Villagers almost anywhere in the world would be celebrating if more than a billion dollars of gold was found under them. But not in Switzerland. It was not a question many villagers will ever have to face – and theirs was an answer that even fewer would probably give.
But when residents of a remote Alpine valley were offered a share of a fortune that would have brought them tens of millions of pounds, they said “No”.
Swiss banks may be bulging with gold ingots, but the inhabitants of a cluster of villages in the Medel Valley have shown themselves less than keen to dig the stuff out of their own mountains.
After months of anguished debate, the villagers voted in a referendum last week to stop a Canadian mining company prospecting for the estimated $1.2 billion worth of gold ore believed to be lie in seams beneath the surrounding snow-capped mountains.It would have been Switzerland’s first gold mine and one of only a handful in Europe but locals ran scared of the prospect of turning their valley into a miniature version of the Klondike.
In doing so they rejected a windfall of around 40 million Swiss francs (£27 million) over the next 10 years – a veritable bonanza for the 450 inhabitants of the picturesque valley.
The debate sowed deep dissent amid the timber-clad homes and quiet streets of the villages dotted along the valley, where people speak Romansch, a language descended from the Latin of the Roman legions who conquered the region 2,000 years ago.
“There was a battle between the two halves of the village, for and against the mine. A lot of people don’t like to talk about it,” said the owner of a delicatessen selling cheeses, cured meats and sausages, who refused to give her name because of the bitterness that has been stoked up.
The referendum result was unambiguous – while 90 people were in favour of allowing gold exploration to go ahead, 180 were implacably opposed.
Many people feared that the valley, with its crystal-clear streams, coniferous forests and timber barns, would have been irrevocably scarred by the mine, from which around five million ton of rock would have been dug.
The area is the epitome of Alpine tranquillity – when The Sunday Telegraph visited Curaglia, the largest single village, it was all but deserted, the quiet broken only by the tinkling of bells around the necks of goats in a wooden pen on the main street.
Eagles soared in the mist swirling around the high peaks which form a dramatic backdrop to the onion-domed parish church.
In winter the pass leading into the valley is frequently closed by avalanches and heavy snowfall.
“The mine would have had a big impact on the valley, there would have been a huge cost to the environment,” said Nicole Venzin, 17, who works in a clothes shop in the town of Chur, 45 miles away, because of a lack of jobs in the valley.
It was not just environmental worries that fuelled the ‘no’ vote. Young men in the villages worried that the 200 miners needed to develop the project might steal their girlfriends. Even the young women were unenthusiastic about the prospect of an influx of newcomers.
“I don’t want a lot of people from another country coming to work here,” said Iris Monn, 25, who works for the valley administration and voted ‘no’. “It’s very peaceful in the valley. But if the mine was allowed there would be a lot of cars, a lot of people.”
Lorena Bundi, 17, who works in a pharmacy, said: “There would have been more children in the school, and it would have been good for the shops, but what about the rivers where we go fishing?”
But Thomas Boehm, 41, who works in the Hotel Vallastscha, which has the only bar and restaurant in the valley, said the mine would have reversed the valley’s long-term demographic decline. Ninety of its inhabitants are over the age of 75 and young people leave as soon as they can because of the lack of work.
There are no ski lifts or chalets and the only tourists who come here are fishermen, cross-country skiers and hunters in search of red deer and chamois.
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