Transylvania had endowed mining villages in the mountains (Bergstädte) with the autonomous status as “oppidum montanum”. They were managed by the Mining Administration (Erarium), which in its turn was under the direct supervision of the Imperial Mining Commission in Vienna (Balog, 2016). This status indicated that “all miners are exempt from personal tax, also mills and the necessary means to keep two cows” (Montan-Handbuch des Österreichischen Keiserthums 1857, quoted by Balog, 2016, p. 45). Besides the favourable legislation, profit tax remained at 10% until 1850, and the inhabitants owned both the land and its subsurface. The only constraint was the State’s monopoly over the gold trade, which had the miners sell their production in State-owned shops at very low prices.

12Based on the need for protection due to the risks incurred by working the mines, solidarity was formed around the “brotherhood of the shafts fund” (Rus, 2014). But the mining method was different than the one used in the same period in California, most especially because the miners were not gold diggers. The miners’ activities were regulated by the conditions of the mountain area: climate, slopes, hydraulic forces, constraints, etc., and they were proud to be “rosieni (inhabitants of Roşia-Montană). They are part of the “moti” population (inhabiting the southern face of the Apuseni mountains), who identify primarily with the mountains, as demonstrated by the saying they use to this day: “We are like fir trees. We wilt on plains” (cited in 1934 by Bogza [1962]). All documentary evidence of the mining area refers to the mountains surrounding the Roşia Valley (testaments for safety and freedom), to the rivers and ponds that set the various machines in motion, and to the climate. The mine shafts closed during wintertime (three, sometimes four or even five months per year) because the water froze (Netea, 1977).

13The households were structured around an economy based on raising cattle and forestry, and the relative richness never separated the inhabitants from life in the Apuseni Mountains. Exchanges were practiced intensely, the mores and beliefs always tied strongly to the fundamental events of life. The villagers have participated in all uprisings, revolutions and wars alongside the other moti, and often they found their husband/wife during the annual wedding fair organized on Mount Gaina. To this day, the tombs of young people dying do not have a cross as headstone but a live fir tree.

Photo 2: Activities that are still performed traditionally

Photo 2: Activities that are still performed traditionally

Radu C. Barna, 2014

14During this time, mainly two types of ownership existed: the small mining endeavours, where nearly all families in the village owned at least one pit, and the one of the rural commune, where property was indivisible. Before the Mining Law was passed in 1854 (that had transferred ownership of the subsurface to the State), the commune was entitled to grant concession of a “community mining perimeter” of a maximum of 5,153 m2 on the communal grounds to an association of miners. This was the birth date of common mines. The organization of all exploitations was managed by a Mining Committee composed of all owners of the mines (Balog, 2016).

15In the mid-19th century, 94% of the gold ore production came from exploitations possessed by the inhabitants (individual or jointly), and this type of activity was based on traditional technologies originating in the Middle Ages (Santimbreanu. Bedelean, 2002). The authors explain the lack of modernization by the culture of the rosieni miners, who perceived this activity not as a source of enrichment, but as a normal daily activity. From a young age, the villagers were taught the social facet of this activity, and also that “they were to extract from the mine only that what was needed” (E4). They were held to share, to invest in the community and to support all movements (revolutions, uprisings, wars) that would guarantee their freedom. A very famous example was a villager by the name of Mihail Gritta. He had extracted a load of 1700 kg gold ore from the mountain, but had never ceased to work the mines. He built seven churches and seven schools in the surrounding villages (Rus, 2016). Today, another inhabitant is setting an example, even though he is a millionaire. He is very invested in all civic activities and continues to run a shop in the village.

16This mentality has been made possible by the Erarium, which prohibited granting mining licenses to people foreign to the village, as well as to people who did not attend the local mining school (Balog, 2016). A contribution to this was brought by the solidarity of the surrounding villages, as is proven by the uprising of the entire region in 1886, when a French enterprise was to be granted the concession of a mine in the neighbouring village of Bucium. Oral testimonies from the region, collected in 2012 by Gotiu (2013) also stress the fact that the new technology employed by that enterprise would have modified the sharing of water sources. Indeed, the mills were placed in cascades on the rivers and ponds had complex regulation systems, so as to have all mills benefit from the same hydraulic force.

17All of the above have taken on mythological proportions and have entered the popular culture: the mines were inhabited by fairies (vâlve), the true owners of the gold. They were a kind of moral compass, as they punished cupidity and asked that gold was to be shared with the less fortunate. Legends also speak of miners who went into the pits with an eye covered, so that they wouldn’t see too much gold (FCRM, 2011).

