First published in German on hambacherforst.blogsport.de on February 7th, 2015. This translation wasn’t yet revised by the author or a native speaker. Guess, it’ll work anyway…
Gold mining in Greece
With my backpack shouldered I slowly drag myself up the street. A police patrol drives past me, then a car from a security firm. Then the patrol comes back. And yet another security car. This is how it’s been going on all the time, since I took the way up the Kakavos mountain in Greece.
It didn’t take me two hours by bus and hitchhiking from Thessaloniki to the 3,000-strong village Megali Panagia, which is located in the east of the Halkidiki peninsula. But from there on there was no alternative to walking. What fuels me? Maybe the beautiful nature, the forest, the mountains, the rivers, the ocean? – In a way, yes. However, in a rather less beautiful way: What brings me here is the clear-cutting of forests, blowing up of the mountain, the poisoning of oceans, rivers and groundwater. On the Kakavos Mountain one of the many planned gold mines in northern Greece is being developed: Skouries. The catastrophic impacts of this project are going to be beyond imagination, and it is already way further than the starting blocks.
The road I’m walking is new and probably in better condition than any highway in Greece. The red-brown scarps beside it make it easy to imagine how it was literally eaten into the mountain. Some distance further on, seemingly endless piles of wood begin to line the route. Easy job to find the connection between the street and the dead trees. Unknowing as I am what exactly to expect and where to go, the nerve-racking presence of the police- and security cars bustling around me at least made me sure to be on the right track. My goal is a ten-day protest camp right on the mountain and not far from the planned mine and the already ongoing infrastructure-construction work. The struggle committees of Halkidiki and Thessaloniki announced the camp, taking place from August 22th to 31th 2014, with the words: “… against the paranoia & the destructive fury of State, companies and speculators … The arbitrary orgy of ravaging has to stop Today, or tomorrow will not exist!”
Then at the camp itself, through many conversations, discussions, lectures and walks, I was able to close the gaps in my knowledge about the place and the events and came to the decision to process this in an article. Because more people should know about what’s going on here.
In northern Greece there are a number of gold mines currently in planning. One of the planned regions of gold extraction is around Skouries on the Halkidiki peninsula. In Piavitza, in the vicinity of the mine to be built in Skouries, there is another gold deposit, and the schedules for a mine there might assume even ten times the proportions than those in Skouries. In Macedonia the regions of Kilkis and Serres are affected and in Thrace another mine is to be built close to Perama.
It’s always the same company behind the mines in Halkidiki and at Perama: Eldorado Gold, a Canadian enterprise based in Vancouver.
In each case, the start of mining is planned for 2016 and the operational lives are up to 27 years long. But also in the other regions, that are deregulated for the gold mining, a participation of Eldorado Gold cannot be ruled out.
Dubious transactions – How Eldorado Gold came into play
In 1996, the mining rights for the Cassandra Mines were sold by public tender for 32 million euros to TVX Hellas SA, a subsidiary of Canadian TVX Gold. In the following years, inter alia, a silver-lead-zinc mine was operated in Stratoni and a mine in Olympiada.
But already in 2002, the mining permit was revoked after strong protests. The Supreme Administrative Court of Greece had decided that the projected gold extraction would be a disaster for the region. TVX Gold hereupon ceased investing, and TVX Hellas had to file for bankruptcy and was officially declared bankrupt.
What added to that was that in December 2002; after intense rainfalls; strongly acidic and heavy metal-containing water ran from the galleries of a mine operated by TVX Hellas into the Gulf of Stratoni, where the water turned red. TVX however spoke of an “optical phenomenon”.
On December 12th 2003, the mining concessions of the Cassandra mines were signed over to the Greek state for 11 million euros. This transaction also included the assumption of approximately 17 million euros of loan debts, which TVX still owed their 472 workers.
On the same day the estates, including inter alia mining and exploration rights in an area of 317 km², went to the HELLAS GOLD S.A. for the same price. Christos Pachtas (Pasok), the at that time Secretary of State for Finance intervened and later became mayor of the municipality of Aristoteles, in which the mining was meant to take place.
