ECONOMY

Dreams of gold divide crisis-hit Greeks

In the economic wasteland that crisis-hit Greece has become for investors, the promise of gold from mines that once bankrolled Alexander the Great seems like an oasis in a desert. But the dream is by no means unanimous, even if it guarantees jobs in small towns like Aristoteles in northern Greece — named after the ancient philosopher who was born in the area — as the country grapples with a monstrous recession.

Greece?s desperate need for foreign capital, coupled with the sharp rise in the price of gold in recent years, has led to a renaissance of efforts to mine the precious metal.

New projects are in the works in three places: near Perama in Thrace in north-east Greece, near Kilkis in the north and in the Halkidiki peninsula, both in the northern Greek province of Macedonia.

It is in Halkidiki that the process is most advanced, with the environment ministry in July 2011 awarding a licence to mine two seams of gold near Olympias to Hellas Gold, a subsidiary of Canada?s European Goldfields.

The firm, acquired earlier this year by compatriot Eldorado Gold, says it plans to plough around one billion euros ($1.2 billion) into the mines of Halkidiki, which have been producing lead, zinc and silver for decades.

?We have already invested around 150 million euros and we employ 650 people. Eventually we intend to create 1,500 jobs,? Petros Stratoudakis from the firm told AFP.

But not everyone is pleased.

?How many jobs are going to be destroyed in agriculture and tourism because of the environmental effects?? wonders local Georgios Tsirigotis, 54, a university professor who campaigned against earlier mining projects.

The water supply for the east of the Halkidiki peninsula — which has 8,000 inhabitants in the winter and up to 30,000 in summer — ?passes exactly through where they want to mine,? he told AFP.

According to campaign group No Dirty Gold, a single gold ring creates on average 20 tons of mine waste, while cyanide and other toxic chemicals used to separate gold from rock can seep into the local water supply.

Tsirigotis is a veteran of protests 10 years ago that culminated in the government cancelling a previous gold-mining licence because of what it called ?an imminent danger? to the environment.

As a result he thought he was dreaming when he heard that this Pandora?s Box was about to be re-opened.

Each side in the dispute brandishes technical studies to support their arguments: either that the mine will be an ecological disaster, or that it will be harmless — and a boost to the economy.

In particular the project?s proponents say that the gold will be extracted using a new method that negates the need to use cyanide, but detractors say the method is untested.

But the stand-off has gone beyond the use of words. An umbrella group of around 100 protest groups has been stepping up actions on the ground including occupying buildings, demonstrations and blocking roads.

In March, scuffles between mine workers and demonstrators left several people injured.

The project has also been dogged by allegations of corruption, with the European Union in 2011 condemning Greece for having sold the contract to European Goldfields at an inflated price and without a proper tender process.

The state secretary in the economy ministry at the time is now the mayor of the town of Aristoteles where the new mines will be. [AFP]