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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Les citoyens de Chalcidique préfèrent la vie à l’or

by Eugénie Barbezat

The Citizens of Halkidiki Would Rather Have Life Than Gold

Translated Tuesday 17 March 2015, by Henry Crapo

Halkidiki, Greece,
by special correspondant

Eldorado Gold , a Canadian multinational, wanted to force the issue, in order to exploit a vein using open-pit methods. Backed by a large movement in opposition, Syriza has now halted this project, a project destructive both to the environment and to the economic future of the region.

Taking a national highway in pitiful condition, we arrive in Halkidiki. The third most important destination in Greece for tourists, this peninsula, situated at the eastern end of the Gulf of Thessalonika, is a land mass extended by three peninsulae bordering on the Aegean Sea. It is a jewel of preserved Nature, famous for its beaches, but also for the quality of its fruits and vegetables, its fish, its honey and cheeses, which are exported throughout the country. Arriving in the vicinity of our village Skouries, we see that a large paved highway, brand new, has been carved into the flank of the mountain. No panels indicate its destination. And for good reason, because this 8 kilometer road, built at public expense, is for private use. It leads to the site of a mine that the multi-national Canadian company Eldorado Gold is in the process of digging: an open-pit mine for copper and gold.

The controversal exploitation was to have been the first of its kind in Halkidiki, where the 317 square kilometers of mining concessions include two subterranean mines, the active site of Stratoni and that of Olympiada, which Eldorado Gold wanted to put back in operation, in parallel with the new open-pit mine in Skouries. For the last mentioned venture, it was planned to empty out the mountain, creating a vast crater 700 meters in diameter, according to the company, but in fact much larger. In a second stage, there was to be created a subterranean mine 800 meters in depth.

In the Face of Popular Mobilization, a Brutal Police Repression

Before the arrival to power of Alexis Tsipras brought this project to a halt, the mine was a source of conflict with the local populations, mainly because the mountain threatened, Mount Kakkavos [1], harbors the largest reserves of fresh water in the entire region. Without any consultation, and under pressure from local officials with special interests, the former Samaras government had approved, in July 2011, the Eldorado Gold "investment". Despite very strong disagreement with the local community and the results of studies by independent scientific organizations, such as the Technical Council of Greece, Macedonian Department, and the Environmental Council of the University of Thessalonika, which had given negative opinions. In March 2014, more than 4 square kilometers of pblic forest had been ceded, with no official financial counterpart, to the company, in view of digging the mine in Skouries. Protected by a constitutional law, the primary forest can not be destroyed in Greece. In order that this law not be applied, in mid-August 2014, an ad hoc law was voted in parliament via a special rapid procedure, to authorize the deforestation. Immediately, Eldorado Gold surrounded the area with barbed wire fencing to discourage access, and the uprooting of trees commenced. Up until today, 3000 hectares [2] of primary forest have already been destroyed. As evidence, the uprooted trunks that litter the site. "The local forest workers refused to uproot the trees, so the company brought in foreign workers to do the job", explains Giorgios Zoumpas, president of the municipal council of Ierissos, the headquarters of the commune that includes 90% of those opposed to the mine, and where one can read the posters "We refuse to sell our future for a fist-full of gold". And it’s gold of which they will never see the color, since the national regulations concerning the mining industry do not forsee exploitation rights for the sites, nor payments to the state. The promise to create 2500 jobs, for a period of 8 years, in a region with massive unemployment, is not sufficient to convince farmers , those who raise livestock, fishermen, bee farmers, who risk not being able to work due to the irreversible pollution of the water, of the air, the soil, caused by an exploitation of such massive size. Furthermore, in the region surrounding former exploitations, the water charged with heavy metals and arsenic is not drinkable.

"This open-pit mine is much too large for our little region", Giorgios Zoumpas, expresses his concern. "If the project goes forward we will have no future, since it compromises all local agricultural production and puts in danger people’s health, in order to obtain a very small quantity of minerals. Moreover, one must bear in mind that a vein is a finite resource; once there is no more to be taken, say fifteen years from now, the Canadians will take off, leaving the region ruined in every way. This is not what we want for our children", he adds.

Actually, the figures furnished by Eldorado Gold are alarming: they predict a release of up to 3,100 tons per hour of dust charged with toxic products (heavy metals, arsenic and cyanide) which, projected into the air at 700 meters of altitude, will inevitably fall back on agricultural land and on nearby villages. Also a matter of atmospheric pollution, it is necesary to truck the raw mineral product to the port of Thesaloniki, from where it will be shipped to China for refining. An intensification of production will lead to incessant traffic, which is polluting and dangerous. And to store the waste material, dikes will be raised on the flanks of the mountain, but any sliding of the terrain or storm will carry it inescapably to the seashore.