Given the mode in which this transaction was carried out, it provides quite some insight about the interrelations between political and economic interests and their manifstiations. Among others, neither a value analysis nor a public tender were carried out beforehand. Furthermore, the company was exempted from registration- and other taxes, received various discounts on fees, e.g. for lawyers and notaries, and was by contract released from the obligation of reparation payments resulting from the environmental damage that TVX had caused in the affected area.
Another fact that should raise suspicions is that HELLAS GOLD SA had been founded only three days before with a share capital of 60,000 euros – which didn’t seem to be an obstacle for buying estates worth 11 million euros.
In addition, six months later the market value of the mines was estimated 408 million euros by a global financial services provider. That is 37 times the purchase price.
However the state confirmed the transaction, and in 2004 a process started in which the company was gradually dismantled and sold in cuts. The three major shareholders of Hellas Gold – Leonidas Bobolas, Dimitrios Koutras and Frank Timis – made profits of 95.7 million euros out of this, and the state earned precisely – nothing.
Then, until late 2007, the Canadian company European Goldfields acquired 95 % of Hellas Gold. The remaining 5% were retained by the shareholder Bobolas in the construction company Actuator. (It is to be mentioned at this point that the Bobolas’ are an influential pro-government Greek family clan, owning inter alia large fractions of the Greek media.)
In 2011, the approval of the in many parts faulty and incomplete study by Hellas Gold on environmental impacts (EIA), which specifically concerns the sites in Olympiada, Skouries and Stratoni, leveled yet another bureaucratic obstacle.
Finally in February 2012, European Goldfields was sold to Eldorado Gold, another multinational corporation based in Canada.
So today 95% of Hellas Gold S. A. belong to Eldorado Gold and 5% to Actuator. The value of the minerals of Halkidiki is now estimated at 15.5 billion euros.
Skouries and its consequences
Of course the entanglement of politics and big corporations for it’s own would be reason enough for an outcry. However, the problems which the gold mines now already raise and are will raise in the aftermath are even far more severe.
But first things first: What exactly is supposed to happen in Skouries?
The region of Skouries includes a gold-copper-porphyry deposit. Hellas Gold want to extract this from 2016 on by open cast mining. Using six tons of explosives per day, over the years a hole with a diameter of up to two kilometers and a depth of 220 meters shall be created. The daily extraction will be 24,000 tonnes of rock with an estimated content of 0.8 grams of gold per tonne.
Then an underground mine with up to 25 km galleries will be built below the open pit into 770 meters of depth. Additionally, a metallurgical factory for pure gold recovery is planned at the Skouries location. This point makes Skouries a key site for the Greek gold industry, because for this purpose, the ore from the other mines in northern Greece would be brought here as well.
In order to realize this project, about 3 square kilometers of forest have already been cut down. An entire ecosystem and therefore also the habitats of many animals and plants will be permanently destroyed. The people of the surrounding villages, who have for centuries been using parts of the woods for forestry, now see themselves dispossessed of a major source of firewood and timber.
In addition, the groundwater shall be lowered, using multiple drainage wells, to a depth of 750 meters (of which 140m are below sea level) in order to prevent the mine from being flooded. This will among others cause the mountain to dry out, followed by soil erosion and flooding.
Considering the fact that the main groundwater occurrence of Halkidiki is situated at this location, more frightening consequences result. On the one hand, now already 15 million cubic meters of water per year are being pumped out, which equates to the water consumption of the entire peninsula. On the other hand, the remaining water is being contaminated. For example the process of pumping the water back into the ground scheduled by the company after the cessation of mining activities would lead to an intrusion if toxics such as heavy metals. Also the ingress of salt water into coastal aquifers due to the groundwater lowering is a problem.
Because of the mining activities that have happened, the water is already contaminated with heavy metals in some areas. Furthermore, incredible amounts of fresh water get wasted: To produce a kilo of gold on average 691,000 liters of water are needed.
