Page last updated at 12:24 GMT, Saturday, 17 January 2009

Downturn hits Romania's tinkers

Scrap metal was once a lucrative trade for Eastern European Gypsies but as Nick Thorpe reports, this has been devastated by the global economic crisis.

Gypsy scrap metal yard in Romania
The global financial collapse has hit the scrap metal trade

Melting snow has turned the unpaved roads of Zizin into streams of mud, ankle deep.

Wading through it, in search of drier ground, your ears grow accustomed quickly to the gentle murmur of the wintry village, dogs barking, cocks crowing, neighbours calling out to each other through hazel fences.

There are sharper sounds too, like the fireworks set off by children in far-off cities.

But there is no money for such frivolities in this predominantly Gypsy village.

The sounds are made by bull-whips, lengths of rope with horse-hair tied in knots at the end.

Scrap scarcity

Cracked incessantly by the kids at the end of streets, in the yards of houses, but above all on a small hill which overlooks the village.

Splitting the sky apart for a split-second, as though in the space created, poverty might be transformed into wealth, tin into gold.

Zizin - the name itself sounds like sheets of tin falling on tin. And that is how many of the Gypsies here made a living, until the global financial crisis struck.

Like millions of scrap-metal hunters and gatherers around the world, the Gypsies of eastern Europe did well from the tinkers' trade in recent years, as the price of metals soared.

A huge hunger for metal in the construction industries of India, and China in particular, fuelled the price rises. But that has all changed now.

Bridge stolen

Gypsies and non-Gypsies alike snapped up every scrap as it fell by the wayside, and today, it seems, there is little left for anyone to gather up.

As scrap became scarcer in recent years, the theft of metal became more common in eastern Europe and beyond.

One of the first Soviet locomotives in Ukraine, all 14 tonnes of it, and a metal bridge which connected a village in the west of the country to the outside world, were the most brazen thefts.

I'd like to work as a welder but there's no work for welders round here, still less for Gypsy welders
Ion Ocelas
In Hungary, the re-opening of the Freedom Bridge over the Danube in Budapest, closed for many months for repairs, was postponed after thieves in eastern Hungary went off with hundreds of steel girders prepared for it.

The guttering and even the roofs of churches, and bronze plaques to Holocaust victims have all disappeared overnight.

And copper wire, used in railway signalling, was especially prized. Sixty three trains were disrupted in one day alone near Prague, when a length went missing between two main city stations.

Prices plummet

Both the Czech Republic and Hungary have now passed laws imposing strict controls on the operation of scrap metal yards. Hungary alone has 20,000.

Now everyone selling is obliged to record their identities, and full details of their loads.

But the new legislation may prove redundant. The economic downturn means people are not spending on scrap metal. Prices paid for it have fallen in some places by 90%.

From Zizin, Ion Ocelas, a father of five children with a sixth on the way, used to make the trip to the scrapyard in the nearest city, Brasov, almost daily.

BRasov, Romania
Now he says it is hardly worth it. He used to get 33 euro cents (0.29) for each kilogramme he brought in, now he is getting three cents.

Even if his horse-drawn wagon was piled high, he would only come back with a handful of small coins, less than a beggar might make for a day's pleading on the pavement outside the famous Black Church in Brasov.

Scrapyard in Romania
As scrap becomes scarcer metal thefts have increased in Eastern Europe
"I'd like to work as a welder," he says, as he restacks the last of his metal collection - the twisted blue bonnet of a car, pots and pans, and something white and spiked, like the head of a metallic thistle - "but there's no work for welders round here, still less for Gypsy welders"

"People here have no time to think about the future," says Father Raia, an Orthodox priest of Gypsy origin, when I ask him what hope he sees. "They have to eat today."

At the main scrapyard in Brasov, buried deep in waste land beneath the girders of a new road, the manager refuses to talk.

But on the western outskirts of the Romanian capital, Bucharest, the owner of another yard, Ciprian Porumb, is happy to unburden his concerns.

Future fears

"I used to get the $450 (300) a tonne for this," he waves his hand at a mountain of scrap, still being unloaded from lorries.

"That fell to about $150 (100), but I dare to hope it will improve again soon."

As he speaks, a four-piece Gypsy street band, blasting on trombones and drums, marches boisterously by, serenading the ladies at the upstairs windows of the drab flats which overlook the scrapyard.

Back in Zizin, Ion's seven-year-old daughter, Rebecca, is feverish. The doctor has been called.

We leave the village as darkness falls, and an ambulance siren mixes with another orchestra of children crying, horses braying, dogs barking and always the whips, cracking in the frost.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 17 January, 2009 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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