GREECE LOOKS BAD

UN SOS ENVOYÉ À LA COMMUNAUTÉ INTERNATIONALE

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The intensive exploitation of nature is constantly pushing back the geographical and geological limits. To feed the production and consumption chains, our growth-based societies continue to extract raw materials from the earth’s womb at a frantic pace, in different parts of the world. No continent in the world escapes this destructive enterprise for the territories, ecosystems and cultures of many peoples. In the continuity of numerous missions carried out in Peru and the Congo, the Justice and Peace Commission has launched this year into the investigation of industrial mining projects in operation in Europe.

At the beginning of last May, our research led us to the North of Greece, in Chalkidiki, and more precisely to the municipality of Aristotle, birthplace of the famous philosopher of the Antiquity. Invited by ISF SystExt(1) which has already realized several « mining stays » in Europe, we joined Georgios Tsirigotis, representative of the collective SOS Khalidi, committee of fight against the industrial exploitation of the gold in Chalkidiki.

When we arrived, he explained,  » Gold mining is not new to this region. Gold has been extracted from the soil since the time of Philip II of Macedonia, in antiquity, 2,400 years ago. But today, we are facing an exploitation project whose magnitude threatens our living conditions « .

This pharaonic project took shape a few years ago. In 2004, Hellas Gold, a subsidiary of the Canadian company Eldorado Gold, bought 31,700 hectares of mining concession from the Greek state (an area twice the size of the Brussels region), without any bidding process(2). In 2011, the Minister of the Environment, Georgios Papa Konstantinou, issued a provisional environmental permit to this multinational company, which boasts of  » to be the lowest cost gold producer in the world « . (3)The company has been able to exploit, among other things, the subsoil of the Skouries forest, a 410-hectare site that is remarkable for its biodiversity. To this day, no gold bars have left the metal processing plant at this site. The project is frozen because « flashmelting », a method of processing several minerals, is not authorized by the government authorities. But the Canadian company plans to start processing activity in 2018, putting pressure on the government. In July, Hellas Gold demanded 800 million euros from the Greek state because it is preventing the transnational company from making a profit.

OF « EXCESSIVENESS » IN THE LAND OF ARISTOTLE

For the mayor of the municipality of Aristotle,  » if the ancient philosopher were still alive, he would oppose the presence of this gold mine, because it symbolizes the temptation of « excess » of the human being . Aristotle warned human beings against their dream of omnipotence,  » hubris « , by promoting a sense of prudence,  » phronesis « . Today, our technical means and the ideology of unlimited growth are undermining the conditions of existence of many populations. The dangers of the industrial exploitation of natural resources invite us to revive the thought of the Greek philosopher.

OF « EXCESSIVENESS » IN THE LAND OF ARISTOTLE

For the mayor of the municipality of Aristotle,  » if the ancient philosopher were still alive, he would oppose the presence of this gold mine, because it symbolizes the temptation of « excess » of the human being . Aristotle warned human beings against their dream of omnipotence,  » hubris « , by promoting a sense of prudence,  » phronesis « . Today, our technical means and the ideology of unlimited growth are undermining the conditions of existence of many populations. The dangers of the industrial exploitation of natural resources invite us to revive the thought of the Greek philosopher.

AN ECOLOGICAL DISASTER IN PROGRESS

When you look at the recent history of mining activity in the region, residents may have legitimate concerns. For example, the previous major mining owner in the region, TVX Gold, has already been responsible for some of the most dangerous pollution of which mining extractivism is capable. For 30 years, tens of kilometers of old underground galleries have been releasing a large quantity of toxic metals. According to Automne Bulard, a mining engineer with ISF SystExt,  » the area contains very rich arsenic deposits . Thus, rocks, in contact with air and acid rain, release extremely harmful substances, such as lead and arsenic sulphides, which seep into the water table and streams that flow into the sea. In addition, the company has directly dumped a large amount of waste from a processing plant into the sea bordering Stratoni. In recent years, the shoreline at the edge of this small town has taken on a disturbing red color, making fishing and swimming prohibited along more than 30 kms of shoreline.

At the time of the purchase of the mining concession, Hellas Gold had committed to « clean up » the pollution of the former owner company. However, many people are skeptical of its good intentions. Annie, a French-speaking resident who has been an activist against the industrial activity for years, explains:  » They claim to solve the problems left by yesterday’s holes by digging new ones. I don’t see how a cleanup job should require further destruction of the mountain. On the other hand, I can see how it is profitable. (…) The trees they want to plant are dead trees. You can’t say that you’re going to plant on top of mine waste and have it be part of the ecosystem. An ecosystem takes thousands of years to build up « . (4)

In addition to water pollution, mining activity destroys many ecosystems. In place of the ancestral forests, Open Pits are created, gigantic open-pit mines that give the landscape a lunar aspect. To allow for more efficient excavation of the earth, the water table of the mountain is literally pumped out, so that the earth is dried. In total, not far from 180 million tons of rock have been extracted from the ground in Chalkidiki, over the last twenty years.

The waste rock, i.e. the uninteresting mine tailings, 98%(5) of the total mass of the rock extracted, is accumulated in « waste lakes », held back by dams. This practice is problematic in at least two ways. On the one hand, these wastes continue to release toxic substances into the air and water. On the other hand, these dams represent a permanent danger for the populations and ecosystems located downstream. Indeed, a rupture of one of these dikes is possible in a region that knows seismic instabilities: Chalkidiki has experienced an earthquake of great violence in 1932 (earthquake of Jerissos). Moreover, dam failures are regularly observed in the world. In 2015, Brazil experienced its worst environmental disaster, following a mining waste dam failure in Bento Rodrigues. Similar incidents have already taken place in various European countries. In 1998, more than 10,000 hectares of the Doñana Natural Park were contaminated with heavy metals in Spain. In 2000, in Baia Mare, Romania, more than 287,500 m³ of cyanide-laden water spilled into the river systems (including the Danube) after a dam at a gold processing plant broke(5).