The daily detonations produce a plethora of fine ore dust – according to Eldorado Gold’s own estimations about 3,000 tonnes per hour. And then there are the emissions of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, sulfur dioxide and aerosols PM10 and PM2.5. These atmospheric pollutants are dispersed over long distances.
Especially the particulate matter types PM10 and PM2.5 are dangerous to health, since due to their size the lungs cannot filter them out and they are absorbed directly into the body of humans and other animals. The heavy metals and radioactive elements, that can attach to these particles, also enter the body and cause serious damages to health. In Skouries alone estimated 430t of PM10 per year with high concentrations especially of arsenic will be emitted.
Carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide will lead to acid rain and consequently also the soil will be acidified. This, in conjunction with contamination of a long list of heavy metals from A for antimony to Z for zinc, will make it impossible for plants and other organisms to survive in the affected area.
The “ultimate disposal”
Furthermore, the gold production results in waste, particularly by the smelting, the process of washing the of gold from the remaining rock. Because nowadays this happens by the use of numerous, highly toxic chemicals. And afterwards all this ends up somewhere:
Valleys are converted into pools by building dams, and then filled with mining waste, which then usually remains there as long as until the respective dam breaks, as it happened in 2000 in a gold mine in Baia Mare (Romania). There, 100,000 m³ of water, contaminated with cyanide and other heavy metals, were released through a leak. This water flowed into the river Tesla and on into the Danube, led to contaminations in Romania, Hungary and Serbia and beyond, poisoned drinking water resources, killed thousands of fish and caused the death of adjacent ecosystems. This environmental disaster in Baia Mare applies as one of the most devastating in the history of the European continent directly after Chernobyl.
Or the toxins evaporate or slowly seep into the ground, contaminating water and soil.
Normally, in the production of gold especially cyanide is being used. Now, however, Hellas Gold boasts with plans to use a procedure in which no cyanide would be used: the so-called “flash smelting”. This was never tested on an industrial scale for the production of gold and also does not produce pure gold, but mixtures with copper, lead and iron. Since there is no method for the separation, it is likely that the company will after all use cyanide.
Furthermore there is scientific evidence that the selected processing method is not suitable for the gold type from the Cassandra Mines and the factory will, once constructed and brought into service, release more arsenic into the environment than any other factory in the EU. The Finnish company Outotec, which developed the technology of flash smelting, already expressed serious concerns about the application on an industrial scale planned by Hellas Gold.
The waste resulting from the gold production will consist of about 70% arsenical iron oxide sludge (scorodite) and calcium sulfate and is dangerous especially because of the arsenic. In addition, the stability of the crystalline scorodite stored together with other substances is questionable. But also for this problem the company has made the National Technical University of Athens come up with a method which has not even been pilot-tested, but shall be applied anyway.
The waste pools planned for Skouries will be located in the gorges formed by the rivers Karatzas and Lotsaniko. The trees there, some over 300 years old, have already been felled and 140-160 meters high dams are going to be built. According to statements of the company the waste deposited will be relatively dry, enabling it to be piled up to 220 meters above the dams at the highest point like a mountain range . Whether this would withstand heavy rainfalls, is very questionable.
After the mining activities, all the deposits shall be covered with with 60 cm soil and Hellas Gold promises to “plant two trees where one was standing before”. Apart from the fact that crowded trees do not grow better, it is absolutely impossible that the trees would survive in such an environment.
In order to prevent seepage of toxic substances into the soil, the company intends lining the pool with an interlayer foil. But according to current estimates, this foil will remain impervious for only a maximum of 50 years. Since Hellas Gold wants to operate gold mining in Skouries for a period of 27 years, the problem’s solution is apparently adjusted to the duration of the company. Whatever the consequences – that’s for others to bother with.
Effects on humans
The people in the area of Skouries are negatively affected by the Gold Mine in many ways: healthwise, socially and economically.
They are physiologically affected as the contaminated water, the heavy metals and particulate matter cause numerous, even deadly diseases. This does not only concern the workers but also all inhabitants and visitors of the region.
