Mar 12, 2013

Why Greek opposition to gold mining is justified: Canadian mining practices under scrutiny

Greeks concerned about environmental damage caused by gold mining

Last week in Greece a large demo was held in Thessaloniki to protest a Canadian gold mining project in the Halkidiki region. Around 15,000 took to the streets. They voiced their objections to the mine project and slammed Greek PM Antonis Samaras. Chants included "Junta police, Antonis Samaras" and "Gold isn't bringing us closer, it is killing us."

The gold mining project is owned by Hellas Gold (95% Canadian multinational, Eldorado Gold / 5% Aktor, a Greek construction company). Eldorado is also behind other gold, copper and zinc mining operations in the region.

News that Eldorado hopes to get the green light on an investment in the Thrace gold mine has also added to the rising tensions.

Eldorado isn't the first Canadian mining company to spark controversy in Greece. An earlier mining operation run by the Canadian firm TVX was also controversial and a target of concerted opposition... opposition that hasn't only been coming from activists. Just ten years ago Greece's highest court ruled that given the amount of environmental damage caused by gold mining, the economic gains weren't worth it.

The area potentially affected by the current mining operations is large - some 120 square miles - known for its forests, in particular its groves of oak and beech trees. It is in a region also known for its beaches - a part of the country that has long attracted tourists. Hundreds of acres are being flattened and three hundred year-old trees felled to clear the terrain for the open pit gold mining operation. By any standard this assault on the local habitat and the uncertain environmental future that comes with the mining, places those living in the affected area in a compromised position.

The main opposition party in Greece, the Radical left Coalition, SYRIZA, has come out strongly against the mining projects. Recently SYRIZA leader, Alexis Tsipras, and Panos Kammenos of the Independent Greek party held talks with a delegation of local government officials and activist groups who oppose the government's plans for new mining operations.

Alexis Tsipras leader of SYRIZA
Alexis Tsipras

Tsipras has characterized Thrace as a "historic and sensitive" region that requires investments that won't "pillage" but rather promote growth. In reference to the gold mines in Halkidiki and Thrace he said the government was pandering to vested interests.

Kammenos referred to a "huge crime spreading from Halkidiki to Thrace and especially in the Evros region" and pledges his party's backing for the delegation's demands in parliament and "at the side of the local community that united is refusing the destruction of its home."

The dominant Canadian mining presence in Greece raises broader questions about Canadian mining companies operating in foreign jurisdictions, not least because there have been allegations of shady practices and even crimes in Guatemala and elsewhere.

A Tyee article entitled "The Ugly Canadian Digs In" notes that there have been so many conflicts reported that "even industry associations effectively admit the problem." The article goes on to say that "... the Toronto-based Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada found that Canadian companies were responsible for a third of 171 high-profile Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) violations surveyed by mining companies between 1999 and 2009."

The article offers details about Canada's mining record: 

Canadian mining corporations operate thousands of projects outside this country and many of these mines have displaced communities, destroyed ecosystems and provoked violence. Pick almost any country in the Global South -- from Papua New Guinea to Ghana, Ecuador and the Philippines -- and you will find a Canadian-run mine that has caused environmental devastation or been the scene of violent confrontations. 

One of the organizers of the third international Mining Injustice Conference in Toronto, Santiago Escobar, had this to say about Canadian mining practices:

“There’s a concern regarding the Canadian companies because we have seen that their record is not a good record... also their environmental impact is very negative. They pollute the rivers, they pollute the soil, they pollute everything. And after the exploitation of these Canadian companies, always we have seen displacement of communities. We have seen violence, a lot of drugs, a lot of sexual exploitation. It’s not a good thing for our communities…we’re trying to stop the entrance of the big Canadian companies.”

Escobar says communities have tried to engage the companies and have their concerns addressed, but he said - “They [the companies] don’t listen to us. They only listen to the market. That’s all that they listen to, all that they follow.”

The loose network of voluntary controls that has been favored by the Harper government has been treated as a license by some companies to do their own thing - quite different for example from the UK approach where officials enforce guidelines defined by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development as it relates to conduct of multinationals.

Greece has its own unique set of conditions, but human rights is also a live issue in the context of these new mining operations. Local people who look to the environment and tourism for a sustainable living, face an uncertain future.

Open pit gold mining is incredibly wasteful and toxic. The site No Dirty Gold provides a breakdown of some of the environmental hazards associated with gold mine operations - here.

This Al Jazeera video covers the recent demonstration in Greece, along with views from the participants on the gold mining issue: