The landscape on the road between Thessaloniki and Ouranoupolis, approaching Mount Athos, is striking. Lush oak, pine and chestnut forests frame picturesque villages.
But the seeming calm is misleading, and is suddenly broken by the sound of mechanical diggers heading towards the mines dotted around the area.
Here, in the northeast of Halkidiki, ecologists and locals have been waging a years-long battle against the mining that, in their view, is destroying their environment and their wellbeing.
The Canadian company Eldorado Gold is operating a silver and lead mine in Stratoni. In Skouries, it is embarking on the extraction of gold and silver. And in Olympias, activity has been resumed at the previously closed gold, silver and lead mines. According to the information supplied by the company, the sites employ almost 1770 full-time or temporary workers.
Another gold and silver mine operated by Eldorado Gold is also set to open in Perama Hill, in Thrace.
“No to gold mines,” read the banners in Ierissos, the seat of the municipality in the north of Halkidiki. Meanwhile, in Stratoni, “Mines are the future of Halkidiki,” it is proclaimed.
The villages are split between those defending the Canadian company, which has brought employment to the region, and those who denounce the negative impact mining has on their everyday lives and on sectors such as agriculture and tourism.
In Palaiochori, a village with 1000 inhabitants, Kostas, a retired miner, runs a café where the regulars play cards.
“Here, the men of the village have been working in the mines for generations, like my grandfather, my father, my uncles and myself. If we close them down, what will become of us with the crisis? If those against the project were to offer us an alternative, to develop employment, we wouldn’t be against the closure,” he maintains.
For activist Giorgos Tarazas, a raki and olive oil producer, this is not a valid argument. “The jobs created are illusory, because mining operations destroy as many if not more jobs in sectors such as tourism, cattle raising and apiculture, etc. Are we prepared to destroy our natural resources for the sake of 300 or even 1000 jobs?”
In 2012 and 2013, violent clashes broke out between locals and the Greek riot police, the MAT. Activists were accused of having entered the Skouries site and destroyed equipment.
“I have been taken into police custody several times and, every two months, we are called to the courts with other activists. The fight to defend our environment is a difficult one, but we are not going to give up now,” explains Giorgos.
“An atmosphere of civil war”
The main point of contention lies in the Skouries forest. Eldorado Gold is planning to destroy the mountain and open a 700-metre wide crater.
Three thousand hectares of primary forest have already been destroyed. The region’s largest freshwater reserves are also located in this hillside of Mount Kakavos. It is feared that those living in the surrounding areas with be deprived of drinking water, with the drying up and pollution of their rivers.
In Megali Panagia, a village of 3000 inhabitants, Giorgos is known as the white wolf. His “headquarters” is the Style Café, which is only open to Eldorado Gold opponents.
“We are living in an atmosphere of civil war, relations between the pros and the antis are very tense,” he points out whilst joining one of his acolytes, Yannis Deligiovas.
“In 2012, the first Syriza member of parliament was elected and many in the region voted for Alexis Tsipras in the latest elections because they believed in his promise to close Skouries. But we are now realising that the government is not taking any important measures,” says Yannis, with an air of exasperation.
“People are incensed, the Syriza MP can no longer step foot in certain areas. People hurl abuse at her,” adds a fellow activist, who is still hoping for a positive outcome following the latest decision of the Environment Ministry.
On 5 July, Minister Panos Skourletis pointed to the flaws in the technical and environmental study submitted by Eldorado Gold. The company has two months to respond to the issues raised by the Environment Ministry. Beyond that deadline, the contract binding it to the Greek state could be brought into question.
The study relates to the flash smelting technique the firm uses to extract gold.
The technique needs to be applicable to soil with a high level of arsenic, like that of Olympias, where the concentration is between 10 and 12 per cent higher than the level accepted. It is estimated that over 20,000 tonnes of arsenic would be released from the Olympias site, and insufficient information is provided on how these toxic gases presenting a threat to the workers’ health would be managed, according to the ministry.
“The minister’s decision is good news, but it doesn’t mean the works are going to be stopped, even though they hold serious consequences for the environment,” notes Dimitris Ibrahim, campaigns director at Greenpeace Greece. “A large part of the forest in Skouries has been destroyed, and the ecosystem has been seriously affected. What worries us now is the high level of arsenic and asbestos on the site, which carries potential repercussions not only for the health of the workers but the local inhabitants too.”
The wrangle between the Tsipras government and Eldorado Gold began in August 2015, when the Environment Ministry ruled that the operations at the Skouries site should be suspended due to “various violations of the technical conditions for the project” that could damage the environment. The Greek Council of State went on to overturn this decision.
In January, the government issued the Canadian conglomerate with a €1.7 million (US$1.9 million) fine, on the same grounds. Eldorado responded by threatening to halt its activities in Greece and to put 600 people out of work. Under pressure from the opposition, on 9 May, the Environment Ministry finally approved an initial technical study, allowing the company to resume operations on Skouries.
For Dimitris Ibrahim, “Since August 2015, the government has been blowing hot and cold with the company, but it doesn’t have the political will to put and end to the mining operations once and for all.”
Giorgos puts forward another theory: “There has been less activity at the Skouries mine recently, but not because the government has placed any kind of block on it. It’s because the price of gold has fallen between 2012 and 2016, and the company is waiting for the prices to go back up again.”
Eldorado Gold contests this argument. “Works were suspended in January 2016 due to delays in the issuing of operating permits. Once the technical study was approved at the beginning of May, the teams were remobilised,” the company’s press department told Equal Times.
Giorgos Zoumpas, president of the Ierissos municipal council, elected under the Syriza ticket, is hanging on to the hope that his allies will not abandon him: “The government must find a way to stop the expansion of mining, to protect the people here. No serious study has as yet been conducted into the impact on the inhabitants’ health, but we will come down to earth with a bump in a few years when we discover the number of cancer victims in the region.”