The social impacts are described very appropriately by Carlos Zorrilla in the guidebook “Protecting your community against mining companies and other extractive organizers”:
“It is common practice that multinational mining companies pursue specific tactics that aim to getting social recognition. Above all, they connect with local community leaders and groups who don’t represent anybody, but are easy to be influenced. As a result, a gradual fraction in the social network is caused, while the companies fund compensative social projects. They consider filed application letters as referendums in their favor and acquire land strategically. They use aggressive methods against opposition citizens’ initiatives, such as terrorism, violence, blackmailing, infiltration, surveillance, lawsuits depleting the financial resources of these groups, spreading false rumors, creating false crimes, made up allegations up to even death threats. Finally, they use private security services and cooperate tightly with militias and police.” Many, if not all of these strategies were applied by Hellas Gold SA in Halkidiki.
Finally, the region and the people living there, will also be ruined economically, as the main fields of employment here are farming, beekeeping, fisheries, forestry and tourism. These are hardly or not at all compatible with the gold mining industry and once the mine would be closed in a few years, people would have to face a completely destroyed environment and thus the destruction of all the foundations of life.
Another striking issue is once again mining law, which is obviously designed in favor of the corporate interests and against the people. Among other things, any activity interfering with the mining, is prohibited in legalized mining areas, private ownership of land can be expropriated (so also forced relocations may come up), protection status for areas by national or international conventions is cancelled in case of conflict with resource extraction and the mining company has full ownership of the minerals, so doesn’t have to pay any taxes.
In a statement on economic infiltration of the region, the open coordination of Thessaloniki against the gold mines writes: “It is also no coincidence that this scandalous transaction of the north-eastern Halkidiki mines took place in a period of prosperity. At a time when no one paid attention, while the implementation of the mega project, the actual construction of the mines, is enforced in the midst of the crisis. Now we are facing outright blackmail: we must either accept a clear and directly destructive intention or we might not be able to manage surviving.”
However, by far not everyone wants to accept this clear and directly destructive intention. Because survival is possible only without the mines and with the mines only death.
The resistance (and the repression)
In the region around the Cassandra mines, resistance stirred already in the late 90‘s. As mentioned above, the people there managed to stop a gold mine in Olympiada.
So when the plans on Skouries became clear, citizen initiatives were formed in the surrounding villages, that are called struggle committees.
In the year 2009 they built a vigil on the mountain where the mine was planned. From then on it was permanently kept occupied, in order to notice and prevent any activities of Hellas Gold. Drill rigs that were onsite were also removed fairly quickly. For years it remained quiet on the mountain. The gold business seemed to exist only on paper, millions in profits to be made only by speculation. No one seriously reckoned that this insane project might actually ever be realized.
However, the mining-opponents went on organizing, informed themselves and others about the disastrous effects of gold mining, became more. In subsequent years, all conferences or similar propaganda activities of the company were disrupted, especially by science-based corrections of the facts and actions such as banner drops.
When in the beginning of 2012, after two months of meters thick snow-covers, in which the mountain remained “unoccupied”, people realized that Hellas Gold drove up the mountain with employees of the Archaeological Institute of Greece, the alarm bells rang: This seemed to be a sign of an actual implementation of the project. Because, due to the many discoveries from the classical antiquity, the Archaeological Institute in Greece must always give the go-ahead before any construction can take place.
After a plenary meeting of the committees of struggle, it was decided to focus on the vigil and a total of 40 people eventually gathered there.
Then on the next day, March 20th 2012, something happened, that nobody had expected. Under threat of termination Hellas Gold forced all 350 workers from the Stratoni silver-lead-zinc mine and an additional 150 potential workers, to go on the mountain. The potential workers had been told that the only way for them to get a job in the future would be going up there. So it happened that 500 miners attacked the 40 people in the vigil who, not to forget, were partially their own neighbors, and even completely destroyed the vigil.
After that in Ierissos, one of the resistant villages, the mayor’s office was occupied and plenary scheduled a demo on the mountain for March 25th.
