Mountain of Gold Sparks Battles in Greek Recovery Test
A mountain of gold has divided Aristotle’s birthplace in northern Greece.
Violent opposition to Eldorado Gold Corp. (ELD)’s $500 million project to develop the site prompted Mayor Christos Pachtas to flee the county’s seaside capital for his home village in the highlands. In some communities, locals shun each other because of the planned mine. Torched heavy equipment on the mountaintop area cordoned with barbed wire testifies to the dispute.
For Greece’s devastated economy, the fight is more than a conventional standoff between the forces of development and environmental protection. Authorities’ ability to navigate the conflicting demands in the nation’s biggest-ever metals project provides a telling clue to how soon Greece emerges from six years of recession, a pair of bailouts and the biggest sovereign debt restructuring ever.
“This dispute is very significant because it will determine whether Greece can attract foreign investments in the future,” George Tzogopoulos, a research fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy in Athens and the author of a book on media coverage of the Greek debt troubles, said by telephone on April 4. “This is the type of project that the country needs to overcome the economic crisis.”
Since 2008, Greece’s gross domestic product has shrunk by about a fifth and unemployment has soared to a record 27 percent, underscoring the urgency of investments like Vancouver-based Eldorado’s. Overall in Greece, Eldorado plans to invest more than $1 billion.
In the 20,000-person county of Aristoteli, mining opponents say their tourism-based livelihoods would be destroyed by the project. Proponents like Pachtas, backed by the Greek government, say the mine would spur hiring in a district with a 35-percent jobless rate.
“Unemployment will disappear,” Pachtas, 62, said in a March 21 interview in his office in the mountain village of Arnaia. “But you need two to three years for society to be persuaded.”
The mayor retreated to Arnaia a year ago when his antagonists cut power to the county headquarters in Ierissos about 44 kilometers (27 miles) away and smashed and burned his car. “What can you do?” Pachtas said last month. “You’re afraid.”
The village politics and intrigue reflect Greeks’ doubts that their government can put the common good above vested interests. Last year, voters ended the monopoly on power that two mainstream parties had had since World War II and bolstered populist groups opposed to the austerity that Europe is imposing as a condition for 240 billion euros ($312 billion) of aid.
“If we had more trust in the state, we wouldn’t be split” over Eldorado’s plans, Petros Roupis, a 50-year-old resident of the village of Megali Panagia, which straddles the uphill-downhill divide in the Aristoteli county, said on March 24 while seated behind the counter of his sister’s cigarette-and-snack shop. “Now we are all fighting each other.”
The county features mountain villages nestled in forests of oak and beech trees that extend like an undulating carpet to more sprawling development along sandy beaches that would qualify for any tourism ad. One of the hillside villages, Stagira, was the birthplace in 384 BC of the philosopher Aristotle, from whom the county, an hour east of Thessaloniki, takes its name.
Tempers have risen in the past year over the project, located at Skouries, which means rust in Greek and signals the presence of metals mined in antiquity. In February, a group of nighttime attackers set fire to offices and machinery on the site of the planned mine -- causing $1 million of damage -- and in March police who descended on Ierissos to hunt for suspects ended up using tear gas on locals who assembled in protest.
While the mine has received regulatory approval, opponents have sued in court to overturn the authorization. The court has yet to issue a final ruling.
Eldorado plans to mine at Skouries for 27 years, the first six of which will be in an open pit 700 meters in diameter and the remainder underground to a depth of 770 meters. The company intends to build a plant on site to make a concentrate of copper and gold that will be exported to smelters abroad. Separately, 25 percent of the gold will be produced on site and then refined outside Greece.
When the underground phase begins, the open pit is slated to be covered with tailings from the mine and replanted with trees. The rest of the tailings are due to be stored in two nearby waste dams or mixed with cement to refill the mine.
“The risks are too high,” Maria Kadoglou, a 45-year-old unemployed trained physicist who helps lead the anti-mining movement, said in a March 23 interview in a café in Ierissos. “Our state has shown it doesn’t do its job properly. The state tends to favor companies over communities and the environment.”
Ierissos has numerous banners publicizing its residents’ opposition to the project. At the main intersection, one banner says “Canada and Eldorado Go Home.”
Britt Reid, the Canadian general manager of the Skouries project, plans to stay at least three years for mining work he says poses no extraordinary technical challenges.
