Bulgaria: The Real Cost of Gold

Spurred by the rising worldwide demand for gold, a Canadian mining company, Dundee Precious Metals, and its Bulgarian subsidiary, Balkan Mineral & Mining, have made plans to open a big open-pit gold mine on the hill of Ada Tepe, near the town of Krumovgrad, in southeast Bulgaria. The project has been mired in social and environmental controversy from the beginning, but this year the Bulgarian government provisionally granted the company a go-ahead, overriding the fierce opposition of the community. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Bulgaria, 2011.

Livestock grazing is popular around Krumovgrad. ‘‘The mine will destroy our livelihood,’’ Ahmed Ahmed, a 64-year-old shepherd from the village of Dazhdovnik, said as his flock grazed near the site of the proposed mine. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Bulgaria, 2011.

Semovi Mestan, 42, locking his sheep pen for the night, with the lights of Krumovgrad in the background. Today he has a flock of 130 sheep, though he initially started with just six. “If they open the mine, we’re leaving. We won’t be able to sell the sheep, the meat, nothing.” Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Bulgaria, 2011.

Small-scale tobacco farming has been a traditional occupation, with a high-end variety Bashi-bali used in many of the major cigarette brands. ‘‘We just don’t need the mine,’’ Shukria Mehmed, 60, said, her clothes and hands soiled brown from picking tobacco. ‘‘We already have all that we need.’’ Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Bulgaria, 2011.

Potential pollution of the limited water resources in the area is the principal cause for concern among residents. According to interviews with several farmers, the extensive drilling during exploration has dried up local wells or muddied the water. Danko Zhelev, the exploration manager of Balkan Mineral & Mining and the head geologist of the project, attributes this situation to the hot and exceedingly dry weather of recent years. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Bulgaria, 2011.

The climate, with hot Mediterranean summers and mild winters, is at the root of the quandary facing the region. The Krumovitsa River, which supplies a large portion of the water for drinking and irrigation in Krumovgrad, runs dry in the summer months, exposing its gravel bed. The mining project, which would produce gold concentrate through a process of crushing, grinding and flotation, calls for the use of large quantities of water that could further strain resources. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Bulgaria, 2011.

Much of the Krumovgrad region is in Natura 2000, the network of environmentally sensitive areas protected by the European Union. Of the 191 bird species in Bulgaria, 46 percent are found here, as well as half of the country’s species of reptiles, amphibians and mammals. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Bulgaria, 2011.

Krumovgrad is a town of about 6,000 people, but thousands more live in the villages surrounding Ada Tepe. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Bulgaria, 2011.

Balkan Mineral & Mining has repeatedly assured local residents that there would be no serious adverse effects to their health and the regional environment. And the central government is convinced that the mine would bring much-needed wealth to the area and the country as a whole. But most of the people here remain unconvinced and openly hostile toward any large-scale mining. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Bulgaria 2011.

The company says it can help reverse local unemployment, promising 300 jobs in the construction phase and 230 jobs during the exploitation of the mine. ‘‘There are economic factors that cannot be ignored,’’ said Alex Nestor, the top public affairs official at Dundee Precious Metals and deputy chairman of the Bulgarian Mining Chamber, an industry group. ‘‘A large investment like ours will raise the standard of living in the whole municipality and will turn the wheel. There must be a change of thinking. Otherwise, the region will remain poor. The arguments against us are weak, based on emotion and irrational fears.’’ Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Bulgaria, 2011.

Rami Azis, the mayor of Dazhdovnik, pointing at a notice about the public hearings the mining company held at his village. “What is the point of holding public hearings, if nobody is hearing us?’’ he asked. ‘‘Why should a private company and the government in Sofia decide the fate of the people who live in the Rhodope? Nobody is listening to us, and we’ll be the ones who’ll bear the brunt of all this.’’ Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Bulgaria, 2011.

The ancient Rhodope Mountains of southeastern Bulgaria, on the border with Greece and Turkey, are home to the Bulgarian Turkish minority, which forms about 10 percent of the country’s population. In the late 1980s, Bulgaria undertook a campaign, called the Revival Process, that sought to force all Bulgarian Turks and Pomaks (Bulgarian Muslims) to change their names and erase their cultural identities. Since then, the local population has been distrustful of the government in Sofia, even after the communist regime collapsed. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Bulgaria, 2011.

Nazye Husein, 47, dying the hair of her neighbor Ayshe Mustafa, 25, in the village of Dazhdovnik, next to Ada Tepe. Nazye and Ayshe are dayworkers and barely make ends meet, but they still spurn the job offers of the mining company. “We have our land, we have children, we have a house – where should we go if the mine opens?” asks Nazye. “We’d prefer to grow tobacco, not dig for gold.” Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Bulgaria, 2011.

“The mine will definitely have a negative impact on the honey production in the area and on agriculture more generally,” says Ismail Yakup, 71, a writer and the head of the local beekeeping society, which has 226 members and more than 3,000 beehives. “Even if there’s no pollution, which is difficult to believe, the psychological factor will affect our customers.” Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Bulgaria, 2011.

An annual folk festival at the village of Avren, near Krumovgrad. The Rhodope Mountains are the home of some of the oldest communities and richest folk traditions of the Balkans. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Bulgaria, 2011.

A cow and Ada Tepe in the background at sunset. Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Bulgaria, 2011.

Yusuf Emurla, 70, who escaped from Bulgaria to Turkey during the campaign agasint minorities but comes back to his birthplace next to Ada Tepe every summer, sees the same political recklessness now. ‘‘I grew up here, and every tree is dear to me,’’ he said. ‘‘But I have no idea why the Bulgarian government so easily destroys its own country.’’ Image by Dimiter Kenarov. Bulgaria, 2011.

This slideshow was also published in The Atlantic.

In 2005 when Dundee Precious Metals, a Canadian mining company, announced the discovery of a large gold deposit near the town of Krumovgrad in the Rhodope Mountains of southeast Bulgaria, nobody was surprised. The Rhodopes had once been the home of Thracian tribes, consummate goldsmiths of the Ancient World, who had extracted the metal from the slopes and streams. Dundee's plans, however, were more elaborate and much less romantic: an open-pit gold mine operation, generating millions of tons of waste in the process.

Most of the Krumovgrad community has come out strongly against the project. Though the region is economically depressed, it is traditional industries like agriculture and animal husbandry that provide hope for sustainable development. Residents understand that the gold mine, though it may offer some temporary employment, 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."