Lesson for BC: Mining Politics Can Be Terribly Corrosive

Consider Greece, where mistrust of Canadian mine safety helped spark massive revolt. Friday's blockade of the Imperial Metals' Red Chris Mine site by members of the Tahltan Nation brings to mind scenes from another place, where plummeting faith in government safeguards after a rush to profit from resource extraction has fueled not just isolated protests but a full-scale political revolt tinged with violence.

That place is Greece, where two years ago I visited to report on the situation. My destination was the northernmost region of Greece, Halkidiki, the birthplace of Aristotle, embroiled in conflict after Vancouver-based Eldorado Gold scooped up most of the local mining industry and unveiled their billion dollar development plan in the austerity stricken region of Europe’s poorest country.

The gold grab made the empty state coffers in Athens rattle with joy but the people of Halkidiki were not as pleased. They had not forgotten the mess left behind by the previous Canadian owner TVX, (later Kinross Gold), nine years earlier and the prospect of renewed mining operations was not encouraging to the inhabitants of the tourism dependent region known for its pristine forests and sandy beaches.

TVX abandoned their properties in 2002 when Greece’s state council ruled that the potential risks of redeveloping the mines would exceed any benefits from the project. In 2003 ownership of the mining area was transferred to the state for a net sum of 11 million euros (C$16 million). A few hours later the area was owned by Hellas Gold (now an Eldorado subsidiary) who bought it for the exact same price — a deal the European Commission later ruled was in breach of European regulations as the sale price was well below market value.

Stoking the outrage: the transfer to Hellas Gold was largely backed by Traktor, the biggest construction company in Greece, now one of Eldorado’s investors and also construction partner on the mining project.

Allegations of corruption were muttered on corners of Halkidiki streets and when Hellas Gold had their Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report approved by the Greek government, mine opposition was furious they had not been given a chance to weigh in their concerns. Again, it did not help that the EIA was prepared by Hellas Gold themselves

Slowly the protests began, gaining more and more support. In November, 2012, 10,000 people took to the streets in Thessaloniki, the capital of the region, and marched peacefully to halt the Canadian mining venture.

But their voices never carried to Athens where the government was set on kickstarting development in the mineral rich northern region. To do so, they came up with the Fast Track Law in 2010, a program where foreign investors could bypass the nefarious Greek bureaucracy by providing a onetime payment to the ruling government in the cradle of democracy. It was through the very same program Eldorado secured the mining rights in Halkidiki a year later.

Protests turn violent

As it became clear that government would do nothing to halt the development, some formerly peaceful protestors took to arms. Masked activists hurled Molotov cocktails, burning and destroying vehicles and materiel belonging to Eldorado. The company responded by hiring forces to patrol and protect their property but the vandalism never dwindled and has continued to this day.

It has led to several violent clashes with riot police who have been accused of violating human rights in their crackdown on protestors. Tear gas, raised batons and attack dogs are not an unusual sight in the ancient Skouries forest where Eldorado is digging a huge pit at the cost of 180 hectare trees and an aquifer which will be drained to make way for the operation that could produce up to 140,000 ounces of gold each year starting in 2015.

The Canadian presence in Halkidiki has pitted towns against each other and torn families apart — there are some who are more than ready to sign on for one of Eldorado’s 2,000 promised jobs while those who depend on the tourism industry for their income are fearful what impact the mines will have on their livelihood. Unemployment rates in Greece have averaged around 27 per cent since 2012.

The scientific community is in an uproar as well. Polarized professors at the local University of Thessaloniki label each other “pro-mining” or “anti-mining.” The university’s environmental council sent out a scathing criticism of Eldorado’s EIA that was quickly picked up and used by the anti-mining movement. Critics of the reports whispered about the council chair’s alleged connection to Syriza (formally known as the Coalition of the Radical Left), the main opposition party to the government who by large has tapped into the northern mining conflict by allying themselves with the protestors. It’s a popular cause among the party’s supporters — especially the radical segment who are by now seasoned activists after years of brutal clashes with riot police in the streets of Athens.

Parallels to BC?

Greece, even more than British Columbia, is a society desperate for a resource development windfall, its politicians betting their careers on promises of resulting jobs and funding for government programs.

In Greece, as in B.C., mining is hardly a newly intrusive industry. In fact, mining has been going on in Halkidiki since the time of Philip II of Macedon, Alexander the Great’s father. The same metals — gold, silver, copper — were extracted back then.

Halkidiki lies on the Serbo-Macedonian Massif (an ore belt), which is extremely rich on the above mentioned metals, including zinc and lead. Eldorado gold has a total of four mines in the area. One in Stratoni (next to their headquarters), which produces silver-lead-zinc, and three gold mines, Skouries, Olympia and Perama Hill.

If the three gold mines are successfully developed it could turn Greece into the largest gold-producer in Europe by 2016.

So how did the promise of such riches curdle into the political backlash that rocks Greece today? The underlying problem is a lack of trust. A lack of trust in government and a lack of trust in the science behind the environmental assessment. Anti-miners say Eldorado will use cyanide to extract the gold from the ore but Eldorado denies it, as do they deny claims that a toxic cloud will carry poisonous dust from the Skouries mine and all the way up to Thessaloniki — but some protestors remain adamant that this is an unavoidable scenario.

More reasonable are their concerns that the company will not be held accountable in case of spills or leaks. As it stands the Greek government could end up with the bill, and stretched as it is, who can then ensure that in case of a disaster someone will come in and clean up?

As British Columbians, horrified, wait to learn the true extent of the Mount Polley toxic tailing pond disaster and what could have been done to prevent it, political officials, mining executives and scientific experts would do well to heed the lesson presented in Greece. Hanging in the balance is more than the health of local people and aquatic life. A citizenry’s trust in those in charge has been breached. The anger has just begun to spill out and where it might amass, what fragile consensus it might destroy, is not yet clear.

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