Forests untouched for hundreds of years are being razed to make way for a gold mine in northern Greece. Those behind the project say it will provide up to 2,000 jobs and revenue from taxes, both more than needed in a debt-ridden country entering its sixth year of recession and relying on bailout funds from international creditors. But residents of the area, Chalkidiki, and citizens’ groups backed by opposition party Syriza, have been trying to stop the project since 2011.
With its beaches and mountains covered in forests, Chalkidiki is a popular vacation area for Greeks and foreign tourists. Groves of oaks and beeches that have been untouched for more than 300 years are already being felled to make way for the gold mine. Hellas Gold, a Greek company that is 95 percent owned by Canada’s Eldorado Gold Corporation, hold mining licenses for a 122-square mile area described as a “wealth reservoir” that could contain some 20 billion euros of lead, zinc, silver and copper as well as gold.
The company claims that it will “follow strict EU and Greek environmental, health and safety regulations” for “responsible mining,” says ABC News. Deputy Energy and Environment Minister Asimakis Papageorgiou has cited Greece’s economic woes as why “we owe it to ourselves to ensure the best possible exploitation of wealth this country has to offer to drive growth and bolster the economy.”
Opponents have long been questioning how great any financial gains will truly be. Greece stands to gain jobs and revenue taxes from the mine, while other countries have also (as is common in mining contracts) received royalties. As Alexis Tsipras, leader of Syriza, has said, “The Greek state has nothing to gain but environmental cost from the investment.”
Those costs were indicated in a June report from the World Wide Fund for Nature in Athens, says the New York Times:
…standards are widely being ignored or lowered, affecting air, water and land use, from the reduction of mandatory environmental impact reviews to plans for increasing coal use and the likelihood that 95 percent of Greece’s environmental fund — more than $1 billion collected for projects like improving energy efficiency and sustaining nature conservancies — will be absorbed into the general government budget.
The extent of what the WWF report describes as “avalanche of serious environmental losses” is all the more glaring as Greece, a country of great natural beauty, had recently seemed on a path for green energy. After his election in 2009, former Socialist Prime Minister George Papandreou had created the Environment, Energy and Climate Change Ministry and spoke of solar energy and eco-tourism. In the midst of the financial crisis (that led to Papandreou resigning), the environmental minister was replaced with former financial minister George Papaconstantinou (who has since been drawn into a scandal about his taking the names of his family members off a list of wealthy Greeks with Swiss bank accounts).
In Chalkidiki, 420 acres of trees are to be cleared for an open mining pit and a series of tunnels to be dug; the company claims it will fill over and replant the pit once work is done. Residents of villages near the site are fearful of dust and ground water pollution. Armed with environmental studies from Thessaloniki University and statements from the Technical Chamber of Greece, a scientific body advising the government, they have been protesting locally (surrounding the city hall of one northern Greek village) and in Athens.
As Christos Adamidis, a hotelier who fears that the mining will destroy tourism to Chalkidiki, says, “This will be a business for 10, maybe 15 years, and then this company will just disappear, leaving all the pollution behind like all the others did. And in the meantime, the dust this will create will be killing off the leaves. There will be no goats or olives or bees here” — only a covered-over pit shorn of trees and life.
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Photo of Chalkidiki from Thinkstock