Published June 15, 2012
In the square between the mosque and the municipality hall of Zeytinli village, 300 people are singing the Turkish anthem at the top of their voices.
Fear not! For the crimson flag that proudly ripples in the glorious twilight shall never fade, before the last fiery hearth that blazes in my homeland is stamped out.
Some have bowed their heads and shut their eyes tight, while others are looking defiantly ahead, but all of them – men and women and children – are singing, keen to show their love of homeland. When the final notes of the anthem peter out, the crowd erupts in wild applause. The protest against gold mining is ready to begin.
Zeytinli is a small village tucked at the foot of the Kaz Mountains, by the Bay of Edremit on the Aegean coast of Turkey. Even though it is late spring and the fronds of the palm trees in the square glisten under the balmy sun, the peaks of the Kaz, steeply rising out of the sea, are still covered in snow. It was on this mountain, known as Mount Ida in mythology, that Paris declared Aphrodite the most beautiful of all goddesses, snubbing Hera and Athena and earning their eternal wrath. It is here that the Trojan War really began.
The war that the residents of Zeytinli and the nearby villages are fighting today is not any less dramatic. Driven by high gold prices and newly liberalized mining laws, gold mining in Turkey has been growing exponentially – a breaknecking 43 percent in the past year – and the country has now become Europe’s biggest producer, with 24.4 tons or 49 percent of the total European output. Though not all that impressive by global standards, in the next couple years Turkey’s gold mining industry has made plans to expand further, with thousands of new exploration projects already in the pipeline, fast-tracked by the government. By official estimates based on geological modeling predictions, Turkey could contain as much as 6,500 tons of gold, 710 tons of it already proven.
Some of the largest reserves are found in the Biga peninsula of northwestern Turkey, home of the Kaz Mountains and the ancient city of Troy, and that’s where many of the gold mining companies have decided to make a landing. The proverbial riches of Troy might have been plundered thousands of years ago, but there is still plenty more lying underground.
The opposition has been fierce. Villagers, farmers, environmentalists, mountaineers, scientists, hoteliers – almost everyone has climbed up on the ramparts. In the past several years numerous peaceful rallies and demonstrations have been organized all over the Biga peninsula, with 20,000 protesters gathering in 2008 in the local town of Canakkale.
Today, in Zeytinli village, the congregation is much smaller, but as loud as ever. Armed with homemade signs and plenty of frustration, they demand that the government put an immediate stop to the activities of gold mining companies.
No to gold diggers, opportunists, arsonists! We will not surrender our mountains!
No to the big city! We will not be colonized!
The Kaz Mountain is our home. It is not for sale.
The environment also awaits democracy.
The soil of our homeland is sacred and we should not abandon it to fate.
A few of the organizers come out to give short speeches. Standing behind a makeshift dais draped in the Turkish flag and the visage of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of the Turkish Republic, they rail against the plans of mining companies to use toxic cyanide in the leaching of gold. Some of the arguments are environmental, some economic, others purely emotional. “They have money, they have the laws, they have all that,” one of the speakers shouts into the microphone, “but we have hearts and those they can't take away from us.” The crowd roars its approval.
Although there are currently plenty of exploration and exploitation projects all over Turkey, the threat posed by gold mining to the Biga peninsula has become one of the thorniest environmental and social issues in the country, and for good reason. According to calculations done by Telat Koc, a geography professor and the head of the geography department of Cannakkale University, 1,230 sq. km. of the Biga (which totals 8,870 sq. km.) have already been licensed to 15 different companies, both Turkish and international. There are no operational mines in the area yet, but next year the first one, owned by Alamos Gold, is supposed to enter its production stage, and many more are soon to follow. The industry has promised to open local jobs of course and, though some have welcomed the idea, the majority remains skeptical.
“Our economy is based on tourism and agriculture,” says Kamil Saka, a six-time mayor of the neighboring village of Gure and one of the protesters today at Zeytinli. “Gold mining will definitely affect tourism in the area. Who would want to sunbathe near a dam full of cyanide? Or to use the olive oil from a mining area?”
Many of the arguments against gold mining in the Biga peninsula have focused on the harm it would cause to other lucrative industries in the region, like tourism and olive oil production, in case of underground water contamination with heavy metals or cyanide. The coastal area around the Bay of Edremit, where the southern slopes of the Kaz Mountains dip abruptly into the sea, is one of the prime tourist destinations in the country, as well as a major olive center known as the "Olive Riviera.” The region has about 200 small private factories, producing an estimated 30,000 tons of olive oil each year. In total, about 750,000 people are employed in agriculture in the Biga peninsula.
“Gold mining – any mining – will influence the olive oil business in the area,” says Murad Narin, 52, the owner of a local olive oil factory and also a participant in the protest. “All those cultures, who lived here in the last 15,000 years, contributed something to the region, but today gold mining companies are driving over it like bulldozers."
The other substantial danger comes from potential pollution of the drinking supply of the Biga, especially that of Canakkale. The town’s dam, Atikhisar Baraj, is just a stone's throw from a proposed cyanide-waste depot. In the event of a major earthquake – a real possibility, as the active North Anatolian Fault (which killed nearly 20,000 in the town of Izmit in 1999) runs right across the Biga – the consequences could be disastrous for the entire region.
But it is the vulnerability of the Kaz ecosystems that has caused the biggest concern across the country. A transitional zone between the Euro-Siberian and Mediterranean climates, with 800 types of plants and numerous endemic species, the Kaz Mountains are an object of Turkish national pride, a familiar name to almost every citizen. In 1993 a tiny portion (25 sq. km. of a total of 700 sq. km.) was designated a national park, but the rest – with its rich coniferous and deciduous forests of red and black pine, beech, juniper, chestnut, and hornbeam – remains unprotected against mining pollution and deforestation.
Salih Sonmezisik, 61, the former head of Turkey’s Chamber of Forestry Engineers, who has come all the way from Istanbul, 500 km. away, to attend the protest, is blunt in his assessment: “It's a real crime to mine in the Kaz Mountains. People may have protection against pollution, but not the trees - the trees are defenseless. That’s why I’ve come here. To defend the trees.”