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To drill or not to drill (for gold in Skouries)

By Tina Michalitsis at alyunaniya.com

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Paraphrasing Shakespeare’s hero Hamlet, modern day Greeks face a similar dilemma; whether to exploit the natural reserve of gold in Chalkidiki peninsula or not. Recent arrests of locals suggest there is a substantial number of people opposing any drilling in the area of Skouries. And almost every one who watches the clashes of local residents with the police is bewildered by what is really going ‘up there’ in Chalkidiki, as it is located at the northern part of Greece. Really, why would any citizen in their right mind object to a mining project which would only bring recession-hit Greece one step closer to the long-awaited growth?

This controversial topic of gold mining in Chalkidiki has divided Greek public opinion. Stratoudakis, CEO of Hellas Gold, the Greek branch of Canadian Eldorado Gold, the main investor, says: “The country and the government seek capital. The total investment of the company in Greece will exceed one billion dollars in the next five years and that will increase exports of mining products.” He continues to emphasize that “the mining reserve in Skouries is rich and the drilling will produce not only gold, but also copper, lead, silver and zinc.”

Despite the approval of the mining company’s technical study and the governmental green light, the local residents took the matter to the streets as well as to justice. Eight local residents’ associations appealed against the 2011 decision that allowed Hellas Gold to go ahead with the drilling, but the Council of State upheld the ministerial decision as ekathimerini.com reports.

Since it is common knowledge that Greece desperately seeks investment and the Eldorado Gold will bring in cash for the Greek state, then why all this fuss and unrest? It was just last Sunday, on Mother’s Day, when female protesters were attacked by tear gas released by the police. As it becomes evident, the profile of the protester against the drilling of gold in Skouries does not fit the typical protester. So why would family people, homemakers, subject themselves to being arrested if the investment project will secure jobs for their children -1,500 to 1,600 positions as estimated by the company- and help fund the country’s budget deficit?

As it is clearly stated at the company’s site eldoradogold.com, the Skouries gold-copper project has an expected mine life of 27 years. However, the forest of Skouries, in the middle of which the company wants to establish an open-pit mine, has existed for centuries. “Those trees date back to the era of Alexander the Great. Skouries is an ancient and protected wood, with environmental impact for both Greeks and Europeans,” said Theocharis Zagas, president of the Hellenic Forestry Society, as quoted in Exandas film documentary on the subject.

On top of eliminating some of the ancient fauna of the country, there is a voiced concern from environmental organisations for polluting the main freshwater source for sixteen villages in the region. Not to mention that the nature of the mine is expected to also pollute the air, as it has been calculated by the company that the open pit will generate 3,000 tons of toxic dust per hour.

In an ironic twist of events, Environment Ministry has recently announced that 3,9 million euros have been allocated for the operation of forest services and forest stations. This is how the government plans to help protect forests from fire. What about deforestation and pollution? What really stands between the mining company and implementation of their plans for drilling gold is the active involvement of local people. Residents of the area oppose to drilling as they do not want to undermine (no pun intended) the quality of their lives and jeopardise the future of their children, according to the Hellenic Mining Watch.

The social unrest in the area takes a whole new perspective when taken into consideration the possible damage on the environment that this investment may have. Therefore, the question should be whether the benefits in money outweigh the environmental toll caused by gold mining in Skouries. What kind of investment do we want? A short-sighted or a far-sighted one? What is best for now or what is best for next generations? If I was to answer this dilemma, reaching for gold (and other minerals) should be the very last resort when all other options for attracting investment have failed. Have they?

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