Updated: Jan 17, 2020
By Sarah Yolanda Koss
Halkidiki, a region in Northern Greece, is commonly described as Greece's most precious coastal area. However, the beautiful beaches and turquoise seas have witnessed many protests over the last few decades, some including tear gas and petrol bombs. The trigger for these protests? Mining – a key source of jobs in Halkidiki and many other rural parts of Greece. For decades, in the neighbouring of Oympiadas and Skouries, protest action against air, water and land pollution caused by work in two goldmines owned by Eldorado, a Canadian company, has been rife. Protests reached their peak in 2013 when activists burned down a guardhouse of the mine pit, leading to the prosecution of 500 people. The handling of the situation by the state authorities has been heavily criticized, in light of arguably unneccessary aggressiveness by special forces breaking into houses, interrogation of underaged children in the absence of parents or lawyers, excessive violence against protesters as well as the collection of DNA without suspects‘ consent. Inquiries about these incidents are still underway today.
The Halkidiki seaside community continues to engage in protest action against mining activities conducted by the company Eldorado based on a few key reasons. First, it is argued that continuing mining activities could lead to the release of up to 20 000 tonnes of poisonous arsenic dust into the air. Second, mining activities are leading to the lowering of groundwater levels in the mountain which serves as a vital source of drinking water in Halkidiki. Third, the mines are built on a crevasse, which would in the case of a collapse – due to earthquake or other trigger – lead to the surfacing of tonnes of poisonous mining litter. Pollution is also affecting tourism, the main income source of the region, since mining activities are leading to the destruction of the natural environment that tourists arrive to enjoy. Some initiatives have been founded to target this issue, for example, SOS Halkidiki. This is an assembly of Halkidiki’s population that fights against “the destructive nature of [their] definition of development“ through campaigns and organising demonstrations. The assembly has been successful in gaining media attention regarding the issue, but not in changing or stopping mining activities.
The pro-mining mountainous area
On the other side of the coin, mining constitutes one of the few employment opportunities for the population of the mountainous area of Halkidiki. As such, the past has been riddled with violent clashes between pro-mining and anti-mining campaigns.
The centre of mining support is in Arnea, a picturesque town beneath the mountain Cholomondas, which grew wealthy in the 16th century through silver mining. Today, its streets are lined with newly renovated stone houses in many colours, and firewood is piled up on the wooden balconies and in the gardens. This setting was not always as peaceful, with a history marked by radical protest action involving workers locking themselves in the mines to campaign against mine closures.
In a coffeehouse on the outskirts of the town, a young waitress and aspiring biologist finds herself torn between two sides of the argument: “Because of my occupation, I understand the problems with the environment, but in this area, we do not have any other job possibilities."
George Lamprakisathos, a mayoral candidate in the municipal elections, addresses the two-sided topic in a rather polemic manner. He argues that seahorses, creatures that are sensitive to polluted water, have been found in the sea of Halkidiki, and that pollution can therefore not be so bad. Lamprakisathos owns a company that works with the mines.
There have been multiple instances over the last few decades when it appeared as though mining may be stopped in Halkidiki. In 2002, the Council of State ruled that the natural capital of the region was more important than the expected profit from the exploitation of mineral disposits. Furthermore, there have been many cases of withdrawals of foreign mining investment due to reported bureaucratic, political and environmental issues. Before winning the elections in 2015, Alexis Tsipras, the head of the radical left party Syriza, had addressed protestors in Halkidiki and promised to stop the gold mining in the area. However, the government has not yet followed through with this promise.
Since mining began in Halkidiki, it has been repeatedly argued that private investment in gold mining would provide solutions for Greece's economic decline. However, political reality has taken a different turn. The past has been riddled with financial mishandlings, with the state allegedly selling mines for less than half their worth to foreign companies. There have been reported cases of severe tax avoidance by Eldorado Gold. In September 2018, the company filed for compensation of 750 million Euros in damages from the Greek state for out-of-pocket costs and loss of profits. The economic prosperity promised by the gold mines seems to be a distant fallacy in Greece.
Struggling coal industry
About 190 kilometres to the west of the beautiful beaches of Halkidiki, in the city of Ptolemeida, Greeks are grappling with another mining issue: the coal industry. Together with Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic, Greece provides over one-third of the world's lignite. Furthermore, approximately 75 percent of the country's energy is produced from coal. In recent years, lignite production has been slowing down due to the privatisation of Greece's main energy company, Public Power Cooperation, and the bailout deal, which followed the financial crisis and enlists the country to severe loans from and pay backs to other states of the European Union. Despite this, Ptolemeida in Western Macedonia continues to contribute 30 percent to the state‘s energy production.
The city itself has an innocent impression. Tiny houses, narrow streets, and even the colloquially named “street of sin" derives its title from only some pubs and coffee houses where youth used to hang out in previous decades. However, not more than ten minutes outside of the town, massive chimneys stretch upwards, constantly expelling dark grey smoke into the air. All around them, seemingly never-ending black and brown coloured mines extend in every direction. This is where the bulk of the region's population finds their employment.