  • 2 Named after a measuring unit of gold: 1 piseta = 4,8g gold

18During the 18th century, the “brotherhood of the shafts fund” created a Bruderlade (brothers’ coffers), a fund aimed at supporting and paying retirement to miners, and also the pisetal2 fund. The pisetal fund was a communal fund that had served to build the hospital and the mining school, as well as 21 ponds that were necessary for the functioning of the mills. It financed other economic and agricultural activities, as well as the maintenance works aimed at the ponds and other mining infrastructures, but also the primary school, the parochial schools and cultural associations. All production workers (mines, mills, trade, treatment, etc.) of the commune were held to contribute to this fund by 4–5% of the value of their respective production (Santimbreanu, 2009).

19The organization, the histories and legends shall become very important in passing down the culture and the spirit of this place. In future centuries, they are the ones that shall allow for the re-imagining of an organization based on values other than the ones dictated by the market alone.

Photo 3: Ancient mill exposed in the village

Photo 3: Ancient mill exposed in the village
Radu C. Barna, 2020

Roşia-Montană and the Communist Failure (1945–1989)

20In 1948, all means of production gather as sole ownership of the State Enterprise, which mines the area. The Constitution of the People’s Republic of Romania from April 13, 1948, art. 6 stipulated that “the treasures of the soil, regardless of their nature, mineral resources, the woods, the waters, the wells […] belong to the State as common goods of the people” (quoted by Cristea, 2007). The major consequence of this nationalization was the disappearance of any and all property which might have been influenced by the villagers, because the three prerogatives a person could have over a goods, usus (the right to use), fructus (the right to benefit from the results) and abusus (the right to estrange the property) were completely handed over to the State. At the same time, that was a hostile takeover of the territory as well, since the inhabitants had no longer the right to participate in the choice of development type, and no longer had any rights regarding the resources.

21The changes in the ownership system led to transformations of the production process, and thus to the life of people, but there were also changes in the structure of the population and in the physical frame of the village (Marza, 2012). History was rewritten and all aspects of daily life (material, spiritual, cultural, school, hospital etc.) were organized and financed by the State (E4).

22Seeing as the rosieni were opposed to the communist ideology (especially with regard to the vanishing of private ownership and the social and cultural submission to the directives of the Communist Party), elimination of all opposition was a target, along with symbols, ideas and economic and social values of old, that were considered bourgeois and decadent (Haiduc, 2012). Numerous families were relocated into State-owned homes, others were forced to leave (Cristea, 2007).

23The reorganization of activities came with an influx of miners from elsewhere, but who lacked knowledge of the local culture. This period is still vivid in the collective memory, both due to the loss of social ties and the community disintegration (FCRM, 2011).

24Yet, in time, Roşia-Montană began to revive in certain aspects. A contributing factor was that, after having worked elsewhere for years, many rosieni had returned home and had started agricultural endeavours (E1). The State took as tax one quarter of the production (there were no other taxes), seeing as mountain agriculture (above approx. 1,000m altitude) had not been collectivized (Netea, 1977). This change was important, because on one hand, those former inhabitants of the village brought back with them the history and the culture of their place of expatriation, and on the other hand, they did not depend on the State enterprise, as they were retired. This culture and their autonomy, as well as the difficulties of life in the mountains, pushed them to rebuild certain forms of solidarity and common action. This then set the tone for an informal mutual aid system to the image of the pisetal fund, with joint activities regarding field labour and sales of products issued of the forest (E2).

The Era of Freedom on the Global Market

25After 1989, the Romanian economic reforms were undertaken under the supervision of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Union (EU). After having decided to close down the majority of mines for reasons of economic efficiency, the political decision-makers granted concession of the same mines to foreign companies. In 1995, the Romanian State signed a contract regarding the resources of Roşia-Montană with Gabriel Resources3, an offshore company listed on the Vancouver stock exchange. In 1997, the latter created the joint venture firm Roşia-Montană Gold Corporation (RMGC)4.

26This company seeks to operate extractions as open quarry, with a technology based on cyanides. Over an estimated extraction time frame of 17 years, this project foresees the destruction of four mountains surrounding the village and their transformation into quarries. The project also comprises the uprooting of most of the villages that are part of the rural commune of Roşia-Montană (

27The association Alburnus Maior was founded in 2000 by around 300 families that oppose the RMGC project. Their campaign, “Save Roşia-Montană”, grew into a movement supported by dozens of NGOs in Romania and internationally, linking it to the “network society” like the CEE Bankwatch, Mining Watch Canada, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Reclaim the fields, etc. (Gotiu, 2013). For this campaign, the mountain area served as attraction and legitimation, seeing as it was the mountains that were in danger, the mountains themselves, the waters and the forests that were a common good far beyond the strict area. The logo of the campaign is in fact a stylized leaf and mountain dripping blood.

