People in Alexandroupoli protesting against the Skouries forest gold mine. Photo by Joanna
Last Sunday, 50 masked men armed with Molotov cocktails stormed a gold mine in northern Greece. After torching bulldozers, trucks and portacabins belonging to Canadian mining company El Dorado and its Greek subsidiary Hellenic Gold, the group used tree trunks to block police and firefighters from reaching the site. If all that destruction of machinery and reliance on the bountiful gifts of Mother Nature for protection sounds like the work of an incensed rattan basket of eco-campaigners, that's because it was. In fact, it was just one of many recent moments of drama unfolding around the opening of a gold mining site in Skouries, one of the oldest forests in Greece.
In 2003, Hellenic Gold, followed by El Dorado, obtained the rights to mine the $12 billion (£7.8 billion) worth of gold and copper snoozing beneath the mountain area. The deal saw the Greek state receive just €11 million (£9.5 million) worth of compensation for the mines and, as well as losing the government some money they could have probably done with a decade down the line, pissed off all the local residents. Besides a part of the ancient forest being uprooted, residents are also worried about the mine's effect on tourism, agriculture and fishing. They're all pillars of the local economy and they're all at risk of being devastated by the pollution a mine tends to churn out.
Photo by Joanna
Last October, in the largest protest yet against the proposed mine, riot police attacked demonstrators, broke the windows of parked cars, dragged old women to the ground, attacked a left-wing politician who was protesting outside the police department and threw tear gas at the crowds, the canisters of which ended up burning down part of the forest. Unsurprisingly, these tactics did little to appease the demonstrators.
Since then, areas of the forest have been cordoned off with barbed wire, checkpoints are everywhere and private security guards wearing full-face masks patrol the area harassing locals, demanding to see their identification. That last bit is illegal under Greek law, but minor issues like what's legal and what's not don't seem to faze El Dorado. The company claim the mines will create more than 1,000 new jobs, their investment billowing much needed oxygen into the gasping lungs of an ailing local and national Greek economy.
The mine's critics, however, claim that more jobs will be lost than gained due to the pollution and environmental destruction that comes from digging into a mountain and building a mine. And they may be right. Unfortunately for the Greco-Canadian gold panners, the numbers just don't add up. From the potential $12 billion to be made, Greece only gets the $11 million it secured in 2003 and a mere ten percent of revenue tax. So, once the millions of tonnes of waste start to pile up and the local economy is devastated, Greece stands to lose far more than it will make.
Photo by Joanna
Seeing as the Greek subsidiary company is owned by Giorgos Bobolas – Greece's mini-Murdoch; a man who owns little chunks of pretty much every mainstream media company in the country – reporting on the story has been spotty at best. Bobolas' political connections are what secured the involvement of police in such large numbers, and operations in the area over the last few months are on a scale that only tends to be bankrolled if the beneficiary holds the kind of political sway that Bobolas does.
What did get reported was the Greek Minister of Citizen Protection, Nikos Dendias, going to Skouries and demanding arrests after Sunday's attack. This resulted in the detention of 33 local activists with little justification other than their politics. Among them was Lazaros Tsokas – a member of SYRIZA, a Greek left-wing party – who was labelled an abettor and arrested. Those detained accuse the police of taking DNA samples from them even though they were only charged with misdemeanours, which – again – is illegal under Greek law.
The police also attempted to detain the two people who run antigoldgreece, a blog that aims to expose Hellenic Gold's corrupt dealings with local officials. The authorities have so far been unable to detect them, but one of the bloggers, Maria Kadoglou, told me:
"The accusations are unfounded. The atmosphere here is already polarised between those who believe that the mine will be good for the area and those of us who oppose it. We're trying to use legal methods to stop the mining operations, but the local authorities take months to answer our petitions. When they do, the answers are irrelevant and laughable. In the meantime, the company has already set up camp and intimidates the locals with the draconian security methods it uses."
Many foreign companies are leaving Greece, looking abroad for access to capital and more stable tax codes. But if you have the right inside connections, then tax exemptions and access to European funding schemes present an opportunity to get into Greece, exploit its shitty financial situation and get out again significantly richer. While the news media feeds Greek families a jolly TV dinner of xenophobia, imminent financial meltdown and dog-eat-dog party politics, the real crimes – the ones ripping everyone off – take place in the background, in places like Skouries.
Follow Yiannis on Twitter: @YiannisBab
More times people have messed with the environment: