Ierissos, the small Greek town that won’t give in to gold mining
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In the early hours of Wednesday morning, police conducted a surprise raid on the homes of two men suspected of having carried out an arson attack on a gold mine in northern Greece. The police action caused outrage in the small town of Ierissos, where many residents have been fighting the mine’s expansion. Our Observer tells us that people are fed up with the police’s strong-arm tactics.
Ierissos residents block a road leading into their town. Photo by our Observer Andreas Kakaris.
In the early hours of Wednesday morning, police conducted a surprise raid on the homes of two men suspected of having carried out an arson attack on a gold mine in northern Greece. The police action caused outrage in the small town of Ierissos, where many residents have been fighting against a gold mining operation. Our Observer tells us that people are fed up with the police’s strong-arm tactics.
Though local residents and environmentalists have been fighting the expansion of the Canadian-owned gold mine for years, tensions came to a head in February when dozens of masked intruders threw petrol bombs at the Hellas Gold worksite, damaging equipment and injuring a guard. Since then, the police have been conducting an investigation to catch the culprits.
According to Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias, the two suspects arrested on Wednesday face several charges, including “forming a criminal organisation, attempted murder, and use of explosives.” He also told Skai Radio that the Ierissos residents who protested this raid by setting up roadblocks were acting like the Gauls who fought the mighty Romans in the Asterix comic book series: “We are facing opposition from a section of the local community that wants to impose its own law and operate like a Gaulish village; that’s not possible.”
Anti-mine protesters have held frequent demonstrations in recent months, not just in towns located near the mine but also in Athens and in Greece’s second-largest city, Thessaloniki. The mine’s owners plan to start operating the Hellas Gold site, which features an open-air pit, in 2015. They hold mining licenses for an area covering 317 square kilometres. Protesters are worried that it will cause environmental damage and hurt the local economy more than it will help it.
Protesters outside Polygyros' courthouse. Video courtesy of ThessToday.gr.
"The police acted like they were in a Hollywood movie. To town residents, it seemed like an unnecessary show of force"
Maria Kadoglou is an anti-gold mine activist who lives in Ierissos.
I know the two men who were arrested early on Wednesday. They were against the expansion of the gold mine, but they weren’t particularly vocal. Like many others here, they had been questioned by the police before, and had not resisted in the least. So it shocked everybody here to see the police barge into their houses without knocking, while these men and their families were asleep, as if this was some sort of Hollywood movie. It seemed like an unnecessary show of force meant to intimidate us.
After word of this incident got out, around 4 a.m., many of the town’s residents gathered in the main square. A few angry people went over our town's small police station, which was closed for the night – the police who carried out the raids came from out of town – and broke in. They took some furniture and old computers and set them on fire outside.
Smouldering remains of funiture and computers outside the Ierissos police station Wednesday.
“Residents put up roadblocks to keep the police from coming back”
In the morning, protesters headed to the closest major police station, in Polygyros, where we thought the men were being held. There, we were informed that they had been taken to the courthouse. So we staged a protest outside the courthouse, until we were told they were in fact being held in the central police station of Thessanoliki, and drove there. It really seemed like the authorities were stringing us along.
Meanwhile, in Ierissos, residents put up roadblocks on the two roads going in and out of town, to keep the police from coming back. Those roadblocks are still up, and I believe will stay up at least until the arrested men’s day in court, which is set for Sunday.
We’ve been wary of the police ever since the arson fire at the mine back in February. In the days after this attack, Ierissos was crawling with police. They took dozens and dozens of people in for questioning, and forced most of them to give them DNA samples, even though they hadn’t been formally accused of anything. Then, in mid-March, bus loads of policemen barged into town accompanied by riot police and anti-terror police. They had automatic rifles, and went from house to house searching for suspects. This is a very small town – nothing like this has ever happened here before. So people were angry and started to protest. The police threw copious amounts of tear gas right by a school that was in session!
“Many of Greece’s problems are reflected in our struggle: political corruption, environmental destruction, economic woes…”
We’ve been protesting the mine’s expansion for years, but with this recent police behaviour, the whole of Greece has been paying attention to what’s going here – and we’ve received a lot of sympathy. Many of the country’s problems are reflected in our struggle: political corruption, environmental destruction, economic woes… The mine was given away, basically for free, thanks to Christos Pachtas, a former deputy finance minister who left the government following accusations of corruption [and is now the mayor of a small town near the mining site]. The idea is that the government will profit from taxes, but everyone knows how bad the Greek state is at collecting taxes!
Environmentally, the mine’s expansion would be a disaster. Independent experts have conducted studies that show that it would deplete our mountains’ water supplies. Not to mention that it would implicate destroying part of our ancient Skouries Forest, which is rare and very precious to us. Most people here live off of agriculture and tourism, which we fear could be deeply impacted by environmental damage. [The region is popular with tourists from Russia and the nearby Balkan states]. The mine’s owners talk on and on about how many jobs the mine would create, but they never acknowledge that we’ll lose lots of jobs, too.
Like all Greeks, we are fed up. The government has taken away people’s salaries, their jobs, their pensions. But they can’t take everything. We must keep our land.
Building a roadblock. Photo by our Observer Andreas Kakaris.
Residents guarding a roadblock. Photo by our Observer Andreas Kakaris.
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Gaelle Faure (@gjfaure).