Ready for anything that will stop this predictable disaster, the population is mobilized: public information meetings fill the halls in the 16 villages affected by the project. Despite the pressure from workers paid by Eldorado Gold to intimidate the opposition, and a particularly brutal police repression, support committees have been formed as far away as Thessaloniki, where evening meetings of solidarity with the opposition to the project have attracted several thousands of persons. In the face of this growing refusal of the mine, the police forces have become more and more aggressive. In the villages of the valley, the MAT (units for reestablishing order) leave wounded persons on the ground at each demonstration. Extensive police forces are also employed to secure the installations of Eldorado Gold, though this did not prevent a fire that was set on February 13, 2013. This event served as a pretext for the police riot squads, heavily armed, to carry out searches in homes of suspects, to interrogate 150 residents of the village of Ierissos, forcing them to provide a DNA sample. Illegal arrests followed, acording to the testimony of Ioannis Stathoris. Some 40 years old, this father of three children, head of a cheese factory employing 20 persons, spent four months in prison, falsely accused of having been present at the mine site during the fire. "In fact, I was at home, as many witnesses attest, but for the police, that doesn’t count", he affirms. "I was called before the tribunal, in handcuffs, and then placed in preventive detention. At the time, I didn’t know what was happening to me."

Collusion between the former municipal government and the multinational

Ioannis, descendant of a family of orthodox clergy, in which one traditionally voted on the right, explains that these events, and the experience of having spent months caged in a cell of 9 square meters with five other prisoners, radically changed his manner of viewing social relations: "I came to understand thet collective action is the only way out, and today Syriza inspires my confidence," he confides, very moved by the solidarity that was organized around his family, and so that his business could continue to function, and by the respect that was offered by his fellow detainees: "I was considered to be a political prisoner", he smiled. On his release from prison, more determined than ever, he continued the fight alongside those who installed "citizens’ frontier posts" at the entry to villages, to prevent intrusion by the police. Still waiting to be tried in court, he says he is confident: "The social movement has changed consciousness, and that’s what has brought Syriza to power. Now everything is going to change. But it’s necessary to convince those who think that the mine is a means to earn a salary; we must find them jobs elsewhere."

The economic development of the region, this is precisely the program of Yannis Mixos, the new mayor of Ierissos, who took on this responsibility in September 2014. Native to the region, having directed an enterprise developping software in Athens, tells of his engagement as if it were self-evident: "My father was a miner, who died at age 58 from cancer of the larynx, and I recall how he insisted that I study in order to have a different destiny. Today, as mayor, I want to create a different destiny for my region. Stratoni, my village, has already almost been razed for another extension of the gold mine, fifteen years ago. At that time, I was already engaged, and as a result of our actions the Supreme Court blocked the project. This time, it’s more serious, so I have come back to act on the terrain." But the task is not easy, and on his arrival at the city hall, the new mayor discovered the amplitude of intimate relations that bound the former municipal team, favorable to the project, to the company Eldorado Gold. "When I assumed my functions, I discovered that six full-time employees at city hall were paid by the enterprise Eldorado Gold. Furthermore, the enterprise paid directly to certain companies providing goods and services to the commune. And 3 million yearly in grants were paid by the multinational", he explains. But with a relaxed air matched only by his determination, the young mayor faced the challenge: "We put an end to these practices. Of course it is difficult to make the commune function with a budget cut by almost 50% and a fourth of the personnel gone, but many local citizens who had refused to pay their local taxes, in opposition to the former municipality, now do pay their taxes. And we have made the bet, with the support of the majority of the population, to search for other means of development, both clean and worthy of our commune." He mentions eco-tourism, and affirms with pride: "Our gold, it is our halieutic [3] resources and the local products of fine quality that we will ’label’ for marketing."

But, underlines Georgios Tsirigolis, university professor, born in Ierissos and member of the anti-mine committee of Thessaloniki,"the riches are also cultural: Mount Athos, so near, attracts many ’religious’ tourists, and the ancient ruins and the Xerxes canal are of great interest to students of history. This is the native land of Aristotle, so one can imagine a university center that will attract researchers and students from around the world, not just in summer. It’s potentially an asset on an international scale."

[1The forested mount Kakkavos is visible in this satellite photo from Google Maps. Ierissos is on the Aegean shore at lower right (visible if you click on the down-double-arrow to get rid of the extra photos). The mining operations just north of the Kakkavos area, near Stratoni, are visible in the satellite view (Stagira-Akanthos). Halkidiki is the "hand with three fingers" stretching from Thessaloniki in the NW to Mount Athos in the SE, which can be seen by clicking on the "-" (minus) button to see a larger area view.

[27413 acres

[3related to fishing

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