A DESTRUCTURING OF THE ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL LIFE

In addition to the environmental disaster that is likely to affect the health of the local population, the implementation of gigantic mining projects constitutes a factor of destructuring of the social and economic life of the region.

According to the mayor of Aristotle, elected on the basis of his commitment against mining projects,  » The industrial activity of the mine conflicts with many economic activities. Out of a population of 20,000 inhabitants, there are about 600 tourist businesses that employ 3 to 5 people, 150 farmers and about 2,300 families who live from other activities such as fishing or beekeeping. Of course, Hellas Gold creates jobs, between 800 and 1,300 people work in the mine today, but how many do they destroy?  »

The mine destroys a large part of the local economy. Also, as in other countries of the world, the presence of the mine has generated conflicts between part of the population and the authorities. The struggle against the Hellas Gold mining project has gained in intensity since 2010. Georgios testifies:  » We have organized hundreds of demonstrations, rallies, solidarity concerts or conferences. The inhabitants even managed to change the mayor, through a form of direct democracy.  »

In response to this resistance movement, the government authorities reacted with forceful actions.

 » Over the years, we have had injuries, tear gas bombs thrown into villages. CRS entered the houses and took away fathers of families. 4 people remained in pre-trial detention for more than 6 months. Today, more than 450 people are being prosecuted on charges of attempted murder or setting up a criminal organization.  »

This violence of the forces of order to which Georgios testifies was moreover denounced by Amnesty International, in a report in 2012(6). As in various Latin American countries where large mining companies are present, a violent social conflict and a process of criminalization of resistance have thus arisen.

Also, in addition to the conflicts that have broken out between a part of the population and the Greek authorities, this gigantic open-pit mining project has produced lasting fractures in the population, between supporters and opponents.

For the mayor of Aristotle,  » All over the world, the first thing these mining companies do is to divide society. In Ierissos, social activities have been interrupted for years. There were no more soccer games or parties. Important tensions still exist today, even within villages or families.  »

The Skouries mining project shows how a project of intensive extraction of natural resources, by its magnitude, often affects a territory under several aspects (ecological, health, economic, social or anthropological). This situation also shows that, contrary to certain preconceived ideas, extractivism does not only affect the countries of the South. The senseless exploitation of nature is a global phenomenon that affects almost every country in the world.

FOR AN INTERNATIONAL SOLIDARITY

Today, after 7 years of struggle, the population says it is  » tired, frustrated and divided « . The mayor of Aristotle and the resistance movement are sending an SOS to the international community:  » We call on all people around the world to support our struggle to save the region .

Before coming to power, Alexis Tsipras of the Syriza party had promised to stop the activity of Eldorado Gold. In August 2015, the ministers of Energy and Environment had obtained the cessation of activities, pointing to the unreliability of the waste storage ponds being located on a major seismic zone. But since then, the Greek courts have ruled in favour of the Canadian company, as the Greek state is obliged to open its doors to foreign investors in the context of budgetary austerity imposed by the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund.

In order to support the population of Chalkidiki in the face of Eldorado Gold, it is important to impose strict environmental, social and health rules on mining companies, both at the European level and at the level of the Member States. Therefore, it is unacceptable that a country like Greece is forced to sacrifice the living conditions of its people and its environment to meet the demands imposed by the European Union and the IMF.

At the political, economic and civic levels, it is finally necessary to rethink our relationship with the economy, with nature and with happiness. When we know that gold is essentially used to make jewelry and as a financial investment for speculative purposes, could our society not do without the intensive exploitation of this mineral? This cultural mutation is urgent because our industrial civilization built on the growth of production and consumption is done at the cost of a massive destruction of ecosystems and human life environments in different countries of the world. Like climate change, the consequences of the intensive exploitation of natural resources make us aware that we belong to a community of destiny… This realization must be the starting point for a universal solidarity movement!

Valéry Witsel, works at the Justice and Peace Commission
This article has been published in the Nature et Progrès’s Valerian n° 134.

Notes et références
  1. Ingénieurs sans frontières est une association française composée d’ingénieurs, de géologues et de déserteurs de l’industrie minière, selon leur propre définition. www.isf-france.org/systext.
  2. En 2011, la Commission européenne a condamné l’État grec à 15,34 millions € d’amende pour le transfert illégal de la mine à Hellas Gold.
  3. Alain Deneault et William Sacher, Paradis sous terre. Comment le Canada est devenu la plaque tournante de l’industrie minière mondiale, Rue de l’Échiquier, 2012.
  4. Propos extraits d’une enquête de terrain réalisée par Mathieu Brier et Naïké Desquennes et soutenue par ISF : Mauvaises mines, combattre l’industrie minière en France et dans le monde, 2018.
  5. Sur une tonne de roche extraite au sol, 20 kg de concentrés sulfurés sont envoyés dans une usine de traitement métallique. Les 980 kg restants sont directement envoyés dans des bassins de déchets. Sur les 20 kg de roche, Hellas Gold espère récupérer plus ou moins 1 gramme d’or, grâce à des systèmes de bains acides et des fours. Pour information, la teneur mondiale en or sur une tonne de roche était aux alentours d’1,5 gramme en 2016.
  6. Anna Bednik, Extractivisme. Exploitation industrielle de la nature : logiques, conséquences, résistances, Le passager clandestin, 2016.
  7. www.amnesty.gr/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Policing_demonstrations_in_the_EU.pdf
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