The Canadian “low-cost” gold mining company Eldorado Gold is on the brink of turning one of the last remaining areas of intact old-growth forest in northeastern Greece into a polluted industrial wasteland. Greece’s new left-wing Syriza government promised to stop the mining project but has yet to actually do so. The people of Halkidiki need support from the international community to put pressure on Syriza to stop the project, and tell Eldorado Gold that their short-term profits are not worth the irreversible destruction they are causing to the future of the region and its ecosystem.
An hour east of Thessaloniki, in the heart of the green, primeval forest of the Skouries-Kakkavos mountains, the hull of a gigantic, monstrous, mineral processing plant sits on a enormous expanse of flattened, deforested, yellow-orange dirt, the color of which stands in stark contrast to the rich green of the tree line. The factory is still under construction, and if it ever becomes operational, will process 24,000 tons of earth a day for the next twenty seven years, producing mainly gold and copper. In the distance one catches a glimpse of the turquoise waters of the Bay of Ierissos, which opens up into the larger Mediterranean. Just on the other side of the hill, behind a 2.5m tall blue grated metal fence that snakes through the woods surrounding the construction sites, men in gigantic diggers and dump trucks are working at a frantic pace, removing the top layers of earth from a vast area where the actual open pit mine will be. Just two years ago this area was still forested, with a scattering of small orchards that had been in families for generations, accessible only by foot – most who sold them under pressure from the company. What was once a tranquil sanctuary has been transformed into a Mad Max-esque scene of disaster, and if allowed to continue the gaping hole in the mountain will grow to at least 700m in diameter and will have a depth of at least 220m.
Running along the perimeter of the open pit, a road enters the forest again and follows the curves of a deep ravine full of ancient trees. Down below is a stream of clear flowing water. The movement of heavy machinery along what once was a forest path has ground the dirt on this road into a fine dust which covers all of the nearby trees, and which after a heavy rain turns into an impassable muck. The dust created by the deforestation and construction thus far is substantial and will only increase as the work continues, slowly asphyxiating the plants it covers and dispersing heavy metals into the ecosystem. Five hundred meters down this winding road, the sky opens up in front of you and you find yourself looking down into a massive valley which bears the scars of violent clear-cutting on both sides. At the bottom of the valley is the stream known as Karatzas, which flows into the larger Karolakas on its way down the mountain to the sea. This valley is the future site of one of at least two tailings dams that will be constructed to hold the toxic waste material from the processing plant. In the distance the rumble of machinery and the buzzing of chainsaws can be heard – the sound of the deforestation of the second valley where the stream Lotsaniko runs.
The Skouries-Kakkavos mountains are full of water – there are old fountains scattered throughout the forest and the aquifer supplying fresh water for the surrounding region of Aristotles lies under these mountains. Over geological time, the streams that flow down through these mountains have created beautiful waterfalls and swimming holes cherished by the people who live there. Agriculture and tourism are the two main economic sectors in Halkidiki, both of which rely on clean water. The imminent, existential threat that this mining activity poses to the both the fresh and sea water in the region is acutely felt. If the mine is allowed to continue, not only is the threat of water pollution incredibly high, but the processing plant will use the fresh water from the aquifer, essentially draining the it from the mountain and away from the forest and communities that rely on it. The drinking water supply of the village of Neochori located to the north of the open pit already contains dangerous levels of arsenic due to drilling activity, and in September 2013 the residents there were warned not to drink or in any way use their tap water or the water from the public spring in the centre of the village.
Local communities have been organised against the construction of the open pit mine and the processing plant since 2006, when Eldorado Gold’s Canadian predecessor European Goldfields declared their intention of constructing an open-pit mine, as opposed to traditional underground mining that had been part of the region’s economy for centuries. Community members from the village of Megali Panagia built a small house in the mountain to monitor the exploratory activities of European Goldfields’ Greek subsidiary Hellas Gold. European Goldfields never actually carried out their plans, and only when Eldorado Gold acquired the concession for 1.8 billion Euros in Dec 2011 did the construction of the mine begin full force. In March of 2012, hundreds of mine workers were ordered to attack and evict the local activists from the mountain, destroying the mountain house. Despite being offered hundreds of thousands of euros to clear cut the forest for the mine, the local union of forestry workers refused in protest against Eldorado Gold’s open pit mining plans. Peaceful protests by community members has been met with teargas and batons, and many people in the region have been charged with a variety of crimes for their attempts to show their opposition to this disastrous project, many facing several charges each.
Despite the existence of an alternative economic plan for the region, which includes sustainable forestry, organic agriculture, honey production (there are over 152,000 bee hives in the region), and low-impact tourism, the government has yet to come out forcefully against the mining company by actively supporting these sustainable economic activities. Because of the current economic crisis in Greece, the mine has ends up being the highest paying employer in the region, paying at least a third more of the average income, which is currently between 600 and 800 euros a month. The people working at the mine claim that they do their job to feed their families, repressing or denying any long-term impacts their actions will have. While Eldorado Gold essentially blackmails the local population to work for the mine in some way, as the contract stands now, the only revenue the Greek state will receive from this gigantic environmental mess is the income taxes paid by the workers. In 27 years when the company is gone, it is the taxpayers who will be stuck with a ticking time bomb of ecological catastrophe, should on of their toxic waste dams happen to break.
On Saturday, March 28, 2015, over 5000 people marched in Thessaloniki against Eldorado Gold and for a more sustainable and ecologically sound economic future. Because the Syriza government has stated that it is opposed to the mining project, it is essential that they receive international pressure urging them to stop this mine in its tracks before it’s too late.
Please write to the Greek Minister of the Environment Panagiotis Lafazanis and tell him to make stopping the construction of the mine an urgent priority, and to support the sustainable, already existent economic activities in Halkidiki: firstname.lastname@example.org
or the contact form of the Greek parliament http://www.hellenicparliament.gr/en/contact/
To express you opinion about the mining project directly to Eldorado Gold, please use the forms kindly provided on the Eldorado Gold website: http://www.eldoradogold.com/contact-us/
For more information on Eldorado’s activities in Greece and the movement against the mine in Halkidiki:
(video of the excavation of the open pit mine)
To watch a short film about the impact of the mining project: https://vimeo.com/channels/restlessminds