By Felicity Le Quesne
The region of Chalkidiki in northern Greece has become the center of a growing protest movement against the government’s economic policies and foreign investment. Local people have taken to the streets to demonstrate their opposition to investments that threaten to transform the region into one dominated by heavy industry.
Chalkidiki is situated on the Serbo-Macedonian ore belt where gold extraction can be traced back to the time of the ancient Macedonians. Until the end of the twentieth century, gold extraction in Greece has been small-scale, operating without modern exploration techniques.
Yet developments in the last few years are expected to propel Greece into the position of Europe’s biggest producer of gold by 2016, according to Bloomberg.
The shift has been met with resistance from a growing section of Greek society that includes farmers, business owners and other residents as well as citizens from across the country who are opposed to the economic strategy being pursued by the government.
One cause for concern is the significant environmental damage that could be caused by gold mining, which is likely to harm rural livelihoods. Another major source of criticism is the process of decision-making behind the new effort to exploit Chalkidiki’s gold. Frustration with the government’s economic policies, and a perception that the state is both inefficient and corrupt, was the fuel behind the 2008 Greek riots, the wave of protests and general strikes between 2010 and 2012, and the formation of the Direct Democracy Now movement. Gold mining in Chalkidiki has brought these political grievances to a region that had previously been politically passive.
The expansion of gold mining in Chalkidiki
In 2011 Canadian company, Eldorado Gold Corporation, bought a 95 percent stake in the mines of Chalkidiki. Along with a fourth concession near the port city of Perama, Eldorado’s operations represent the biggest ever investment in Greece’s metal industry.Eldorado Gold estimates that its four Greek concessions contain provable reserves of some 12 million ounces of gold, worth more than $14 billion.
Eduardo Moura, Vice President and general manager of Eldorado in Greece, told the Southeast European Times in January that the mines will generate 5,000 jobs in Greece, and that 90 percent of workers would be local hires. The promise of jobs has proved to be a powerful tool for winning over local people in a region where, in some municipalities, unemployment touches on 30 percent.
Even with the promise of jobs, a number of local people are opposed to mining developments, and, together with activists from across Greece, have begun large-scale and coordinated protests to express their opposition.
The emergence of a protest movement
Until recently, anti-mining protests were sporadic and small, but the decision in 2009 (2011) by the Ministry of Environment to approve plans for the construction of a mine in the ancient Skouries forest had a catalytic effect on the anti-mining campaign.
In March 2011, 3,000 people descended upon the village of Ierissos, just outside of the Skouries forest, initiating the first major protest. Further protests occurred during the next two years, marked by increasingly hostile interactions between security forces and protestors.
In late 2012 police and private security forces started a major security clampdown, but this failed to prevent some 50 masked persons from entering and vandalizing the Skouries site on the night of February 16, 2013. On March 7 more than 200 fully armed riot police invaded Ierissos, demanding entrance into houses to search for suspects linked to the arson attack. Houses were broken into and teargas was used.
In the light of these events, Amnesty International released a statement expressing concern about reported human rights violations by police towards protestors, and called upon the Greek government to investigate allegations.
On March 9, following the police invasion of Ierissos, approximately 15,000 people marched through the streets of Thessaloniki, Greece’s northern port city, to protest the mines as well as more general austerity measures.
The environmental consequences of mining
Tourism is a mainstay of the local economy in Chalkidiki. The region is known for its beautiful beaches, forests and historical sites. Aside from tourism, farming, animal husbandry, fisheries and beekeeping help maintain the livelihoods of the region, all of which depend on a clean environment and well-functioning ecosystems.
Gold mining in general, and the Skouries site in particular, may have several significant environmental consequences. In response to concerns about these consequences, Eldorado cites their Environmental Impact Assessment which was approved by the Greek government in July 2011. Yet various independent scientific institutes have pointed out several problems with the document, including deficiencies in documentation, problematic methodologies, misinterpretation of statutory limits of pollutants, and incomplete scientific data.
Kostas Katsifarakis, a civil engineering professor at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, told The Globe and Mail that the Skouries project would far exceed the ecological carrying capacity of the region.
The construction of the open cast mine requires the deforestation of an area greater than 2.5km in size. It is to be situated on the region’s largest aquifer which generates considerable risks of ground and surface water pollution with toxic cyanide and heavy metals used in or produced by mining activities. Ore dust generated by the mine and its tailing sites can be widely dispersed by air as well as water, and its accumulation in living organisms can have severe health consequences due to its high concentration of heavy metals.
