The birthplace of Aristotle is being laid waste by a vast mining project, opening a rift in a cash-strapped society
This article was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute. Shadowed by security guards who film his every move, Giannis Verginis gazes out over the slope of Mt Kakavos, listening to the whining of chainsaws in the valley below.
“We used to come to this area with my family and children,” says Mr Verginis. “Up until a few months ago it was a beautiful place and we used to have fun. Now the entire area is deforested and if my children were here they would cry seeing this.”
The large-scale clearance on this remote mountain-side in north-eastern Greece is only the preliminary part of a gold mining project green-lighted by the country’s cash-strapped government; a development that will see open-pit mines and several huge tailing dams built within a concession that spans over 31,700 hectares of ancient forest and farmland.
The peninsula of Halkidiki is the birthplace of Aristotle, a timeless landscape where bee hives stand amidst flowering gorse bushes, overlooking the glistening ripples of the Mediterranean sea. But with plans for the mining development firmly under way, the people living on this sleepy headland now find themselves dragged into the harsh economic realities of modern-day Greece, and at the centre of a bitter struggle over the direction the country should take in order to lift itself out of bankruptcy.
Despite harbouring an underground treasure trove of precious metals estimated to be worth as much as €15.5bn (£13.5bn), the Greek government sold the Skouries concession in Halkidiki in 2003 for just €15.3m, in circumstances that remain unexplained.
It is now owned by Hellas Gold, a Greek subsidiary of Eldorado Gold Corporation, a Canadian mining company. Eldorado plans to exploit the gold, copper and silver hidden under the surface. Despite the potential loss of forest and farmland that the mining scheme involves, it has easily gained traction in the depressed economic climate that Greece finds itself in today, as it offers jobs and investment in a rural backwater beset by unemployment and starved of financial assistance.
In Stratoni, a community nestled along the coastline of Halkidiki, elderly men play cards, talk politics and drink ouzo, It is one of the few villages in the area to support the mine, as Zagorakis Nikos, the village president, explains. “We welcome the investor as long as they follow the rules: environmentally-friendly mining, contributing to the local society, reducing the [local] unemployment rate from 40 per cent to zero. It means that our region will recover and there will be work for everyone,” says Mr Nikos.
Further along the coastline, Costas, a local fisherman agrees. He wearily ponders the prospect of the mine as he guts the night’s catch on the quayside in the early morning light. “If they do it properly, then it should be done, because we’re talking about lots of jobs. It’s a matter of life and death. Without development there’s nothing. We can’t all become ecologists. We need food too”
Travel closer to the site of the proposed mine however, and attitudes change. Ioannis Stahoris is a worried man. A successful entrepreneur, his feta cheese factory employs 22 people, buys milk from 103 local farms and exports cheese around the world. But all this could be about to end, he says.
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