“This is a pretty typical operation,” Reid, who worked in Chile’s copper industry for 12 years, said on March 22 at the Skouries site. Security guards defend the entrance, barbed wire lines the road inside and a pit still features the charred remains of vehicles targeted in the February attack. “We’re chomping at the bit to get going.”
With Greece battling lingering doubts about whether it can get off life support and stay in the European currency shared by 17 nations, the three-party coalition of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras is seeking simultaneously to persuade investors that the nation rewards business and voters that regulation of industry is being tightened.
“We want to promote all the investments that bring capital to Greece and create new jobs,” Assimakis Papageorgiou, a deputy head of the Greek energy and environment ministry, said in a March 26 interview in Athens. “Environmentally, there has to be complete implementation of the terms of the European Union. And in some cases, we go beyond that.”
Papageorgiou said neither Greece as a whole nor the Aristoteli county in particular faces a choice between tourism, which represents around 17 percent of the nation’s economic output, and minerals mining, which accounts for about 4 percent.
Eldorado acquired the rights to Skouries last year when buying Canada’s European Goldfields Ltd. for $2.4 billion. By that time, after a six-year process, European Goldfields had received the main environmental permit needed from the Greek government to start production at Skouries and to reopen an existing gold, silver, lead and zinc mine in the Aristoteli district called Olympiada.
Together with a planned gold mine called Perama in another part of Greece near the Turkish border, Eldorado says its investments will generate 5,000 jobs -- including 1,600 directly tied to mining -- and provide the Greek state with at least 1.6 billion euros in tax revenue over two decades.
This would be the biggest-ever investment in Greece’s metals industry and among the nation’s largest industrial projects of any kind, according to the Greek energy and environment ministry. It is still evaluating whether to grant a permit to develop the Perama site.
The three locations have total reserves of 8.6 million ounces of gold, of which 3.6 million ounces are at Skouries. Eldorado says Greek operations as a whole will account for 25 percent of its gold output globally and lead to $1 billion a year of exports for Greece. In 2011, Greek exports were worth 52 billion euros, according to the latest EU data.
“We are talking big numbers here,” Eduardo Moura, Eldorado’s vice-president and general manager for Greece, said in a March 26 interview in Athens. He said the company has received 8,500 applications for jobs at the planned Greek operations.
Apostolos Efthimiou, who runs a restaurant in the Aristoteli county’s seaside village of Ouranoupoli, the stopover point for male-only pilgrims to the Orthodox Church’s spiritual home of Mount Athos, isn’t one of the job seekers.
He says the Skouries project would lead to an “environmental disaster” because of the waste. Like other coastal residents in Aristoteli, 48-year-old Efthimiou said that they hadn’t been adequately consulted by local authorities about Eldorado’s plans.
“It’s as if we don’t exist,” Efthimiou said in an interview at one of his tables on March 24 after he spent the whole previous night in a boat fishing for food to serve at his restaurant. “Blood will flow if this continues.”
Down the street, Christos Lleshi, a 33-year-old ethnic Albanian who has lived in Greece for 20 years and works in a café, says the issue has become so sensitive that residents of Ouranoupoli with links to Eldorado no longer socialize in the village and their children face ostracism in school. Married with a child, he is against the Skouries project.
“After five or 10 years, if the mining continues, this area will be black and not green,” Lleshi said while serving coffee and a Greek breakfast pastry known as bougatsa. “It won’t be tourism anymore. It’ll be industrial.”
Back in Megali Panagia, opinions are more mixed. While the village bears a red spray-painted sign on a wall along the main entrance road saying “No to Gold,” it hosted a March 2 rally of thousands in favor of mining.
Christos Zafiroudas, a 46-year-old Eldorado employee who operates underground machinery, says that workers for the company also care about environmental protection and that a mining boom will benefit everyone. Echoing other proponents, he highlighted the potential for a “metal tourism” industry to show off the area’s mining history and activities.
“Personally, I don’t understand the anxiety,” Zafiroudas said on March 24 while sitting in a local café and sporting a shirt with the logo of Eldorado’s local subsidiary. “We are a close community. We don’t want to have this split.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Jonathan Stearns in Arnaia, Greece, at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: James Hertling at email@example.com