The opinion of local people is informed by the poor environmental record of mining in the region. In December 2002, wastes from the Stratoni mine – now owned by Eldorado – poured into the Bay of Ierissos over a period of several days. According to Mining Watch Canada, the Prefecture of Halkidiki analyzed samples of the run-off and found it to be highly acidic, containing high levels of heavy metals.
Gold-mining and Greece’s economic strategy
Another major source of dissatisfaction for protestors is the political process through which decisions about the mines have been made.
In an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Company on March 13, 2013, the CEO of Eldorado Gold Corporation, Paul Wright, said that Eldorado had initiated a full public consultation process with regards to the Skouries project.
He specifically cites a meeting of the council members of Chalkidiki province which took place in December 2010 and in which none of the 26 members voted against the development of the Skouries site.
However, Maria Kadoglou, a Chalkidiki-based activist who runs the website Hellenic Mining Watch, told CBC that no meaningful public consultation had taken place.
The municipal council body to which Wright refers to did not, in fact, have any authority to make decisions because it was due to be abolished a few days later as part of a reform of all local municipal authorities.
For many protestors it is not Eldorado that is the problem, but the perception that the government is prioritizing the protection of foreign industrial interests over those of its own people.
In 2002, Greece’s Council of State ruled that the potential risks of the Chalkidiki mines’ redevelopment would exceed the benefits. Yet in 2011 the same council dismissed a petition from eight resident associations appealing the government’s decision to allow Eldorado to construct a mine at Skouries. It rejected similar appeals from the local town planning council, local residents and business owners, in 2013. These actions imply that the criteria used by the Council to evaluate the issue of gold mining in Chalkidiki have changed over the past decade.
Gold mining has an important role in the government’s attempt to address the country’s economic crisis. The Greek economy went into recession in 2008 and in November 2009 the government declared it was facing unmanageable levels of public debt. In the process of negotiating the biggest debt restructuring in history, the government created a ‘Fast Track’ program to facilitate projects of national economic importance. Gold mining is part of this program. Journalist John Psaropoulos explains that Eldorado’s activities alone are expected bring in export revenues of up to a billion dollars per year. It is with this in mind that the head of Greece’s privatization agency told the Financial Times in September 2012 that the country could become an ‘El Dorado for investors’.
Environmental rollback under the shock doctrine
The Greek government and the IMF agree that the country will finally balance its budget this year. But many within and outside Greek society point to the devastating cost to society and environment that five years of recession and three years of austerity have wreaked.
Theodota Nantsou, who works for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Athens, told Athens-based newspaper Kathimerini, that structural adjustment and austerity policies have led to ‘an unprecedented environmental rollback.’
Naomi Klein, author of the best-selling book The Shock Doctrine, visited Greece in May 2013 to do research for her new book which considers the interlinking of economic and ecological crises.
In an interview with the Greek TV news show ‘The New Folders’, Klein says that a rhetoric of urgency and crisis in relation to Greece’s economic situation is being used to justify resource extraction as necessary, and to imply that there is no alternative. Caring for the environment is presented as a luxury that cannot be afforded in such a time.
Klein challenges this rhetoric, as do the protestors. Exploitation of natural resources cannot solve Greece’s economic woes.
For one thing, the timelines do not match: creditors want their money back now, but establishing an extractive economy takes years. What is more, under the terms of the concessions that Eldorado now owns, the Greek state does not receive any royalties from the minerals extracted. From the potential $12 billion that Eldorado might make from these activities, Greece only gets the $11 million that it secured in the 2003 deal and 10 percent of revenue tax. A further imbalance of costs and benefits will arise as the government is presented with the hidden costs attributable to the environmental and social costs of mining expansion, which have not yet been accounted for.
Seeking a sustainable alternative
On July 16, Eldorado announced that it would stop all works in its Skouries concession until at least 2016. The company cites the falling price of gold as the reason for its decision but others, such as journalist Yiannis Baboulias, have chosen to interpret it as a sign that resistance can be effective in forcing policy change.
Still, the campaign is not over. As Daniel Trilling writes in the New Statesman, the Skouries campaign has become symbolic of the concerns and emotions of people all over the country.
At the heart of the protests is a demand that the government open itself up to alternative visions of the country’s future, which would allow for the adoption of an economic strategy that promotes – rather than inhibits – the protection and healing of the environment and society.
To contact the reporter or editor for this story, please email [email protected] You can also follow Felicity Le Quesne on Twitter @fizz445.