Have the Skouries Protesters Really Defeated the EU, Goldminers and Terror Police in Greece?
The battle for Skouries forest may have been won – though it's more likely to be détente.
El Dorado, the Canadian company that owns controversial gold mines in Greece's Skouries forest, has announced that it will stop all works in the area until at least 2016. According to a company spokesperson, the reasoning behind this decision is that the price of gold has dropped, meaning – clearly – that there's not much point in investing in a mine to dig a load of it up.
On the surface that might appear to make sense. But it's also important to note that this statement is coming from a company that condoned surprise night raids on the homes of people who opposed the mine in the nearby town of Ierissos. A company that watched on as riot police who'd been drafted in to intimidate local people abducted high-school kids and fired tear gas into a school playground, leaving four children in the infirmary and a baby with a blood condition. A company that watched platoons of Greek counter-terrorism police arresting people at random and illegally taking DNA samples for their benefit, and that sided with one of the most controversial businessmen in Greece in order to protect their investment. A company that did all of those things, yet that is now – apparently – willing to just let the project go quiet for a little while.
Unsurprisingly, all it takes is one look at some statistics before holes begin to appear in El Dorado's reasoning. The price of gold has indeed fallen recently (almost 20 percent since the beginning of the year), but it's still 33 percent higher than it was five years ago. Also, the initial investment in the area was actually made in 2003, by El Dorado's Greek subsidiary Hellenic Gold – the value of gold has risen even more since then. Any revenue the company makes from mining will only be taxed by a meagre ten percent, and the gold and copper's total value in the area is calculated at more than £7 billion. It's worth pondering exactly how much a 20 percent drop in the price of gold should be bothering the company.
However, while El Dorado's announcement might seem like a win for anti-mining campaigners, Hellenic Gold have since sent out a message saying that hirings and general investment in the area will continue as planned. But that's no surprise, considering it's not costing them much of their own money to continue with these processes. Instead, they're financing their operation through the use of funds from the Greek state and the European Union.
Many of the 1,200 workers already hired have done absolutely nothing during their employment, as the mines have yet to function at full capacity, and the company still stands to make €2,250 for each and every "trainee" hired through the European funds. In fact, the only thing the company appear to be spending any of their own money on is ad placement in the Greek media, which comes in handy when the need to control popular discourse arises. And, of course, it has – on plenty of occasions.
After the torching of the company's forest worksite in February – when 50 masked individuals burned machinery and buildings belonging to El Dorado and Hellenic Gold – the positive propaganda stories began to unravel. There was the introduction of the aforementioned counter-terrorism police, the tear gas, the kidnapping and interrogations of locals without a lawyer present and the abductions of 15-year-olds and torture of university students.
As if that wasn't enough PR hari-kari, in May riot police were sent in to block a demonstration that was planning to march towards the worksite in Skouries forest, where trees had already started to be chopped down despite the fact proper licenses hadn't been issued for them to do so. The male demonstrators splintered off, taking another route to the worksite, while the women were left behind to keep the police at bay. Unfortunately, the tactic didn't work; the police attacked the women before turning their attentions to the male demonstrators with tear gas further up the mountain, arresting four people in total.
And that doesn't seem likely to be last trouble we hear of from Ierissos. When two of the four arrestees from the demonstration were taken to court, riot police surrounded the courthouse to contain any potential protests. Tear gas and violence were used once again and the 17-year-old son of one of the accused was detained.
Thousands march against El Dorado in Alexandroupoli earlier this year. (Image via)
So is it perhaps the reality of near-authoritarian violence and unfairly quashed protest that has sent the Canadian mining multinational into retreat, rather than the faltering price of gold? Many Greek analysts appear to believe so. The company's stock has been falling for some time, and – as insiders who wish to remain anonymous have told me – half of the business around gold mining is conducted via inflating stocks. What the company didn't expect when announcing the deal – which would see it making enormous profits off the backs of Greek taxpayers – was a mixed bag of local resistance, international media coverage and Canadian bloggers attacking it every step of the way.
With Hellenic Gold's announcement that hirings will be going forward as planned, the question – one already put forward by the blog antigoldgreece.wordpress.com – is: "What exactly will these new recruits be doing?" Will they just be shouting, "We're with you!" to Prime Minister Antonis Samaras? Shaking hands with Golden Dawn MPs, like their current union representative is doing? Staging counter-demos against the protesters where they're encouraged to bring their children along and make a family day out of hurling tear gas canisters at environmentalists?
A spokesperson for Antigold told me some of the organisation's theories concerning El Dorado's announcement: "I don't believe they'll be going, at least not that easily. They'll keep working on the mountain in the background, but with less capital involved. The announcement gives them time to deal with legal issues without the stock holders hearing about them. How they're going to solve [those legal issues] is another matter. One of the studies has been filed since 2007 and they still can't get it approved.
"We have information that the company might be continuing its work inside the Karatzas gorge [an hour or so from Skouries]. Theoretically, they have no reason to do that – no reason to hurry. I'm almost certain they are trying to destroy as much as they can so they can say later, 'It's already done, why are you objecting?' The mountain now looks nothing like it did before; we go there and don't recognise where we are any more."
The divide and conquer strategy El Dorado and the Greek government have adopted can't possibly go on for much longer. In that last incident a DIY grenade was used against the police – and, on another occasion, locals attacked the Ierissos police department with burning tyres – leading the police themselves to protest the fact they're being deployed against the local population at great risk for their personal safety.
If El Dorado want to use the excuse of falling gold prices, so be it. They can't concede that the resistance they've been facing in every project they've undertaken – be it in Ierissos, Turkey, Thrace or Romania – and the impact it's had on their stocks is the reason behind their decision, because that would be a sign that resistance actually works. And in this time of austerity, where resistance is becoming more and more prevalent, we can't have that, can we?
Follow Yiannis on Twitter: @YiannisBab
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