The first mobilizations against the expansion of the old mines in the Halkidiki peninsula, the birthplace of Aristotle in northeastern Greece, began in late 2011. That’s when Vancouver’s Eldorado Gold Corp. grabbed most of the local mining industry and unveiled plans for a €1-billion ($1.32-billion) development that would turn the recession-stricken region into a gold-producing powerhouse.
But development skeptics asked: At what cost to the environment, tourism and agriculture? They concluded that the massive project, smack in the middle of a part of Greece that could pass for Tuscany, would do more harm than good and took to the streets. “To live, you need, air, soil and water,” explains Nina Karina, 50, an artist who opposes Eldorado. “This investment takes away all three from us.”
At first, the protests were fairly low key, although there were times when the trigger-happy Greek police flung tear gas canisters at hothead protesters armed with flares, rocks and gasoline bombs. By the autumn of 2012, something akin to civil war had broken out. The turning point came on Oct. 21 when about 2,500 protesters fought a pitched battle with more than 200 police along the forest road leading to Eldorado’s Skouries gold-and-copper deposit, the centrepiece of its Greek strategy.
Sitting in a smoky café in Ierissos, a seaside town near the mining sites filled with “Canada and Eldorado Go Home” banners, Lena Panagiotopoulou, 40, recalls the terrifying battle. “The police smashed windows of cars and threw tear gas inside the cars and people were taken to the hospital,” she said. “They grabbed me and kicked me and made me kneel and I was just trying to protect my nephew.”
She was arrested with 13 others. Retribution came on the night of Feb. 16, when about 40 masked men invaded a Skouries work site in the forest, set fire to machinery and vehicles, and doused three security guards with fuel, threatening to burn them alive. Eldorado put the damage of the firebomb attack at $1-million (U.S.). Two men were arrested and another 18 are under investigation.
Greece’s economy is in tatters. With a 27-per-cent unemployment rate, Greece is in desperate need of foreign investment that can create jobs. Eldorado offers that in spades. The Council of State, Greece’s highest administrative court, last year said Eldorado’s “investment is particularly advantageous for the national economy.” Eldorado has most of the permits it needs and vows to forge ahead even as gold and copper prices have retreated sharply in recent months.
But the relationship between mine supporters and opponents has turned even more poisonous, with both sides accusing one another of provocation, violence and brutality, and Amnesty International calling for an investigation into alleged human rights violations by the police.
“The opposition forces provoke the police at every opportunity during these protests and then use any reaction by the police to support their cause,” El Dorado president Norm Pitcher, 57, said in an interview in Stratoni, Greece, home to the company’s milling and shipping operations on the Aegean Sea.
Canadian mining companies are not having an easy time in Europe even though job creation has become the primary goal of any government trapped in the debt crisis. And around the world, growing resource nationalism is empowering citizens and governments to hold greater sway over proposed mine and energy developments.
In Romania, Toronto-listed Gabriel Resources has spent more than a decade and $400-million-plus on the Rosia Montana gold project, the largest of its kind in Europe, with nothing to show for it.
Well-organized opponents, who at one point included Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros, have turned it into an international environmental cause célèbre and unleashed lawyers to challenge every permit.
The development of the Halkidiki mines has been an exercise in frustration for their many Canadian owners too.
The Halkidiki mining area is part of the Serbo-Macedonian ore belt, which has produced gold, silver and base metals such as copper, lead and zinc on and off since the time of Philip of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great.