BUCHAREST – Catalin Cenusa has gone from rescuing miners trapped below the ground of Romania’s coal belt to rescuing the region’s cultural heritage.
Sporting the same orange jacket he used to wear for work, he guides a group of visitors around the Petrila mine, which closed in 2015 after more than a century and a half of activity.
Many of Petrila’s residents were involved in the industry one way or another and Cenusa wants to ensure the legacy of this culture does not disappear along with the pits.EXTRACTING CULTURE
“Without our involvement, this mine would have been destroyed like all the others in the area,” Cenusa, a member of the Planeta Petrila association, which seeks to protect the Jiu Valley in southwestern Transylvania from decline, tells EFE.
Founded in 2016, the association sought to transform Petrila into a creative hub, something they feel could replace the leading role coal has played in the town for generations.
Ion Barbu, a Petrila caricaturist, tells EFE: “If we bring the amazing heritage of the mines to the surface and we give a post-modern touch, we’ll land something exceptional from a visual point of view.”
Barbu worked as a topographer in the mines of Petrila for 15 years and now wants to convert his hometown into a magical universe where art and imagination can fuel prosperity and a bright future.
The work of Barbu and the other members of Planeta Petrila has already started to bear fruit.
Thanks to them, Petrila has three museums and the pit that was going to be demolished by the government has been turned into a venue for concerts, festivals, theater and art workshops.
But the town’s potential, which would delight hipsters the world over with its post-industrial aesthetics, has yet to be fully exploited, according to Barbu.
Part of the fault for that lies with the authorities, he adds.GREEN DEAL OFFERS SECOND CHANCE
Like many in the region, Barbu criticizes the Romanian government’s apparent unwillingness to use European Union funds, which it has been able to access since it joined in 2007, to support a green transition and create employment and investment in the area.
He hopes things will change with the EU’s Green Deal, which was set in motion by the European Commission in 2019.
If approved by European Parliament, the deal could earmark €25 billion to regenerate the economy and demographics of former mining areas.
Of this, around two billion could be destined for Romania, a large chunk of which would go to the Jiu Valley, a geographical depression that flanks the river Jiu in the southern Carpathians.
The region was once the motor of the Romanian economy thanks to its profound coal reserves.
“I know they had enough money to make things different today in Petrila, but unfortunately it hasn’t happened like that,” Barbu says.
He hopes the money from the Green Deal will be used more effectively.CUTTING RED TAPE
Siegried Muresan is an MEP from Hunedora, the Transyvannian county where the Jiu valley is located.
A member of the National Liberal Party (PNL), he acts as a rapporteur for Romania in Green Deal negotiations.
He is fully aware of the bureaucratic obstacles that stand between entrepreneurs in the Jiu Valley and EU funds but insists this red tape will be scrapped in the 2021-27 budget, likewise with the Green Deal.
“From Jan. 1, 2021 the bureaucracy will be drastically reduced, given there will be a single set of rules for all member states,” he tells EFE.
“Furthermore, there will be a measure to ban the addition of bureaucracy at a national level.”UNEMPLOYMENT AND DEPOPULATION
Before the Romanian government began to gradually close coal mines, which had been heavily subsidized by the communist state until its demise in 1989, there were 14 active pits in the Jiu Valley, employing around 50,000 people.
Now just four remain active, with some 3,000 workers, and they are also set to be closed down in the coming years.
These figures reflect the magnitude of the challenge facing Barbu in his bid to revive the area through arts and culture with EU funds.
The population of the six former mining towns in the Jiu Valley has dropped by 40 percent from 170,000 in 1997 to 100,000 today, according to Romania’s statistics institute.
Barbu takes some hope from EU surveys asking residents how the Green Deal funds would best be allocated.
One of those who took part in the questionnaire was American Dana Bates, who moved to the town of Lupeni in the Jiu Valley with his wife in 2000 and leads the New Horizons NGO.
He is passionate about nature and sports and created a mountain bike team in Lupeni, which comprises of 50 local youngsters.
One of the projects he is working on is the creation of a 250 km biking trail around the Jiu Valley.
“I think that this area just needs hope, it needs hope for a new vision of the future, otherwise people are just going to leave,” he tells EFE.
He sees mountain biking as a perfect sport for young people in the area.
“The youth needs healthy risk, healthy ways to spend their time, and this kind of sport, mountain biking, outdoor sports, gives young people ways to spend their time in a healthy way.”
It can go beyond a hobby, too.
The sport offers professional opportunities and Bates is in touch with several private companies in a bid to establish the Jiu Valley as a destination on the world cycling map.
“Through outdoor sport we can give youth a future even with employability,” he adds.
He has been working to bring the trails up to scratch and helped stage the national Enduro trail biking championships in Lupeni.
Bates also works with the Mutt Society, an NGO dedicated to helping disadvantaged communities through sport.
The organization has donated several professional bikes to young people in the region, such as Daria Gruian, 16, and Gabi Muresan, 17.
Both began mountain biking with Bates three years ago and show promise in the sport, which is starting to pick up in Romania.A WORLD THAT STANDS STILL
The enthusiasm and excitement the pair radiate is in stark contrast to the pessimism and hopelessness at the Lonea pit near Lupeni, one of the only operational ones in the area.
EFE spoke with some of the miners as they geared up for a day’s work.
None of those who spoke wanted to give their names, but all expressed their anger at having to work with outdated infrastructure in a site set for closure by July next year.
“We don’t have the right tools because they’ve stopped investing in the mine, I hope they close it and let us retire as soon as possible,” one 43-year-old miner, who has been working in the mine for 25 years, says.
The majority of workers in Lonea are close to retirement age, which is 45 in the trade.
Asked about their future plans, all resoundingly said they planned to live off their pensions rather than find new work.
“We’re too worn out to start working on something new,” he adds.
This outlook is typical of the region.
Cristina Sandor, a former miner from Petrila, says: “The state has just left people to their own devices.”
She adds that pensions are the only evidence of government investment in the region, while people with little training or business experience are expected to start their own companies.
“Since the mines began to close, not a single factory had been set up,” she says.
Sandor’s son Edi moved to the city of Cluj to work in the technology sector.
He lives there with his wife Diana, another Petrila local.
“We would like to come back to Petrila, but here there’s nothing to do and accessing EU funds to start something is difficult due to the bureaucracy.”OPPORTUNITIES THROUGH ROCK CLIMBING
This lack of a foreseeable future affects children and adolescents in the former mining area of Vulcan, which is why Brazilian Felipe Silva started his NGO, No Limit.
Along with his wife and volunteers, he offers 130 youngsters classes in reading, maths, guitar, science, economics and computer science.
He also gives them the opportunity to learn how to rock climb.
“Since we started, we’ve had more than 600 children and adolescents,” Silva, 31, tells EFE at his climbing center.
“Climbing helps the children learn how to solve problems.
“When a child is climbing, they have to find solutions to get to the next level, which is the same in life in order to get where we want to go.”
Silva highlights the growing popularity of the sport, which has just been included in the Olympic Games.
The number of climbing centers has shot up around the world, he adds.
One of Silva’s former students went on to find work at a climbing center in Bucharest, he adds with satisfaction.