Skouries is the most important Greek story you’ll rarely hear about. It’s an ancient forest in northern Greece, where a mammoth Canadian gold-mining company is staking its claim.
Gold-mining, environmental concerns, state repression, police violence and a sturdy and organized local anti-mining movement have made Skouries a veritable battle ground in Greek politics, one that has received very little international coverage, clearly overshadowed by the escalating Greek crisis.
Greek company Hellas Gold and its main shareholder, Canada’s Eldorado Gold are working towards establishing a gold and copper mine in the ancient forest of Skouries in the northern region of Halkidiki but residents of the area’s 16 villages are strongly opposed to the project and have held several demonstrations against it over the past year, many of which have turned violent. Riot police have made excessive use of tear gas even inside the forest and in the villages, while residents have accused police of detaining people on trumped up charges, physically abusing them and even taking DNA samples from them against their will.
“Halkidiki right now is a black hole in the geography of Greece. It’s a place in this country where the Constitution has been turned into a rag, where the rule of law has collapsed, where human rights are violated on a daily basis,” said Dina Daskalopoulou, a journalist with the Editors’ Newspaper, the only daily Greek newspaper owned by its staff’s cooperative. Daskalopoulou was speaking in a radio interview to Radiobubble.gr, an independent citizen’s journalism community that has been covering the Skouries story closely and reporting from the protests for the past year.
Daskalopoulou gave a disturbing account of what could very well be the most organized State suppression of a movement in Greece. She said residents’ homes are being monitored by State Security, phones are being tapped and detentions are the norm, often targeting disabled residents and high school students. “I think that the state has a comprehensive plan with regard to the local people. It’s launched a whole operation to terrorise them. So it’s choosing what it believes will more easily break their spirit. “
Skouries against gold mining. Photo by Maria Kadoglou
It is not hard to understand why this small corner of Greece is so fraught with tension. For starters, Skouries is an area with a long history of mining that dates back to Alexander the Great. More recently, in the 1980s, an attempt by Canadian company TVX Gold to establish a mine in the area fell through after scientists at some of Greece’s largest institutions such as the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and the Technical Chamber of Greece warned residents that such an investment would lead to an unprecedented environmental disaster by polluting the 317 square kilometre area’s soil, sea, air and water and rendering their villages uninhabitable.
Now, almost thirty years later, Hellas Gold and Eldorado have a plan that raises similar concerns. They want to establish an open-pit mine in the middle of the Skouries forest on the Kakavos mountain, which happens to be the main freshwater source for the entire region. By the company’s own estimates, the open pit will generate 3,000 tons of toxic dust per hour. Galleries will be dug at 700 meters deep, taking the mine below sea level, so that even water that is not contaminated with heavy metals and other toxic materials from the mine will surely be contaminated by seawater. Furthermore, a 9 kilometres long tunnel aimed at connecting two mining sites will cut through a geological fault line that caused a devastating earthquake in the area in 1932. Finally, an ore processing factory will be built in the mountain where gold will be separated from other substances. The company claims this will be done without using cyanide, but this method has not been shown to be effective on Skouries ore. This raises additional concerns about the possible disposal of cyanide inside the forest.
The current operation has sought to override these concerns with little effect and environmental concerns are only one part of it. One of the reasons is that the circumstances under which the mining operation was established were questionable.
Only days after Greek business magnate Fotis Bobolas founded Hellas Gold in 2003 with a starting capital of a mere €60,000, the Greek State purchased the mining rights from TVX for €11 million and immediately sold them to Bobolas for another €11 million earning nothing from the transaction. Within a few months, Hellas Gold was purchased at 95% by European Goldfields, another Canadian company which was in turn absorbed in a friendly takeover by Eldorado Gold.
These dealings coupled with police and state oppression to ensure the continuation of the preparations to begin mining in the area have only served to strengthen the local anger and organization of the protest movement.
A year ago, in March 2012, things reached a climax when the mining company sent its workers up the mountain to dismantle a protest camp established by anti-mining activists on the planned mining site. The protests that followed were violently repressed by riot police. The situation kept escalating until this past February, when a group of reportedly 40 to 50 people from the region conducted an arson attack on the main worksite of the company in Skouries burning every piece of equipment they found there before pulling out.
Authorities launched a series of roundups following the arson attack – a common police practice in Greece- and have since detained 154 people while also conducting a police raid on the village of Ierissos, a village of 3,000 residents at the centre of the protest movement. Daskalaki told Radiobubble.gr that church bells frequently toll to alert villagers of detentions or the presence of police.
In one case, a young mother of two was detained for 16 hours without a lawyer or a phonecall to her family and without charges. Questioning by police involved asking her whether she thought her husband had been cheating on her. A 15-year-old girl was at some point called to give a “deposition” by State Security on her mobile phone. Police have frequently demanded DNA samples from people who were merely called in to testify. “In some cases the police took DNA samples by force and then coerced the detainee into signing a statement saying they had given it by their own free will,” said Daskalopoulou.
In one very disturbing case, four youngsters, aged 19 to 22, received a visit in the early morning hours by State Security agents and were asked to follow them to the police station for an unspecified issue. At the station they were separated. Daskalopoulou interviewed one of them recently, the son of a policeman, who said he was left without water for hours and interrogated about his political beliefs and participation in demonstrations. He was then slapped and beaten. “Every half hour, they stop beating him and they have him stand looking at a wall, so that he can think better and tell them where he was that night,” Daskalopoulou said. “And then they come back in and this goes on for six or seven hours. In the end, ten people jumped into the room and demanded that he give DNA.” The youngster was then forced to sign that he gave his DNA voluntarily. A policeman later told him: “come on now, your village is under siege. To mitigate your case and the case of your village, give us a few names.” When he refused he was threatened to be used in a game of “ping-pong.”
“Ping-pong meant that they would throw him around the room while calling him an anarchist and a rascal. This kid is 19 years old.”
But violence has not only been used as an intimidation tactic behind closed doors and inside police stations. Last March 7, 2012 riot police marched into Ierissos and detained 5 people. Searches were conducted along with the anti-terrorism unit who were fully armed. “They’re showering the people of the village with chemicals for hours. The chemicals even fell inside the school. Three children had a panic attack, others had respiratory problems. The ambulance was trying to get there but couldn’t. Even a ten-month old baby had to be taken to hospital,” said Daskalopoulou.
A student demonstration commemorating last year’s attack on the school was held last week in the area. Such protests, along with a large peaceful anti-mining protest in Thessaloniki soon after the attacks that was attended by 20 thousand people and was the first such protest to be televised in Greece, show that the movement is far from waning.
On the contrary, the area has become a stage for the larger context of political divisions in Greece, a kind of symbol of the need to resist the control of powerful monopolies over the State as well as fire sales of Greek assets and natural resources.
Daskalopoulou claimed that a recent demonstration of support to the mine was staged and described it as an almost comical, extravagant event that featured right-wing politicians and representatives from marginal organizations. According to Daskalopoulou, protests organized by the residents themselves are attended by unionists as well as leftist politicians from the main opposition party Syriza. Meanwhile, in a press conference held in Greece last week, Eldorado Gold signalled that it is reconsidering its plans alluding that there is an unstable investment environment due to the ongoing reactions.
“If the State has decided to turn Halkidiki into a laboratory of violence and repression to export to the rest of the country, the people of Halkidiki have decided to make it a lab for freedom and struggle. And this struggle is something we must all stand by,” said Daskalopoulou.
To listen to Daskalopoulou’s entire interview in English to Theodora Oikonomides on Radiobubble.gr international click this link.