Photo 4: The logo “Save Roșia-Montană”

Photo 4: The logo “Save Roșia-Montană”

28The voice of this resistance grew more and more diverse, and besides protest actions and Court calls, artistic expressions and events have been added: courses, exhibitions, debates, various festivals (theatre, film, music), scientific conferences and summer schools (restoration/architecture, civic activism regarding nature and history). The attraction of the mountain area has been very strong due to the specific architecture of the Apuseni villages, the landscape and the closeness to the natural beauties of the Detunate basaltic columns or the Vulcan rock, and also due to the cultural heritage with symbolic value of common goods such as the ponds, the museum or the Roman shafts. The main mobilization event has been the Hay Festival (Fân-Fest), which conveyed the ideas of solidarity and freedom in the mountain area (activities set in the forests, clearings or around ponds). This sense of community appealed to the Romanians’ sensitivities and to universal values and triggered the support and the involvement of many people inland and abroad (Gotiu, 2013). Following this mobilization, the RMGC project was blocked in 2008.

29Some “rooted cosmopolitans” in the sense of Tarrow (2005), with an identity both local and global, first came to the village attracted by the idea of return to the lands and the local communities ( They were convinced of the correctness of these ideas, they “grew up” together with the villagers, and while the latter evolved to adopt a rather global identity, the former adopted the local identity (Gotiu, 2013). One of the phrases frequently used by the people involved was “we’re here to grow up” (voluntary worker of the program “Adopt a House”). They found here a sense in life and a community to belong to, which put forth values they could identify with (Velicu, 2015). All this was possible because the local objectives have integrated universal values like environmental protection, direct democracy, quality of life: “We’ve lifted our heads”, said E3. This is how the trends, the needs of the villagers and people coming from outside have all converged and allowed all these people of varying horizons to imagine common activities and to create a true community here.

The Ecologic Resistance and the Construction of the New Common

30In the beginning of the year 2000 and in order to implement its project, the company RMGC had acquired numerous houses in the village, which it has subsequently abandoned. The image of these houses, on the verge of collapse, conveyed the message of a place in dissolution, where living was no longer possible. At the same time, the community was increasingly confused because of the conflicts created around the project and the feeling of impotence in the face of the public powers and money. These three phenomena, the fragmentation of the community, the dependence from power and the destruction of the village compounded unto each other (Gotiu, 2013).

31The will to act together also came into play with the project “Adopt a house in Roşia-Montană”, initiated by the ARA association (Architecture, Restoration, Archaeology)5 in Bucharest, that had proposed to restore part of the houses and the heritage with the help of donations and voluntary workers. The first house to be restored was the Unitarian parochial house, which was transformed to house classrooms, conferences and exhibitions. In the fight against the RMGC project, its repurposing played a very important symbolic role. In response to the company’s discourse stating that their mining project would revive the place, this association’s project proved that a true community could be a lot more efficient and useful (

Photo 5: Activities of the campaign « Adopt a house »

Photo 5: Activities of the campaign « Adopt a house »

32This community has “adopted” the people come from elsewhere and has gathered around common values, materialized in the construction project of a common that is both global and local. In this case, the shared values were the same: inhabitants’ rights, autonomy from State and Corporations, respect for nature, democracy, development (E1, E5). The common is the entire territory of Roşia-Montană, with its history and culture, built on the idea of joint actions and activities. This territory has become a true common because it offers people development possibilities, but also rights and obligations, and thus people bestow value upon it and are willing to give up other things in exchange (time and money). Management of activities is a joint endeavour because most decisions are exercises in direct democracy, and thus all activities organized here take on a much more complex sense. For this reason, Roşia-Montană is called “the Mecca of civic activism in Europe” (Gotiu, 2013).

  • 6 According to Law 18/1991, the former owners were able to retrieve part of their property and the co (...)

33This new common is made of a material part (the shared houses6, the few lands and especially the heritage), an immaterial part (a common fund, mostly social capital, history and culture) and an intangible part (the rules, among which direct democracy). The campaign to include the village on the UNESCO World Heritage List (until 2021) and to-date the activities organized in order to add value to this status meant and still mean many co-activities.