About 2,500 people participated in the demo: village inhabitants, including the elderly and children. On this day the people were for the first time confronted with the MAT (the Greek riot police), who massively attacked them with tear gas at the entrance to the mountain. In the following days, weeks and months, repeatedly large demonstrations of 2000-5000 participants took place, accompanied again and again by hours of clashes with the MAT.
The demo on October 21st 2012 imprinted itself into many memories as a key incident, in which the police took to unimagined proportions: The participants on the mountain were chased by the police for more than 7 km. They were beaten and shot at with plastic ammunition and tear gas. Twenty-one people were arrested and fourteen of them charged with “rebellion”.
In the following years, the resistance shifted more and more towards Ierissos, instead of continuing to focus on the mountain and Megali Panagia as the closest-by resistant village. This allowed the company to begin construction of the infrastructure. Thousands of trees were felled, a wide street was built where there was previously only a narrow forest path and numerous completely new roads were breached into the forest. The groundwater was begun to be pumped down and the areas assessed for the mine and the toxic waste pools were prepared. Complexes of office containers were built and the construction of the factory was started.
At the same time the media only reported on the resistant village of Ierissos, while intentionally all other groups involved were not mentioned, which partly split the resistance.
The arson attack
According to police, on the night of February 17th 2013, 40-50 people entered a construction site of Hellas Gold and overwhelmed four security employees. Vehicles, machinery and office space went up in flames: The company spoke of a property damage of 900,000 euros. When the incident became known, the share values of Eldorado decreased by 6%.
The very next day the right-minded Minister of Public Order and Citizen Protection Nikos Dendias visited the site and promised to catch the offenders. The anti-terror unit was involved and the Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras made a proclamation that “the foreign investments will be protected at any costs”. From that point the repression against the inhabitants the resistant villages entered an entirely new level: Daily raids, arrests, threats, surveillance. About 400 people were forced to deliver DNA samples and it was raining lawsuits against about 70 people: The allegations denominated inter alia establishing a criminal organization, attempted murder and possession of explosives.
In March, several hundred cops invaded Ierissos in order to arrest people, and in the course of this even fired tear gas into a school. The inhabitants however managed to defend themselves against the attack. Two days later again 10 – 20 thousand people gathered in Thessaloniki to protest against police violence and the gold mine.
In April, two persons were arrested and imprisoned on remand for six months without any actual evidence. For the arrests, the police broke into the houses at night and overpowered the men in the presence of their families. Two other persons were arrested in July in Ierisso and spent three months on remand, also without evidence. Hours of rioting succeeded.
Up until July 2014 people were summoned to the prosecutor for statements. For this, often dates of announced actions and demonstrations were chosen. Obligations not to approach the mountain any closer than 3.5 kilometers and not to leave the country were imposed on many activists. The processes are still pending.
On August 5th this year, the Greek parliament voted favorably on Article 36 of the new Forest Act as well as a change in the law by which public forests are now available for private businesses. As a result, all the construction activities of Hellas Gold, whether they have happened already or are planned for the future, were legalized. That is to say, all the previous construction work had been carried out without permission. On the previous day twelve women had blocked the entrance to the mine in protest against the adoption of the amendment, four of them had locked themselves to the gate.
The strong repression could also be felt clearly at the camp, since the number of participants had shrunk from more than 2,000 to about 200 people.
Furthermore, many now fear that after the election of Yiannis Michos, the, according to his campaign pledges, anti-gold-mayor of Ierissos, more power of resistance will be lost. Because hopes that politicians would solve the problem, would be only too deceptive.
The pending elections in Greece on January 25th 2015, in which the party Syriza has good chances, currently still keep the minds under check. If, however, Syriza win the elections and – as expected – fail to comply their election pledges (against gold mining), this might however change quickly. And even though the resistance movement is going through hard times, nothing is decided yet here in Halkidiki.
In 2015, there will be another international camp against gold mining. An accurate date has not been determined yet. It is expected to take place in late July, early August in Ierissos. Keep your eyes and ears open. Information will be available on the websites beyondeurope.net and ak2003.gr. See you in Greece!