Blog Series: Camping in the heart of Skouries
Vivian works as an EVS (European Voluntary Service) volunteer at the office of CATAPA. In July 2016 she travelled to the northern Greek peninsula of Chalkidiki together with Generation Transition´s coordinator Charlotte Christiaens for ten days of Struggle at the forest of Skouries. The birthplace of Aristotle is under threat from large-scale Canadian mining.
The Seas Are Rising, And So Are We
It is after sunset when we sit at a table in the sand of Ierissos, Greece. In the twilight, Nikos sends away his four-year-old son. The little guy disappears between the touristy sunbeds. He thinks his father worked on Mount Athos, the third leg of the northern Greek peninsula Chalkidiki, for a while last year to earn some extra money. In reality, Nikos spent four months in prison. He is one of the 145 locals on charges of participation in terrorist organization, that means, for opposing to a large-scale gold mining project. Amnesty International is following up the case of human rights violations against the Greek state. This is bloody gold.
Resistance to a golden death
The conversation with Nikos brings us to Northern Greece, the site of an ongoing struggle against a large-scale open gold mining project in the virgin forest of Skouries. With the severe financial crisis Greece is showing its investor-friendly profile by opening up all goldmines across the country without regard to the threats that mining poses to the environment and to people’s livelihoods. Easy money; no royalties; no problems. In Halkidiki, people speak about ‘the colonization of Greece’, a modern day European banana republic.
Skouries is one of three projects on the peninsula that make up the Cassandra mine complex, alongside the Olympias mining exploration site and Stratoni, a silver, lead and zinc mine already in production. Located east of Thessaloniki city, the complex covers 317 km2.
©Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum
It is the morning of the conversation with Nikos. We are on our way from Thessaloniki to Ierissos. But when the driver stops in the nearby village Stratoni we decide to jump off the bus. With the warm air and smell of bougainville and olive trees, Stratoni reminds me of a ghost town from a Western movie. Sunbeds await to be taken by tourists soaking up the sun, but remain empty.
Back in 2002, mine wastes from a lead and zinc mining facility poured into the bay of Stratoni. A one-kilometre stretch of the bay streaked with a deep red plume of pollution. The wastes flowing into the bay contained traces of lead, zinc, silver, cyanide and a host of other toxic metals. Despite the effects that the mine has had upon the coast, the majority of the village supports the company due to the fact that most families have someone who works in the mine. Miners let their children swim in the toxic sea from time to time to prove nothing is wrong in Stratoni. Work before health. “What do these miners tell their children when they put them to sleep?” wonders Giota who we will meet some days later on top of the Skouries mountain. “I am your daddy and I love you, I am your daddy and I’ll give you cancer?” Stratoni is not a place to swim, or to get your feet wet.
Empty sunbeds at Stratoni beach with in the background the underground, silver-lead-zinc mine
Rebel village of Ierissos
Only fifteen minutes by bus, the rebel village of Ierissos looks nothing like Stratoni. Old fishing houses have been adapted into apartment houses and the place has tavernas, beach bars, shops and other facilities for tourists. In Ierissos, many residents have been fighting the mine’s expansion. But everything under the radar. When you learn the sign language of Ierissos, you read its protest. Black flags are blown by the sea breeze and the high levels of toxic water are kept secret to the tourists that are cooling down from the truly unforgettable hot nights in Ierissos.
People here are furious. In Ierissos the car of pro-mining Mayor Christos Pachtas was smashed and set on fire. Pachtas fled to his home village in the mountains. One year later, in 2013, masked activists entered the mining site at Skouries after sunset to set buildings and materials on fire. When the police invaded Ierissos looking for the perpetrators, police fired tear gas grenades and violent riots followed. Wanting revenge, activists later set on fire the local police station. Since then there has been no more police in Ierissos. Many residents are afraid that as a result of mining the ground-water level will drop and large dust clouds will arise. People in Ierissos live off the tourists. If the truth came out, who will come then here to swim and eat fish?
We decided to do this visit ‘Greek style’. ‘Don’t worry, let’s see’ is the mantra. When we sit at a cocktail bar overthinking our non-existing place for the night, we spot a youngster wearing a S.O.S. Halkidiki T Shirt. We find out that he and his friends form part of the local resistance and will climb the Kakavos mountain just like we will do for ten days of struggle at the forest of Skouries.
We chat with Dimitra who is the daughter of the leader of the Ierissos resistance committee. Dimitra points out that the mainstream media remain silent. “When the mining company loses, they move to another place and nothing happened. When they win, we lose everything. ”
The amount of environmental damage that mining would do here is not worth the economic gain according to Dimitra. Already hundreds of acres of forest have been flattened by bulldozers in preparation for the mine. Opponents (also) worry about ground water pollution. All of the surrounding villages still receive their water directly from the creeks and rivers of the mountains. Dimitra’s grandmother came from Tunisia two generations ago to build a better life in Greece. “I don’t want to be the second generation of my family having to leave my home”.
Ierissos is almost completely against the mine. However, the village we will go to, Megali Panagia, lies closest to the proposed open pit mine and is not entirely against it. Like Stratoni, the village is divided based on how many people work for the mining company Eldorado Gold and how many do not. The investment of Eldorado Gold has deeply divided the local communities of the Chalkidiki peninsula, even setting family members at each other’s’ throats.
People in Chalkidiki are struggling for years against the gold mining. To this the Greek government has answered with violence. Residents’ homes are being monitored by state security and forced DNA profiling and detentions like Nikos’ are the norm. They company has invested in fear and in panic.
We leave Nikos and Dimitra and go to the room they booked for us as the series of events solved itself. Greek style. In the streets, people seem already aware of the talks we just had at the beach. News spreads fast in this village where rebellion against the company brought all the generations together. The next day we climb up Mount Kakavos and enter the heart of Skouries.
* Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.