Nikos Garoufalidis has been working in the coal factories for 28 years. He is an energetic man in his 50s, well-known around the town. On the way to the interview, he repeatedly greets people and shakes their hands. His energy is most-needed in his place of work. Garoufalidis mostly serves night shifts. Recently, he has been transferred to a new factory, which is severely understaffed and 12-hour-shifts have become usual for him. In those 12 hours, Garoufalidis gets his food delivered, so that he does not have to leave the workplace to eat. “They are waiting for the old factory to close down, then they will send the elderly workers into their pension and transfer the younger ones to the new factory,” is his explanation for the situation. Until then, only temporary workers are employed. But here lies another hoax. Many towns in the area have been replaced for the sake of new coal mines. As Garoufalidis experiences it, mostly former residents of those villages get newly employed as a means of compensation. This means that residents in existing villages with limited other opportunities end up waiting for work as compensation, resulting in a cyclical reinforcement of the mining system.
In the past, coal workers had the highest pension funds in Greece, which they reinvested in buying real estate in the area. This is changing now as employment opportunities and wages are declining, driving many young people to move away from the town. Air pollution is also making the region less desirable. Seven out of ten deaths in Ptolemeida are reportedly related to either cancer or thromboembolic disease and life expectancy has been declining over the years. Garoufallidis shrugs at those statistics: “Very few people here die of natural reasons, but I have gotten over my anxiety. I go biking, I have a little garden for vegetables, I enjoy my life.” He also says that as a coal worker, he could theoretically go into early retirement soon, but that he will keep working due to the economic instability of Greece.
The coal industry in Greece has reportedly begun to conduct activities in a more environmentally conscious manner. However, this appears to arise fromeconomic reasons rather than ecological ones. Carbon emissions are costly and the Greek state does not have money to spare in its crisis position. The role of the European Union has been contradictory regarding the Greek coal. On one hand, the EU is approving new regulations on cutting emissions from burning dirty fuels, but on the other, the EU has provided Greece with 1.75 billion euros to build new coal plants. The World Wildlife Fund has repeatedly criticised the EU for supporting lignite asset Greek divestment procedures that instead tend to attract foreign coal buyers. WWF and Greenpeace argue that this facilitates an EU mandate for “prolonged dependence of Greece’s energy system on lignite”. WWF additionally predicts a 32 per cent increase of air pollution of Ptolmeidas’ area through the construction of new power plants.
Garoufalidis is worried about the next generation, “the state has already destroyed the area – how are my children supposed to find employment?” These concerns are widespread, and employment trends in the neighbouring town of Kozani do not tell a comforting tale.
Working towards new solutions
For decades, jobs and electricity in Kozani have been reliant on the coal mines nearby. After mining declined and due to the collapse of the economy during the financial crisis, youth unemployment rose to 70 per cent. A couple years back, Lefteris Ioannidis was the first green mayor to be elected by Kozani citizens. His government had a goal to shift the lock-in to lignite coal production and create new jobs through economic diversification and renewable energy. To this end, the government has placed strong emphasis on citizen engagement. Popular assemblies have been created for deliberating important political, social and environmental issues. Additionally, the government has been promoting social media as a medium for engaging with its citizens. The head of the governing party can, for instance, be contacted using the hashtag #askthemayor on Twitter. Other steps to directly address employment concerns include the “Kozani Open Innovation Project” initiated in 2017. The project aimed to encourage businesses to generate new strategies for the development or commercialization of products and services; to create an attractive atmosphere for start-ups; and to create space for new aspiring entrepreneurs from neighbouring regions. With regard to shifting energy sources, the green government of Kozani has actively advocating for harnessing the “Just Transition Fund” as an instrument to ensure a fair transition for citizens to a post-lignite era. The fund was established in 2018 as part of the EU Emissions Trading System Directive, after years of negotiations to provide financial support for regions that are dependent on carbon-intensive industries. This fund was meant to enable long-term planning and ease the transformation to cleaner energy.
Ioannidis was not re-elected in the municipal elections in May 2019, despite the many efforts the government made to bring about change. Even so, Ioannidis insisted that the project of diversification “is necessary to be continued in the future, with the intention of a constant mechanism of support of the entrepreneurship of the young people.” However, even during his time in office, unemployment rates did not drop.
Garoufalidis is sceptical of the intentions of the green government of Kozani. To him and his co-workers, it seems like political propaganda for the sake of getting votes. This cynicism seems to stem from a general distrust in politicians and their decisions. Garoufalidis remembers how in the 90s, Greek citizens from the islands and coastal sides of the country were paid off for their electoral votes with employment in the coal factories and mines of Ptolmeida. In the regional elections in May 2019, the issue of mining was on the agenda of every party. Garoufalidis argues: “They all want to privatise the mines, but nobody wants to take up responsibility before the elections.”
Whatever the reality, Greek citizens have been disappointed by politics, institutions and companies too many times regarding issues related to the mining. An environmentally-conscious solution that considers the socio-economic context of Greek citizens is desperately needed. In the past couple of years, a slightly more proactive stance is becoming visible, but this needs to be dramatically upscaled to bring about fundamental, equitable transformation.
Sarah Yolanda Koss is a postgraduate student of Conflict and Crisis Journalism in Greece with a background in Political Science from her hometown, Vienna. Since several years, she works as a freelance journalist for daily newspapers and magazines. In her journalistic writing, it is important to her to put an emphasis on including voices of the often underrepresented, concerned public. She enjoys to discover new topics and inform herself and others about them, might it be a story about protests in Nicaragua, a report about Antisemitism in Greece or coverage about politically active elderly people in Austria.
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