Plans for Gold Mine Divide Bulgarians

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.

At the edge of Europe in southeastern Bulgaria, the fields of tobacco have been harvested. Flocks of sheep roam the grassy hills, herded by shepherds and their shaggy dogs. Far off, the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer.

Forty-five years of Communist dictatorship and 20 more of a rush to recreate a market economy have had little effect here, where ethnic Turks and Pomaks form a majority in a community of quiet dignity, a remnant of the Ottoman Empire. The workdays begin at sunrise and end at sundown; poverty is a daily companion, wrapped in the smoke of hand-rolled cigarettes and chatter in Turkish.

But change is coming, and many here think it will not be for the better. 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 near this town, which is close to the Greek border and a four-hour drive southeast of the capital, Sofia.

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.

“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.

His neighbor Shukria Mehmed concurred. “We just don’t need the mine,” she said, her clothes and hands soiled brown from picking tobacco. “We already have all that we need.”

The proposed mining site, atop a prominent hill, Ada Tepe, lies just outside Krumovgrad, a town of about 6,000 people. It is close to more than a dozen other settlements with adjoining agricultural fields and pastures, some no more than a stone’s throw from the area expected to become the open pit.

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.

Unlike other areas in the Rhodope Mountains, which were heavily mined and industrialized under Communism and today bear the scars of environmental destruction, the landscape remains surprisingly pristine.

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.

Small-scale tobacco farming has been a traditional occupation, with a high-end variety used in many of the major cigarette brands. Livestock grazing is also popular, as well as vegetable production, the cultivation of medicinal herbs and beekeeping. There is also a small shoe factory.

Still, the region is far from thriving. The unemployment rate is officially around 13 percent, and tobacco production has sharply declined with the loss of government subsidies. Many families are barely managing to make ends meet.

The company says it can help reverse this predicament, promising 300 jobs in the construction phase and 230 jobs during the exploitation of the mine. In addition, it has pledged to create a municipal fund for infrastructure projects and an investment fund for supporting small and medium-size businesses.

“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,” he added, “based on emotion and irrational fears.”

There is more than emotion, however. 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.

The climate, with hot Mediterranean summers and mild winters, is indeed 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.

And the planned waste facility — where as much as 14.6 million tons of waste rock and 7.2 million tons of tailings would be deposited over the expected nine-year life of the mine — would be about 150 steps from the river.

“Our real treasure is not gold but water,” said Usein Usein, 50, the proprietor of a popular coffee shop in Krumovgrad, where the proposed mine is a constant topic of discussion. “How am I going to look at my grandchildren when I know I’ve poisoned their lives?”

Even the few residents who support the project, hoping that it would provide an economic lift, have reservations.

“I think it would be nice to have a big employer in the region,” said Plakan Mehmed, 38. “On the other hand, I don’t trust that Bulgarian institutions could provide the necessary control.”

Company and government experts at the Environment and Waters Ministry say no heavy metals would be released into the water system. Up to 98 percent of the water from the industrial process would be recycled, though some of the seepage would be discharged directly into the river, after solid particles are clarified.

But Gergana Chilingirova, an ecologist in Krumovgrad, points out that there are high levels of toxic arsenic in the ore. “There is a real danger that the drinking water of the region would be contaminated,” she said.

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.

Talks have been held about building a treatment plant for the water released into the river, but Balkan Mineral & Mining is reserving this only as a backup, in case the water quality deteriorates in the first year of mining.

“The fears that something would happen to the environment are unsubstantiated,” said Asen Turdiev, deputy regional governor and a fervent supporter of the mining development. “A large number of experts have given a green light to the project, so I have no worries.”

The mayor of Krumovgrad, Sebihan Mehmed, is distrustful of such assertions. Despite her interest in attracting outside investments that would improve life in the area, she argues that this project fails the test.

“I have demands not because I’m against the project as such — my father was a miner — but because we don’t want vandalism,” she said. “We don’t want to be robbed of our clean environment and resources. As the project stands, the damages to our region would be much greater than the benefits.”

Mrs. Mehmed, who has just won her third term as mayor with an overwhelming majority, has made detailed plans for creating an alternative economy for her town, based on environmental tourism, bioagriculture and meat processing, all of which she says would generate jobs. Whether that is realistic is hard to say: Her municipality is counting on structural funds from the European Union, and they could provide support for her vision.

All of that effort would be wasted, she said, if the mining project goes ahead.

“Our town is not made to last 10 years,” she said. “The company will finish its business and leave, but what will happen to us afterward? Nobody is telling us.”

After an extensive series of public hearings in September, the High Ecological Expert Council recommended approval of the environmental impact assessment.

The Bulgarian environment and waters minister, Nona Karadzhova, has yet to endorse it — the environmental impact assessment was returned for second approval because of a minor technicality — but its passage is virtually assured.

“What is the point of holding public hearings, if nobody is hearing us?” asked Rami Azis, the mayor of Dazhdovnik. “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.”

Some residents of Krumovgrad even make comparisons between the old Communist government and the current one. In the late 1980s, Bulgaria undertook a campaign, called the Revival Process, that sought to force all Bulgarian Turks and Pomaks to change their names and erase their cultural identities.

Yusuf Emurla, 70, who escaped from Bulgaria to Turkey during the campaign 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.”