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“Our real treasure is not gold, but water”

zazemiata_gold

By Dragomira Raeva and Nick Meynen.

The “discovery” of gold by Canadian mining company Dundee Precious Metals (DPM) next to the city of Krumovgrad (Bulgaria) surprised nobody. For centuries gold has been extracted here, in mines long abandoned. The surprise was for DPM, when locals didn’t really welcome the 127 million US $ they want to invest there.

Krumovgrad is a provincial town with a population of 6,000 located in the low-lying hills of the eastern Rhodope Mountains. Mostly ethnic Turks and Bulgarian Muslims live from small-scale tobacco farming, livestock, vegetable and herb production and beekeeping. There is a small shoe factory and some tourism. But with an average salary of 200 euro, many families barely manage to meet their basic needs. So a big investment that would create hundreds of jobs looks like a gift from heaven, until you read the small letters of the contract. Which is exactly what the locals did.

The first plan was to use cyanide and 2.9 billion liters of water per year in an open pit mine that would create 14.6 million tons of waste rock and 7.2 million tons of tailings – all in a water stressed Natura 2000 region counting 46 percent of all Bulgarian bird species as well as half of the country’s reptile, amphibian and mammal species. In the current plan, seven years of struggle by civil society later, the only difference is that the processing with cyanide will be exported to the DPM-owned Tsumeb smelter in Namibia. It became publicly known that Bulgarian copper contains a high concentration of arsenic and sulphuric dioxide, substances that pose serious health hazards, and as a result many workers at the Tsumeb smelter currently suffer from skin rashes, cancer, blindness, and burned faces among other health problems, which the company refuses to recognize. So the only concession made – part from a promise to build a wastewater treatment facility – is to export the most obvious health hazards to Namibia. A clear-cut case of local and global environmental injustice.

The Krumovitsa River, which supplies a large portion of the drinking and irrigation water in Krumovgrad, runs dry in the summer months. Local population and farmers will have to compete with DPM over scarce water resources once the company starts taking up water to be used in the flotation part of the industrial process. Moreover, the Krumovitsa River is part of the Maritza River Basin, which flows through Turkey and Greece and empties into the Aegean Sea, creating potential pollution in other countries. The planned waste facility would be about 150 steps from the river and some seepage is almost unavoidable.

On the financial compensation for all these planned damages, half of the extremely low 2,3% royalty will flow to the Krumovgrad municipality. The recently re-elected Mrs. Mehmed is not convinced that this is a good deal for the city. She detailed plans to create an alternative economy for her town, based on ecotourism, organic farming and meat processing, all of which she says would generate jobs. If the DPM investment project is realised, all the efforts to build the foundations of a sustainable local economy would be wasted. Krumovgrad will be associated with mining, which in Bulgaria has a scarred image of a dirty industry since the communist times. Residents understand that while the gold mine may offer some temporary employment, it threatens to destroy their most precious resources: water and soil. In the words of one of the locals, Our real treasure is not gold, but water.

Currently, the Bulgarian subsidiary of DPM is proceeding with signing a concession contract with the state, and initiating procedures to obtain an Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control (IPPC) permit, aiming to start work on the ground in 2014. But the fight is far from over. The local population and Krumovgrad leaders are considering resorting to civil disobedience by road blockades and demonstrations if their opinions against the mine remain unheard by the state. EJOs in support of the local community are continuing a legal battle in the Bulgarian Administrative Court over the positive decision on the EIA. Media attention has gone from the local to the national level and even into The New York Times. Further action on EU level is planned, through Bulgarian and Greek MEPs. Local EJOs have used every legal tool available to them, with EJOLT partner Za Zemiata even inviting the expert Dr. Robert Moran to critique the EIA during the public hearings in July 2011. Since this summer, the conflict is starting to escalate. When a petition showed that 60 percent of the population does not support the development of gold mining in the region, the Chief State Prosecutor ordered a thorough inspection of the signatures. The police in Krumovgrad enforces the order and has started checking individual signatures by questioning participants. In a region where the memories of the Revival Process[1] are still alive, police intervention is especially traumatic. This may be interpreted as a clear indicator of creating fear among the local population on behalf of the state, discouraging any further active participation in legal civil processes expressing public opinion.

Is there an alternative to open pit gold mining to develop the area? Sure there is! But the underground mining alternative, with great potential for reducing air and noise pollution from blasting activities, is considered too expensive by the company without giving any details in the EIA.  On the other hand, the plan of the re-elected mayor envisions development for the region without mining, focusing rather on a sustainable development path that goes beyond 9 years of extraction leaving near to eternal pollution behind.

More details on this case and on 23 other mining conflicts are in our recently published EJOLT report 7: Mining conflicts around the world: the environmental justice perspective

Other additional information and sources:

1. Pulitzer Centre for Investigative Journalism photo gallery from Krumovgrad and Adatepe: surroundings: http://pulitzercenter.org/reporting/bulgaria-gold-miningtobacco-environment-pollution

2. Pulitzer Centre for Investigative Journalism article on the conflict at Adatepe: http://pulitzercenter.org/reporting/bulgaria-krumovgrad-gold-mining-environment

 3. DPM website: http://www.dundeeprecious.com/

 4. BNT movie “The Gold Mountain” on the conflict at Adatepe:

http://bnt.bg/bg/news/view/75866/ay_v_kadyr_au_14_maj_2012_zlatnata_planina

 5. Krumovgrad Municipal Development Strategy 2007-2013:

http://www.strategy.bg/StrategicDocuments/View.aspx?lang=bg-BG&Id=174

 6. Articles from Namibian newspapers on health and environmental conflicts at the Tsumeb smelter:

http://www.namibian.com.na/index.php?id=28&tx_ttnews[tt_news]=88515&no_cache=1



[1]            The name of the system employed to assimilate the Muslim population (Roma, Turks, Pomaks and Tatars) in the People’s Republic of Bulgaria). The process began in the early 1970s and continued until the late 1980s. Measures to advance this policy included compulsory changing of Arab-Turkish names to Bulgarian, restrictions in use of native language, and forced limitation of traditional customs and rituals, and the confession of faith.

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