Halkidiki: where neither numbers nor people thrive

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“Come and invest in Greece! Don’t worry about those rebellious local communities; we will safeguard your investments, all in the name of development!”

Originally published at Roarmag.org

Photo: Protesters and residents from a holiday resort in Northern Greece march against plans by a Canadian company to build a gold mine in the area, in Athens, on Tuesday, March 12, 2013. The protest against the venture in the Halkidiki peninsula follows clashes with police last week between residents and riot police near the site of the proposed mine. The banner reads ”No to gold and disaster. Cops out from Halkidiki.”

There’s a book by Francesco Guccini and Loriano Macchiavelli in which a “spirit” comes down from the Apennine mountains to sabotage the Bologna-Florence railway. Nobody knew who it was and it became kind of a legend among the workers, because the sabotage was a revenge for an explosion in a tunnel that cost the lives of many of their co-workers.

There’s another similar story that Ivo Andric narrates in his “Bridge on the Drina”: the Bosnian peasants are obliged by the Ottoman central authority to take up forced labor in order for a bridge to be constructed over the river. At some point the peasants rebel and, under the leadership of a certain Radislav from Uniste, decide to sabotage the construction. So at nights, they go and destroy what is built during the day, or make the equipment “disappear” — into the river of course. They spread the rumor that the vilas (fairies) of the water just don’t want the bridge to be built.

That’s what last month’s events in Halkidiki in Northern Greece reminded me of…

On the night of the 16th of February, a group of around 40 people who are against the construction of the Eldorado Gold’s gold mine in their area, attacked the Company’s (yes, in Greece I think we should start talking in such terms these days) working site in the Skouries forest. Armed with shotguns and their faces covered with pasamontañas, they set the Company’s equipment and cars on fire while allegedly holding hostage the two security guards, dousing them with petrol and threatening to set them on fire if they reacted. After that, the masked saboteurs disappeared as rapidly as they had appeared.

Or, at least, that’s the story the mainstream media of Greece reproduced, because according to the local media, the claims of the hostage-situation and the petrol dousing were never confirmed — neither were they mentioned in the announcements of the company or the Minister of Public Order.

In any case, the Greek government set off on an unprecedented witch-hunt to locate the “saboteurs” (“terrorists”, according to the government), including arresting a bunch of 15-year old kids from their high school to be taken for interrogation in the police station, forcefully taking DNA samples from such “suspects”.

A couple of days ago, this state-terrorizing campaign reached its peak with an invasion of the riot police in the town of Ierissos. There, the police started invading houses and looking for “evidence”, while the inhabitants of Ierissos of course reacted by creating barricades and trying to force the police out. The riot police, however, did not hesitate to throw smoke bombs and chemicals inside the town, including the school, inside which a student was injured and several others experienced difficulties breathing.

Of course, this government “crusade” in Halkidiki is not about capturing the “terrorists” per se, or even about bringing justice. It goes beyond that. This is a showdown on behalf of the central authority that it will not tolerate any kind of resistance to what the government considers “development”. Even when this type of “development” goes absolutely against the will of the local communities it is supposed to benefit.

After all, the Prime Minister of Greece, Antonis Samaras, and his Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras keep repeating in their public appearances that “development” is what will take Greece out of its economic impasse (“As an economist I believe that this [development] is the cure for Greece”, Samaras said in a meeting with Angela Merkel). But what does Samaras’ “development” look like?

It is well known in development studies that an economistic, centally-planned, income-based developmental approach that doesn’t take into account the local needs and communities, at times leads to a situation in which “the numbers thrive but the people suffer”. Well, in Samaras’ development, neither the numbers nor the people thrive. They both suffer, as it is now obvious to the IMF even, after 6 years of recession worsened by the Troika’s — and the Government’s — measures.

Yet the case of Halkidiki is even more interesting and characteristic of the role of the state in the era of neoliberalism: a state that is willing to sell its assets even below market price, to have its police act as “private army” of the buyers, without absolutely any benefit for the national economy, just to pledge loyalty to the — invisible? — God of the Market.

But let me briefly introduce you to the case of the gold mine in Halkidiki, so you can draw your own conclusions.

In Halkidiki, and especially in the area of Kassandra mines, it has been known since ancient times that there’s gold and copper. In 1996, the Canadian company TVXS submitted a plan to mine the gold and copper, yet the citizens of the area reacted, took the case to court on the basis that a huge-scale mining process would heavily affect the forest and the surrounding areas of enormous environmental beauty, and they won the case.

The court at the time decided that the protection of the environment was beyond any capital profit. The company went bankrupt, of course did not remunerate its workers, who on their behalf started long hunger strikes pressuring the government to do something for them. In the area, mining activity is the largest single-sector source of employment.

The government, in 2003, came up with the solution: it would sell the right of mining the Forest of Skouries and its two preexisting mines as well as the nearby areas (covering an area of 317.000 square meters in total) to a company that was created just three days before the deal, Hellas Gold. And it would do so for only 11 million euros (it is estimated that in the area there is gold worth 6 billion euros and copper worth the same — the mines are worth 12 billion euros in total).

Hellas Gold itself was created with an initial capital of 60.000 euros (!), which was invested by Bobolas’ AKTOR (35%) and the Canadian Eldorado Gold (30%). Yet, three days later the Greek state buys the mines from TVXS for 11 million euros, and on the same day, without any open competition process, sells it to Hellas Gold for the same amount of money. Of course, the money the Greek state received went for the remunerations of the workers of TVXS, therefore the Greek state took the responsibility to pay the money a foreign company was owning to its workers.

