Cinderella’s Gypsum Dress Cinderella in the cave. Photo: Lucia Taut

Cinderella’s Gypsum Dress

Criva, on the map of the Republic of Moldova. Source: Google Maps.

Cinderella – this is how speleologists refer to the Emil Racoviță cave in Moldova due to its authentic beauty hidden from sight behind a muddy outlook. Accidentally discovered by a gypsum-mining operation back in the 1950s, today the protected natural phenomenon has been stripped of its beauty by a German extraction corporation. And for their part, Moldovan authorities seem unable and unwilling to preserve it.

The largest cave in northern Moldova is situated near Criva, a village in the country’s Briceni district near the border with Ukraine and Romania. The area is rich with natural gypsum resources, and a construction materials factory has been engaged in extracting gypsum near the Emil Racoviță cave ever since a quarry was built in 1957. In 1997, operations were taken over by ÎM Moldo-Germană “CMC-Knauf” SA – a subsidiary of Germany’s Knauf in Moldova.

 

Protected only on paper

Photo inside the cave in 1977. Photo: Vitalie Botnaru

The extraction of gypsum in quarries is done via explosions, and Moldovan ecologists and seismologists claim that this method of extraction endangers the nearby cave. Therefore, they attempted to persuade authorities to close down the gypsum quarry.

According to a report drawn up by the Academy of Sciences of Moldova in 2009, gypsum excavations are carried out according to recommendations made by specialists. However, the head of the Moldovan Ecological Movement, Alecu Renita, and a scientific associate at the Institute of Geophysics and Geology of the Academy of Sciences of Moldova, Vitalie Botnaru, believe that “the activities at the quarry, in any case, put the existence of the cave in peril”. Valeriu Tarigradschi, who was part of the first group of speleologists who studied the Emil Racovita cave in 1977, asserts the following hypothesis: “Taking the cave under state protection to preserve its conservation status would involve the closure of Knauf’s work. The reason for this is that they not only destroy the gypsum layer, but also lead to the drainage of the wells in Criva, and if the water in this underground hole was not extracted, it would naturally refill itself and again become a water reserve for the future… ”

the activities at the quarry, in any case, put the existence of the cave in peril

Valeriu Tarigradschi argues that “The karst system in Criva was filled with water, which could have become a water reserve for the country. However, once work began at the the gypsum pit, the water was pumped into the Prut River, leading to the karst system being transformed from aquatic to aerobic, becoming a very valuable scientific asset for the academic world.”

On the other hand, former environment minister of Moldova, Valeriu Munteanu, states that “… the economic operator in Bălți is the only one of its kind in the Republic of Moldova, mainly providing for the domestic market, but also exports. Closing or abandoning the mine will flood the karst gaps from neighbouring areas as underground interconnected paths leading to village houses will be flooded. Therefore, specialists recommended continuous exploitation, while respecting the harmless environment technology”.

The head of the Seismology Center, Ion Ilies, says that “…since 2009 no scientific research has been done in regards to activity at the quarry.”

A tourist group in Emil Racovita Cave with the scientific collaborator, Vitalie Botnaru. Photo: Lucia Tăut

Together with the exploitation of the gypsum pit, the gypsum cave was discovered in the area, which today has become an important site for both the study of ecology and ecological tourism. The area was taken under state protection in 1991 by order of the government with the decree covering 80 hectares of the cave.

The latest G20 solidarity summit held in Hamburg, Germany, was attended by experts from different countries in the field of environmental protection. There, I asked many of the participants to provide their opinion on the activity of an economic agent in the vicinity of a state-protected area. Jennifer Morgan, the executive director of Greenpeace International, believed that “it is very important that protected areas remain protected and are not used to extract resources”.

Imme Scholz, sociologist and deputy director of the Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik, stated: “Usually, a firm should not be allowed by the government to engage in activities that destroy the environment, especially when the extraction site is close to a protected area. It is the responsibility of the government to ensure that the activities are okay.”

