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All that glitters

By Nick Malkoutzis

In elections gone by, Aristotelous Square in Thessaloniki would have been occupied by party stands and perhaps fervent supporters cheering on a political leader with just a few days to go to polling day. Last Thursday, though, only a clutch of Halkidiki residents were in the square. They had a message to convey, not a political one, though.

They were there to inform passers-by about why they are opposed to gold mining in their area. The presence of the so-called “anti-gold” movement in the heart of Thessaloniki rather than the flag-waving, banner-holding party faithful tells two important stories. One is of the momentous political transition that Greece is going through, one that has eroded people’s confidence in the parties they blindly followed for decades. But the other is of Greece’s ambiguous relationship with investment -- particularly if it comes from abroad -- and economic development.

It’s this second category that explains the actions of the Halkidiki residents. For some weeks, residents of Ierissos and surrounding villages have been protesting the mining of gold in Skouries. Locals fear the activity will damage the environment, thereby undermining their quality of life and their children’s future while potentially preventing them gaining income from tourism, the other dominant industry in the area. They are also concerned that the company will use sodium cyanide to extract the gold, polluting the air and drinking water, and creating a situation where a major environmental accident could threaten the local community, as happened in Romania in 2000.

Canadian firm Eldorado, which last year took on the concession to dig for gold at the Olympias and Skouries mines, says that it will invest more than 1 billion euros and create more than 1,500 jobs, many of which will be for local people. It insists the mining will be safe.

An investment of this size and the opening up of such a high number of employment positions in the midst of the current economic misery seems a very attractive proposition. It is, therefore, easy to view those who oppose it as reactionaries or plain old troublemakers. Certainly, when protesters overturned cars and invaded a municipal council meeting in March, the opposition to the mining appeared to take on the air of the familiar clashes between police and self-styled anarchists in Athens. But these scenes were also reminiscent of the stand-off between locals and authorities in Keratea, southeast of Athens, last year, when the villagers’ resistance led to plans for the construction of a waste management center stalling.

Just as was the case in Keratea, so in Halkidiki there is little doubt that some of those protesting are doing so because they derive satisfaction from confronting the police. There are also those who see confrontations between citizens and business interests as a good opportunity to build up political capital. But this is far from the whole story. Just as in Keratea, so in Skouries, there is a community that is genuinely worried about what is happening on its doorstep. Perhaps in another country, locals would feel more comfortable with the project because the process for awarding public contracts or environmental certificates is transparent and trustworthy. Maybe in another country there would have been a period of genuine public consultation and authorities would make an effort to inform each and every resident. In Greece, this doesn’t happen and trust is undermined.

While the skepticism and mistrust that often greets these types of projects has some roots in the country’s atherosclerotic politics, particularly on the left of the spectrum, much of the negativity derives from the state’s unwillingness to establish good business practices. For too many years, a select few have benefited from the murky way that public sector contracts have been handed out and the impunity enjoyed by companies that have violated all kinds of regulations. While the wealth and influence of this minority has grown, people’s confidence has withered.

The reaction in Keratea had less to do with thrill-seeking “hooded youths” picking fights with police than with a community that had not been consulted about a potentially unwelcome development in its back yard and the suspicion that the project had been designed to serve the interests of the contractor rather than locals or taxpayers in general. The last four decades -- during which PASOK and New Democracy have governed Greece and used public money to favor their supporters and friends in business -- have led to every scheme tendered by the government being treated with suspicion. It is a social affliction brought on by years of graft, not just a knee-jerk reaction triggered by petty politics.

Suspicion and lack of trust are compounded by the fact that businesses are often allowed to flout environmental, labor, tax and many other kind of regulations while facing little, if any, punishment. For instance, who could blame the people of Ierissos for looking to Oinofyta –where, unperturbed for years, local firms dumped hexavalent chromium in the Asopos River, prompting a rise in the number of cancer cases -- for an example of what can happen when the state fails to fulfil its role and businesses are allowed to act with impunity.

In Halkidiki, there is one more cause for concern. The Hellenic Gold mining firm, a subsidiary of Eldorado, has allegedly been closing access to public roads around the mines and installing CCTV cameras in trees in the area to beef up security. Several members of a private security team allegedly used by the mining company were reportedly arrested a couple of weeks ago after being accused of harassing locals. None of this is going to help convince people that what is happening behind the wire fence is going to benefit them.

Protesters -- who are backed by some political groups such as the Ecologist Greens as well as leftist organizations -- responded by holding a gathering in the forest next to the Skouries mine on May Day. It appears a calm response to a situation that threatens to get out of hand and suggests there may be grounds for reconciling the concerns and interests of the two sides.

Events in Halkidiki show how much damage has been done thanks to the way Greece has handled major investments in the past. The Skouries standoff is a byproduct of this but it also provides an opportunity to address the issue and bring some transparency and accountability to the process. Without such an effort, Greece is destined to dig itself into a deeper hole rather than dig for gold.

[Kathimerini English Edition]

ekathimerini.com , Friday May 4, 2012 (13:08)  
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