Today, 95% of the investment belongs to Eldorado Gold and 5% to AKTOR (Bobolas, who is the owner of AKTOR is also the owner of several media outlets in Greece, including a TV channel, newspapers, etc.).

In 2008, the European Commission (not the Greek judicial system) questioned the transaction and fined the Greek state for having sold the mines below their legitimate market price, as well as for having subsidized Hellas Gold with an estimated sum of 15.3 million euros for avoiding transfer taxes and expenses of the lawyers involved in the transaction and the workers of TVXS. The European Commission demanded that this sum should be returned to the Greek state.

Yet, the Minister of Environment at the time, Giorgos Papakonstantinou (the same man involved in the Lagarde list scandal), appealed to the decision, asking for the private company not to pay the money back to the Greek state (!). Now pay attention:

The Greek Minister of the Environment appeals to a decision of the European Commission that forces a private company to pay 15.3 million to the Greek State. At the same time, only 25 days after taking office he also approves the Environmental Impact Assessment the company needed in order to start construction works. “The country cannot do without the inflow of foreign investments”, Papakonstantinou said when asked in an excellent documentary by Exandas.

Yet the investment is not only going to damage irreversibly the environment of the area (according to a scientific research produced by a group of nine professors from Aristoteleion University of Thessaloniki, the water and soil will be heavily poisoned while the flora, fauna, and agriculture will suffer irreversible damage and the area as such will become a heavy industry zone), but also comes into land conflict with other livelihood activities that take place in the area (farming, fishing, bee breeding etc.), which will have to stop since their vital space will be used up for mining.

And above all, thanks to the Greek Mining Code that was drawn up and has remained unaltered since the times of the dictatorship of the generals who voted it, the Greek state will receive no royalties from the corporate exploitation of the gold and copper mines whatsoever. All the benefit will go straight to the company, tax-free.

The only “benefit” the Greek State will “gain”, are the around 5.000 jobs (according to the company and the Greek state) that will be created in these times of crisis (crisis for some, opportunity for others). Of course, these 5.000 jobs will last for as long as the mining activity itself is expected to last: a period of 27 years.

The Greek government is stubbornly protecting the Canadian company’s investment, even by invading the town of Ierissos and terrorizing the inhabitants, having decided to sacrifice the mountains, rivers, and coasts of Halkidiki, in return for 5.000 jobs for 27 years. And then what, you may wonder. Well… in Samaras’ economistic view of development, that question does not seem to matter. He will probably not be in the political business by that time anymore anyway.

The Greek government’s stance in the case of the Halkidiki mines, as well as in the case of the nine-month steelworkers’ strike that it broke, is characteristic of the role it chooses to play under the pretext of the financial crisis: the role of the protector of the investors, even against the local communities’ or the workers’ will. And it is sending a message: “Come and invest in Greece. It does not matter what the local communities think, we will protect and impose your investment, in the name of ‘development.”

Indeed, the Greek state insists, “we will even lend you our police if required.” So far we have seen this film in Halkidiki and Aspropyrgos, and we may very well see in in Crete — for example — in the near future, where the inhabitants oppose the massive installation of industrial scale Renewable Energy Sources projects (iRES) on the island. Or in Italy, Portugal, Spain, Ireland — who knows? This type of neoliberal development may soon come “to a cinema near you”.

P.S. On the same day that the government sent the police to invade Ierissos, a Golden Dawn spokesperson was going to trial for a neo-Nazi attack that took place a couple of years ago against a university student, after which the assailants left with his car as it was recognized by an eyewitness who noted down the plate number.

Ilias Kasidiaris (you may remember him, he is the one who attacked and punched a woman MP of the Communist Party on live coverage a year ago), even though he could not provide any evidence of himself (and his car) being in a different place at that time (a hospital, he claimed), in a court room full of Golden Dawn members, was acquitted of charges. “Due to doubts”, said the prosecutor.

P.S. #2 “Justice is just another whore in our little black book, and believe us, it’s not the most expensive one”, writesSubcomandante Marcos for those “above”…

One response to “Halkidiki: where neither numbers nor people thrive

  1. Thank you for an informative and well written article.

    It’s important to note the following points:
    Firstly the lack of concern for the local community by the Greek government is widespread and typical of a weak government that does not have the mandate of the people. This is a government that will never govern again. EC institutional jobs beckon the most senior and a life of obscurity awaits the rest. There are no votes to be won in Halkidiki so the police are given free reign to violate human rights and break the protest by any means.

    Secondly, bearing in mind the astronomical value of the asset, other than the 5,000 proposed jobs (and there are no guarantees for locals) the lack of benefit to the Greek state coupled with the suspect sale price suggest corruption at a ministerial level (don’t laugh, it is possible) and should be investigated by The EC immediately.
    .
    Thirdly from an environmental point of view Halkidiki (known as the secret garden of Greece) has more blue flag beaches than any other area in Europe. The environmental strain on the water table and the coastline alone could be disastrous for the entire region. Also as one of the main tourist areas of Greece, Halkidiki is slowly introducing eco-tourism. It can not afford to industrialise the entire Skouries Forrest area, close it down to tourism and blight the prospects of the communities from Olympiada to Nea Roda where much more than 5,000 jobs are at stake
    .
    Images like this ( http://pbs.twimg.com/media/BHfohuTCQAAOi8d.jpg ) do nothing for the environment and images like this ( https://twitter.com/adiasistos/status/323452397273886720/photo/1 ) do nothing for tourism.

    The whole Skouries Gold debacle however highlights the community solidarity of Halkidiki. People who never questioned their Government before are now marching with the protesters. Everyone you speak to in Halkidiki is against the project. It has no benefit to the region or state and should be opposed.

    International solidarity is needed. More information on twitter via #skouries

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