34The development project was imagined around various tourism projects7 and has allowed space for other objects and representations by developing more empathy towards the mountains and nature (FCRM, 2011). It’s about the full depiction of the mountains and the mountain men identity of the rosieni that has been put forth during the construction of this common. This was proven when we conducted our interviews in Roşia-Montană: the B&B owner where we stayed wouldn’t take money from us because his house had been renovated for free. Another example is the social enterprise “Made in Roşia-Montană”8.

Influences of Commons on Development

35Over the course of history, the inhabitants of Roşia-Montană have little by little lost the rights over the treasures of the soil (Mining Law of 1854), then over the means of production (during communism) and finally over the right to live in this village (incompatible with the RMGC project). The common and individual goods went the same way, firstly to solely benefit the State, then to benefit a multinational company. The argument put forth by both the State and RMGC was that their approach would ultimately benefit the entire nation. But reality proves that the fartherest profit is taken, the more gets lost in the financial spider webs, and the higher the costs to the local population (Barna, Maniu, 2012).

36This separation in beneficiaries of the profit and cost bearers gives completely another meaning to the importance of common goods. It is the commons that guarantees the interest to take on costs and obligations over the short and the long term, because people constantly weigh the costs and benefits of their actions against a battery of criteria. The commons is a pivot point, and around it various human needs, common and individual, gravitate, confront and make concessions. That is why to this day, the commons are essential in ensuring the balance.

37In order to satisfy these needs, an organization structured around the principle of subsidiarity applied to property regimen was established during the 18th—19th centuries. Indeed, it selected the property principle that was best suited to meet the individual and common needs: small family mines, average-sized common mines, deep mines of the State after 1789 (it was the commune that had granted the State concession rights over the lands). But this type of organization was possible for three reasons: first, it’s the culture of solidarity; second, the inhabitants had a right over the ground, the subsurface and the means of production; and third, they were free to organize this property and to decide its degree of co-activity. The Communist period and the RMGC project have shown that the absence of inhabitants’ capabilities give way to only one type of property, that is incapable to meet the whole palette of human needs.

38Rich in a shared culture (linked to work in the mines and the mountain environment), in an inherited history (from the times of the Roman occupation to the history of recent battles), as well as in a culture of sharing (internal, ancient, but also external, more recent—like the ARA association), the community mobilized around alternative ideas of development that is today the seed of the common, whose complexity we have tried to showcase here. The new community was built not upon a “brotherhood of the shafts fund” but on a “brotherhood in arms” against the RMGC project (E3). Aiming towards the socialization of property, this new common is thus based on values that are issued from the idea of what should be different in relation to what is going on in the world when we address issues like development, freedom and capability of the people. Opposing monopolistic forces (public or private property) has allowed changes in the identification of the inhabitants, who have “grown up”. By growing up, they have rediscovered the importance of the community, but also the fact that this community could be global.

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1 Online:, retrieved May 5, 2023.

2 Named after a measuring unit of gold: 1 piseta = 4,8g gold

3 Online:, retrieved February 12, 2023.

4 Online:, retrieved February 13, 2023.

5 Online:, retrieved May 15, 2023.

6 According to Law 18/1991, the former owners were able to retrieve part of their property and the commune has retrieved the communal lands. Houses are shared because they have been bought jointly, or bought by persons and subsequently donated to various associations.

7 It is worth mentioning that the territory of this project overlaps with two other territories still within the area of the village. One is that of the company RMGC, which, even though is losing altitude, exists by virtue of its properties, and the other is that of some inhabitants, who live the project of the common with varying degrees of intensity.

8 Online:, retrieved May 15, 2023.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Map 1: Localisation of Roșia-Montană
Crédits Radu C. Barna, 2022
Fichier image/jpeg, 159k
Titre Photo 1: Overview of Roșia-Montană in winter
Fichier image/jpeg, 408k
Titre Photo 2: Activities that are still performed traditionally
Crédits Radu C. Barna, 2014
Fichier image/jpeg, 563k
Titre Photo 3: Ancient mill exposed in the village
Fichier image/jpeg, 384k
Titre Photo 4: The logo “Save Roșia-Montană”
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Titre Photo 5: Activities of the campaign « Adopt a house »
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Radu C. Barna, « The Transformation of Commons in Roşia-Montană. Which Property Regimen for Which Development? »Journal of Alpine Research | Revue de géographie alpine [En ligne], 111-1 | 2023, mis en ligne le 15 mai 2023, consulté le 25 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Radu C. Barna

Enseignant-chercheur, Institut conjoint de l’Université de Ningbo (Chine) et de l’Université d’Angers, UFR ESTHUA

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Creative Commons - Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International - CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

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