The Skouries mine on Halkidiki peninsula — a landscape of pristine
beaches and rolling hills dotted with olive groves — is among the
biggest investments in Greece since it sank into a debt crisis four
But it has set Greece's desperate need for finance to rebuild the
economy against the interests of its vital tourism industry, and
aroused anger on the peninsula — site of the famed Mount Athos
monasteries — over the environmental cost.
Vancouver-based Eldorado Gold Corp took over the project in 2012,
promising to invest $1 billion over the next five years as part of a
plan to mine eventually source up to 30 percent of its global gold
production in Greece. Yet preliminary work on the mine, which is
supposed to open in 2016, has set off months of politicking and
The row has overshadowed what was supposed to be the flagship
project of the government's foreign investment drive. It also
highlights Greeks' ambivalence about attempts by Prime Minister
Antonis Samaras to kindle industrial growth in an economy that has
traditionally relied on tourism and services.
Last year, intruders barged into the mine with hunting rifles, set
equipment on fire and doused security guards with fuel, threatening
to burn them alive.
Local protesters, who say they reject violence and have the backing
of some opposition politicians in parliament, fear the mine will
destroy Halkidiki's tourist riches. Samaras, however, has warned
that foreign investments would be protected at "any cost".
"Rightly or wrongly, God endowed the region with ores, and we must
first decide whether we (Greeks) want to exploit it or not," said
Petros Stratoudakis, CEO of the company developing the mine, Hellas
Eldorado owns 95 percent of Hellas Gold, which also has other mining
projects in Halkidiki, with the rest held by Ellaktor, Greece's
biggest construction company.
Halkidiki has a rich history. The Eastern Orthodox monasteries
nestled in the hills of Mount Athos are an artistic treasure and
UNESCO World Heritage site.
But northern Greece has also long been fertile territory for
explorers. Macedonian King Alexander the Great mined for gold in the
hilly forests to finance his conquests into Asia 2,300 years ago,
according to local authorities.
Eldorado executives say gold mining could become a significant
money-spinner for modern-day Greece, bringing in foreign currency
and helping to diversify an economy that is struggling with 27
"The conditions that exist particularly in northeast Greece are
unique in my mind," Eldorado CEO Paul Wright said in an interview.
"I've been in the industry for 35 years and I've yet to see a
situation where there is such a mineral endowment that is being
recognized — in many cases quantified — but remains unutilized."
Under its five-year plan, Eldorado gives the authorities a minimum 3
million euros ($4 million) a year, laid down in a new royalty
scheme. Local people make up 90 percent of 1,600 workers the company
and its contractors employ now. At its peak, Eldorado says they will
employ over 2,000 workers at their mines in Halkidiki.
The Canadian company has the strong backing of the conservative-led
government of Samaras, who has tried to drum up foreign investment
to inject life into the economy since coming to power in June 2012.
"Growth means investments. Those who drive investments away do not
want growth. When they occupy factories they do not want growth,"
Samaras said last month. "When they try to cancel legitimate
investments and keep fighting against them although they have been
fully approved — as they did at Skouries in Halkidiki — they do not
THICK WITH ANGER
In Halkidiki's seaside village of Ouranoupoli where aquamarine
waters hug a strip of hotels, fish tavernas and little shops selling
wine, olive oil and religious icons, the air hangs thick with anger
against the mine.
"No to gold mining" is scribbled on the walls by the port,
emblazoned on T-shirts worn by waitresses at a beach taverna and
scrawled on the wooden pier where children jump into the crystal
The villagers — who make a living catering to mainly Balkan and
Russian tourists who flock to Halkidiki's sandy beaches — are afraid
the mine will destroy their livelihood by scaring away visitors and
turn the area into an industrial zone.
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"Who will come then here to swim and eat our fish?," asked Chryssa
Likaki, a 52-year-old real estate agent as she sat one evening with
other residents at a waterfront cafe, a short walk from where
tourists take boat rides to see Mount Athos.
She and other residents argue such a "pharaonic project" will drain
the region's water basin and pollute the water supply, send out
3,000 tons of dust per hour into the air and destroy the local
forest. They also say cyanide used in the production process poses a
health risk to the local community.
Company officials counter that there will be no dust cloud, Skouries
needs only 0.09 percent of Halkidiki's forest, the projects have all
the necessary environmental permits, the region will not be drained
dry and that cyanide will be used in a nearby mining plant but not
in the quantities villagers fear.
But in a country where suspicion of authority runs deep, the
villagers say they see no reason to believe the company's promises
or that officials will hold them to it. "Come on, we live in
Greece," laughs Likaki. "We don't trust the state."
In Ierissos, a village where banners proclaim "You can't buy water
with all the gold in the world" and "Extracting gold with blood",
tensions have run so high that an abandoned police station was set
on fire and burned down in April last year.
Michalis Theodorakopoulos, the general manager of the company's
Kassandra Mines that includes the Skouries project, accuses
anti-mining groups of sowing fear among villagers, a situation
exacerbated by local politics and jealousy that pits one village
against the other.
"They have invested in fear, they have invested in lies, in panic,"
he said. "The situation in the area is a microcosm reflecting the
reality in Greece with petty political interests prevailing."
The mine has become a cause celebre among leftists and
anti-austerity activists in Greece, prompting marches and debates in
Athens, an eight-hour drive to the south.
Fans of the PAOK soccer team in the nearby city of Thessaloniki held
up anti-mining banners during games when word spread that Hellas
Gold wanted to become a sponsor.
The main opposition party, Syriza, is among those that oppose the
project. The leftist party, which is against Greece's international
bailout and austerity policies, says the project will destroy more
jobs than it creates and the deal allowing Eldorado to take over the
mine was a "scandal" that fails to benefit the Greek state.
"It's like the Wild West up there. The company's name shows what
kind of conditions underpin this investment," Dimitris Papadimoulis,
a senior Syriza lawmaker, told Reuters. "Police, local authorities
and state power are used to protect private interests to the
detriment of public interest."
Samaras in turn has promised to end "this impunity of some people
who pretend they want (economic) growth but only block every growth
"I travel across Europe and I hear other prime ministers discussing
efforts to attract future investments in their region but we are
doing everything to push investments away," he said. "It's
Some of that embarrassment extends to the rural heartland in
Stratoni that houses Eldorado's local office. There, 38-year-old
mine worker Manolis Manthos says he is content to have a job
year-round that pays 1,150 euros a month net and does not understand
the drama around the project.
"One thing is certain — the situation is out of control," he said.
($1 = 0.7361 euros)
(Editing by Alessandra Galloni and David
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