Update from Skouries

2014-06-08 13.36.11

The last time I travelled to Ierissos was before the gold mines issue had arisen in its current form. Before this struggle began, one of the most powerful ongoing ones in Greece, against the massive intrusion into the old-growth forest of Skouries. Officially for open-pit gold mining but mainly for the copper and the rare earth elements, as the locals say. Read about the scandalous agreements between the greek state, greek and multinational companies and the police brutality against the (local) movement here: http://www.crisismirror.org/?s=skouries.

I had the opportunity to visit the place again a month ago, meeting old friends. While eating and drinking in a taverna the first day we realise that more and more locals are getting anxious. Some of the bypassing cars stop and inform us, “People are heading up to the mountain. The firm has started illegal constructions, without the relevant permits”. They were building the foundations of the mineral processing plant. A few days earlier, the authorities had paused the activities of ‘the firm’ – road construction – at another spot, where a waste water dam is supposed to be constructed. People manage to get a reply from the authorities within a few hours, this time, not days or weeks, which is usually the case. An inspector is to visit the place in a few days and find out if there have been any illegal constructions. We are informed that this is ‘the firm’s’ approach in general, ‘showing its muscles’, ignoring the legal procedures, forcing scandalous agreements with the state.

Before these there had been a call for a demonstration on Sunday morning at the construction site of the mineral processing plant. The locals meet for an open assembly the day before, get informed about the news and organise the next day’s action. There are two ways to reach the construction sites. We go for the dirt road, a picturesque route up to Skouries. North-east Halkidiki is a province of rare natural beauty. A large part of it belongs to the Natura network of protected areas in the EU. Full of water (the forest of Skouries is the main source of fresh water in the whole region) and dense, breath-taking plant life. The sun can hardly find its way to our car and we are enjoying the peacefulness and the cool breeze of the forest, until we reach the waste water dam site. Almost all trees have been cut here.

We are driving again for the next 10-15 minutes. What is missing from the dam site, lies now dead along the whole road, in single or double 1.5m high stacks, in one or both sides. Hidden behind the wall of dead trees, a police squad blocks the entrance of another construction site. It is protecting ‘the firm’s’ machinery, paid by the state, which is supposed to get almost no profit from the mining activities. We are told that many of the 1200 working positions that ‘the firm’ is claiming to offer when the mines will be fully functional will also be covered by grants, while this ‘investment’ absorbs the largest amount of grants that in any other case should be allocated to other economic activities in the region. There are also plans for the whole north-east Halkidiki to be characterised as a ‘mining zone’.

The demonstrators, about 500 people in the middle of nowhere, are about to start marching when we reach them, a five-minute walk to the entrance of the processing plant’s construction site. I find the participation impressive. A week before, a demo in Copenhagen against the plans of extracting shale gas in Denmark had failed to attract even half of the people. The locals are disappointed, though. ”The participation used to be much higher”, they say. Years after years people got tired of fighting under such terms. A short 10-minute rain shower is more refreshing than annoying. The demonstrators are chanting:

“Growth means cops under the rain, dead trees and the workers inside the earth”,

“Stop hoping, there will be no mines, if you want gold open the banks’ lockers”,

“Against nature’s pillage, fight for our land and freedom”,

“You will never get gold from Halkidiki, with police squads, violence and oppression”.

We stay around the construction site for more than an hour, walking around the hills, admiring the view of the concrete inside an old-growth forest. We listen to stories of corruption and injustice, about political games, bankrupcies and scandalous agreements of the last twenty years which led to the current situation. Sad and angry, we picture the landscape in the near future, massive plants spitting toxic waste, galleries dug at 700 meters (below the sea level), 32 open-pit mines producing 3000 tons of toxic dust per hour, according to ‘the firm’s’ own estimates – and probably only for the first (few) of the mines. On the way back we take the short new road, which is still under construction, while three of us are experienced civil engineers and get quite impressed by the quality of this one. ‘When we ‘ll kick them out a racing track should be built here’.

The struggle against the gold mines at Skouries is at a critical point. In the near future, negative developments may turn the state of the “investment” into an irreversible one. After the last local elections the new mayor is supposed to support the movement against the mines and improve the relationships among the locals of the different small villages in the region. That is considered a small victory, as well as the case of Giorgos Kalyvas a few days ago, a local farmer who owns the only property close to the mining sites (http://www.anotherworldishere.com/en/features-en/dark-gold/). He managed to force the temporary pause of the road building at the waste water dam site, which is passing very close to his farm. But, villages of hundreds or few thousands cannot usually stand against states or multinational economic giants. Our solidarity is more than ever necessary in order to put an end to this destruction before it’s too late. Solidarity to the counter-information level, their legal battles and the street/mountain ones.