Usually, a firm should not be allowed by the government to engage in activities that destroy the environment

Furthermore, Scholz added that, “A responsible company would take the responsibility to make sure that its activities are also not negative… there must be a contract whereby foreign-owned enterprises assume the responsibility of complying with national legislation in the country in which they operate. Because there is no way to sanction those businesses in the country they came from because they did something wrong elsewhere.”

Plots regarding the expansion of the gypsum quarry

Gypsum Career. Photo: Lucia Tăut

For years, the government has been supporting the gypsum-mining project. Thus, in 2013, the Government decided to privatise 10,0000 hectares of arable land for the foreign-owned enterprise “KNAUF-GIPS” SRL (Limited Liability Company) along the outskirts of Criva village, Briceni district. This was in connection with the expansion of the quarry for the exploitation of the “Criva” gypsum deposit.

Per Law no. 1538 approved by the Parliament of the Republic of Moldova, regarding state-protected areas, article 83 section (2) stipulates that “The width of the protection area of the categories of objects and complexes from protected areas shall be as follows:

  1. B) For monument of nature:

Geological and paleontological, hydrological, zoological, botanical and mixed – 500-1000 m

In fact, the distance from the cave to the edge of the quarry is only 300m. Along with the purchase of the lands adjacent to Criva village, the excavation sites have slowly stretched from the cave to town.

“It is obvious that any mining exploitation violates more or less the ‘tranquillity and beauty’ of nature, but if things are closely monitored, the situation can be kept under control”, said former Minister Valeriu Munteanu.

Sara Lincon, expert at “Work for the World” for business and human rights, which questions how business activities impact human rights and environmental issues, also participated in the G20 summit and had this to say: “Over the last few years, this has become a big issue in Germany because German companies are involved in business all over the world. They invest all over the world. They produce their products all over the world. They use raw materials from all over the world, and all of these activities lead to human rights violations. There’s a whole range of problems starting with the problem that people in other countries are not consulted and often do not agree with a project in their country.

This is because, when an investor comes, the enterprise can contribute to the budget of the state, therefore the Government often accepts the violation of their own laws.”

I requested information by email from Knauf Germany regarding compliance with environmental and health standards. I wanted to know if the company applies additional precautionary measures when gypsum is extracted in an area located close to protected areas or inhabited places, and if local regulations apply. Furthermore, we wanted to know if the Knauf Company complies with the same good practice standards that are established in Germany – I did not receive a response.

New name – same problems

View inside the cave ”Emil Racovita”. Photo: Lucia Tăut

According to the estimates of the scientific collaborator at the Institute of Geophysics and Geology, ASM, Vitalie Botnaru, the quarry has deposits of 25 million tons of gypsum. More than 200,000 tons are extracted annually, which means that exploitation will continue for another 100 years. From the total amount of karst rock in the area, only one percent is found in the territory of Moldova, with the rest being on the Ukrainian side of the border. Therefore the “Emil Racoviță” Cave has Moldavia’s only entrance to the deposits, equating to 30% of the length of the galleries, the rest being found across the border with Ukraine. The study of the cave was done by speleologists from both countries, and, in fact, it was a group of Ukrainian speleologists who first dubbed the cave “Cinderella”.

In order to reach the entrance to the cave, the access road is located on the territory of the gypsum pit, so any visit of the speleologists to the cave is coordinated with the representatives who manage the quarry. The cave received this name because of the mud through which you have to pass in order to reach the entrance after which you enter the huge galleries adorned with gypsum crystals.

Once this cave was included in the register of state-protected natural monuments of the Republic of Moldova, it was named in honour of Romanian speleologist Emil Racoviță. Today, Emil Racoviță Cave is the largest cave in the Republic of Moldova, the 13th in Europe and the 25th in the world. An incredible feat of nature certainly to be respected and preserved, not threatened by man.