Cinderella’s Gypsum Dress

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

Figure 1: Map showing Criva, in the Briceni district, in the Republic of Moldova

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

Protected only on paper

Figure 2: Photo inside Emil Racoviță cave in 1977

Gypsum extraction is carried out in quarries using explosives. Moldovan ecologists and seismologists have claimed that this method of extraction in this area endangers the nearby cave; there have been attempts, therefore, to persuade the authorities to close down the gypsum quarry.

According to a report drawn up by the Academy of Sciences of Moldova in 2009, gypsum excavations have been carried out according to recommendations made by specialists. However, the head of the Moldovan Ecological Movement, Alecu Reniță, 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 a member of the first group of speleologists to study Emil Racoviță 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 operations. 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.

As Tarigradschi has argued:

“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 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.”

However, the former minister of the environment of Moldova, Valeriu Munteanu has stated to the contrary:

“[T]he 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.”

While the head of the Seismology Centre, on the other hand, Ion Ilies, has asserted that: “since 2009 no scientific research has been done in regards to activity at the quarry.”

Figure 3: A group of tourists in Emil Racoviță cave with the scientific collaborator Vitalie Botnaru

It was due to the exploitation of the gypsum pit that a gypsum cave was discovered in the area. Today the cave has become an important site both for the study of ecology and ecological tourism. By order of the government the state took over protection of the site in 1991, with the decree covering 80 hectares of the cave.

The latest G20 Summit for Global Solidarity held in Hamburg, Germany, was attended by experts from all over the world in the field of environmental protection. While there, I asked a number of participants for 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, asserted that: “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."

Scholz continued further that:

“A responsible company would take responsibility to make sure that its activities are 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

Figure 4: Gypsum being quarried

For years, the Moldovan government has been supporting the gypsum-mining project. Thus, in 2013, ministers decided to privatize 10,0000 hectares of arable land for the foreign-owned enterprise “KNAUF-GIPS” Ltd, along the outskirts of Criva village in the Briceni district of the Moldovan Republic. This was connected to plans for expansion of the quarry for the exploitation of the “Criva” gypsum deposit.

According to 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 metres.

In fact, the distance from the cave to the edge of the quarry is only 300 metres. Thus, alongside the purchase of the land adjacent to Criva village, the excavation site has slowly increased from the cave to the 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”, the former Minister Valeriu Munteanu has stated.

Sarah Lincoln, an expert at “Bread for the World”, an organization which questions how business activities impact on human rights and environmental issues, also participated in the Summit for Global Solidarity 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 and safety standards. I wanted to know if the company applies additional precautionary measures when gypsum is extracted in an area that is located close to a protected area or area inhabited by the local population, and if local regulations apply. Furthermore, we wanted to know if Knauf as a global company complies with the same good practice standards that are established in Germany – I did not receive a response.

New name – same problems

Figure 5: View inside Emil Racoviță cave

According to estimates by 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 hundred years. From the total amount of karst rock in the area, only 1 per cent is found in the territory of Moldova, with the rest being found on the Ukrainian side of the border. Therefore Emil Racoviță cave has Moldavia’s only entrance to the deposits, equating to 30 per cent 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 is named as such because of the mud through which visitors must pass in order to reach the entrance, after which one enters 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 in the Republic of Moldova, the thirteenth largest in Europe, and the world’s twenty-fifth largest cave. It is an incredible feat of nature, which certainly is to be respected and preserved, not wantonly threatened by human beings.

This article was created and published as a result of the Blue Link workshop held in Hamburg/ Potsdam in 2017. More information about the workshop and the project is available here.