The birthplace of Aristotle is under threat from large-scale Canadian mining, but a wave of social unrest threatens to derail the government’s economic agenda, writes Jen Wilton.
Lazaros Toskas holds a photo of a demonstration in Thessaloniki in March 2013, where thousands gathered to protest against the Skouries mine. © Jen Wilton
‘In the land that gave birth to democracy, democracy has been abolished,’ asserts Lazaros Toskas, a leader in the campaign against mining on the Halkidiki Peninsula in north-east Greece. He is speaking in reference to several large mining projects near his hometown that have been given a green light by the government, despite fierce local opposition.
Toskas is a lifelong resident of Megali Panagia, a small village neighbouring Aristotle’s place of birth. It is located just three kilometres from the Skouries exploration site where Canadian-based Eldorado Gold plans to develop an open-pit gold and copper mine. 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.
In 2011, the cash-strapped government of Greece introduced a fast-track programme to facilitate the approval of large-scale economic projects, including goldmining. Amid the largest restructuring of debt in history, the Greek government threw open the doors to private investment and sold the Cassandra mines to a company part-funded by Leonidas Bobolas. Bobolas is the director of Ellaktor, Greece’s largest construction group, which jointly ran the mining projects with Canadian company European Goldfields. European Goldfields was bought out by Eldorado Gold in 2012, which today controls 95 per cent of the Cassandra mines.
‘In the land that gave birth to democracy, democracy has been abolished’
Some have questioned the rationale of a deal that saw the Greek government sell up to €15.5 billion ($21 billion) of mineral assets for €11 million ($15 million). The European Commission (EC) in Brussels investigated a complaint about the sale of the Cassandra mines and confirmed in 2011 that ‘the sale was carried out without an open tender or a valuation of the mines’ assets by an independent valuator. The sale contract also provided for the waiver of transaction taxes.’
The sale was therefore in breach of EU regulations, and the EC ruled that €15.3 million ($20.7 million) in illegal aid had been granted to the mining company. The Greek state was ordered to recover this amount plus interest, amounting to €21.7 million ($29.5 million) in total. In May 2012, the EC was forced to take legal action against the Greek government for failing to comply with the terms of the ruling. A final decision is still pending.
An ecosystem in peril
‘I am a simple, ordinary man,’ Toskas told me during an interview in London in late September, but he feels strongly that the mine is a threat to the future of those who live on the peninsula. Toskas has travelled across Europe to share the concerns that he and a growing number of Halkidiki residents have about the potential impacts of the Skouries mine.
Eldorado Gold plans to extract roughly 380 million tonnes of ore over the life of the mine, over 10 times as much as has been mined in the region in the past two millennia. The company estimates it will need to clear cut 180 hectares of ancient forest and farmland in order to put the mine into full production, a process that is already underway.
The majority of people on the Halkidiki Peninsula rely on the environment for their livelihood: whether through fishing, agricultural work, beekeeping or responsible forestry. Halkidiki is also the third most popular tourist destination in Greece. In 2013, tourism emerged as the only driver of growth in the Greek economy, but Toskas wonders how many people will still want to come if the forest is cut down and the waters are polluted.
Amid the largest restructuring of debt in history, the Greek government threw open the doors to private investment
Eldorado Gold estimate they will generate 5,000 direct and indirect jobs through three mine development projects currently underway in the north of Greece. These jobs will last for the life of the mines – a period of up to 27 years. Although the economy of Greece has shrunk by one-fifth in the past five years, many residents of Halkidiki feel that the economic arguments for this type of large-scale mining focus too much on short-term gain, while missing the wider arguments against damaging the environment and potentially interfering with alternative forms of employment.
Christina Laskaridis from Corporate Watch UK spoke at an event with Toskas in London about the media portrayal of mining in Halkidiki, where she says people are repeatedly told ‘your employment security is somehow tied to Eldorado’. She continued, ‘Both the company and the media systematically create a false dilemma and constantly frame the debate between employment with Eldorado or no money to buy food.’
Fanning the flames of discontent
Tensions around the proposed Halkidiki mines reached fever pitch earlier in 2013, following the torching of Eldorado’s offices and pieces of heavy machinery in February. Police responded by raiding nearby villages and questioning scores of people. Toskas explains with indignation that the day after the arson attack he was detained by police and held for two days. He is accused of ‘inspiring’ destructive actions (a crime particular to Greek law that is different from inciting criminal acts) and will eventually answer to these charges in court. ‘The community sees [the charges] as a way to penalize the resistance,’ Toskas asserts. He could face up to five years in jail if he is tried under common law, but a much longer maximum sentence can be expected if anti-terrorism legislation is used. Toskas remains uncowed by the prospect of jail time, adding defiantly: ‘We are resisting without fear the forces that are trying to sell off the wealth of our country.’
Heavy-handed police tactics, including night raids on family homes and allegations that police collected DNA samples illegally, used in the aftermath of the February arson attack sparked widespread backlash. Thousands of people took to the streets in waves of protest across the north of Greece, which also reached as far south as Athens. Toskas explains that state repression has served to radicalize many of the communities near the Skouries and Olympias mine development sites.
While many locals needed to make the most of the tourist trade during the summer months and work, dissent once again took an upswing in early September. Large anti-austerity protests were timed to coincide with the Thessaloniki International Fair (TIF), an important event in the Greek political calendar. This year TIF was attended by Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, who delivered a speech heralding an upturn in the Greek economy in 2014. Police estimated 17,000 protesters attended three main demonstrations that day, one of which was a large faction of people opposed to Eldorado’s Halkidiki mining projects.
Searching for solidarity
Toskas visited London in late September in the hopes of generating support for his community’s ongoing battle, as Eldorado Gold receives financial backing through the London Stock Exchange (symbol E:ELD). Richard Solly from the London Mining Network also spoke at an event alongside Toskas, emphasizing ‘the key role of London in financing destructive mining projects around the world. The two key finance centres for the world mining industry are Toronto and London, but more money is raised on the London Stock Exchange.’
In 2013, tourism emerged as the only driver of growth in the Greek economy, but how many people will still want to come if the forest is cut down and the waters are polluted?
Greece, currently in its sixth year of recession and facing record unemployment at almost 28 per cent, has seen extraordinary levels of protest in 2013. The issue of large-scale mining on the Halkidiki Peninsula has become part and parcel of wider criticisms of the austerity agenda currently being pursued by the Greek government, under strict advice from the troika of lenders – the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank.
But many residents of Halkidiki see Greece’s economic woes in different terms than their political leaders. They favour a long-term view of what is good for the environment and the health and wellbeing of the people. ‘We can develop our land and our economy in a different way,’ Toskas maintains. ‘Gold is not below Halkidiki, it is above it – it’s the forest, the sea and the people.’