From Fathers to Children
“Twelve years ago we were taking along our children to protest; today they are taking their children!” These words of George Daskalov describe best his fellow villagers’ struggle against ore mining near Popintsi—a struggle that has gone on for decades and is passed from father to son.
Popintsi, a village of some 1,900 inhabitants, is situated in a mountainous area in the middle of Bulgaria, part of the EU’s NATURA 2000 biodiversity protection network. The village has been known through the centuries for plentiful agriculture. But today, since April, inhabitants have been resisting a licence issued for the exploration of metals close to their village. They know well that once ore is found, the mining company will automatically gain the right to a “commercial field” and concession, according to Bulgarian law. They are also certain that precious metals will be found. And it won’t be just copper, as the company claims, but gold as well, the locals of Popintsi believe.
Back in the 1980s, detailed studies carried out by the then state-owned company Geological Surveys found out that the land in the region contains low-quality copper and gold. These metals are located in the Kominsko chakarche and Petlovo areas, a part of the Borova Mogila zone. There is not a gold strand but low-concentration gold ore, explained Stoyanka Stavreva, the mayor of Popintsi.
On August 6, 2004, a company called Martern, fully owned by the Canada-registered EurOmax Resources Ltd., obtained a permit to search for mineral resources near the village. Two years later, the company complained that it could not access the site of its supposed research. For three consecutive years, Popintsi’s residents restlessly defended the hill where Martern intended to drill, preventing its staff and equipment from accessing the site.
During the summer of 2006, the situation escalated after an order by the municipal mayor, which had prohibited exploration, was cancelled by the regional court in Pazardzhik. The people of Popintsi then took their protest to the mountain. Men, women and children spent 38 days camping in tents around the site. They stayed there day and night, not allowing the trucks to start drilling. After three years of futile efforts, Martern left the territory, while its owner EurOmax pursued other projects in Bulgaria where it faced less resistance.
Another licence was issued In April 2018 by the Bulgarian Ministry of Environment and Waters (MOEW) and the Ministry of Energy for earth metals exploration in the Borova Mogila area near Popintsi, includbing the Petlovo hill. This time the licence is for Asarel Medet—one of Bulgaria’s own extracting and processing companies, which used to run ore mines and a factory in the same area back in 1964. Its plan is to drill 11 boreholes to investigate 26 sq. km. of land, and each borehole will need some 50 sq. m. This translates into about 528 sq. m. of land in total.
Paradoxically, according to Capital Weekly, in 2006 Asarel’s long-serving Executive Director Lachezar Tsotsorkov backed the claim that the Popintsi site was already well studied and did not need to be explored further. Tsotsorkov passed away in May 2017, almost a year before his company took up the exploration at Popintsi.
The company has hinted that the previous studies may be wrong. “Our expectations are for copper ore, but only high-quality drilling by the most modern technologies will show whether there is any underground resource that implies exploitation opportunities”, the press offices of Asarel Medet explained.
The village has risen again in response. Its mayor alerted her fellow villagers as soon as she received the notification that exploration would begin. On May Day of 2018 the new protest began. Local people blocked a major road linking the municipal centre of Panagyurishte to neighbouring Pazardzhik, with villagers committed to preventing any drilling on the hill.
Stavreva initiated a meeting of the managers of Asarel with the Popintsi community. By the date of the meeting on 16 June, residents had already collected 900 signatures for a petition against exploration. It was then sent to the Municipal Council in Panagyurishte.
It’s not about Asarel or any company, it’s all about clean nature
“It’s not about Asarel. It’s not about any company in particular. It’s all about clean nature”, explained Anna, a young mother of a two-year-old, whose name has been changed upon her request. “We want to live in peace in this area. Whoever comes to drill, we’ll do our best to stop him”, she added.
During the protests in May, the mining company Asarel declared that the exploratory drilling would be environmentally friendly and would be carried out using the latest drilling technologies—no chemicals, only water to control the dust. The company’s management even proposed to position an air-monitoring station in the village to show real-time air quality data to all the residents. Asarel also pointed out that it sought only to explore the area, not open a mine there.
It’s not about the surveys, locals respond. What they are afraid of is what comes after the drilling: an automatically granted concession for mining.
A potential open mine near Popintsi might be 1 km away from her village, Anna fears. She and other villagers are afraid that the ore will be taken out by means of blasting and thus spread tons of dust over the village. Vibrations, thundering noise, and continuous dust will become our everyday life, Stavreva believes.
Locals also fear that the only way to extract such ore is by way of cyanide leaching, which would poison the entire region. There is no other technology to extract gold from the gold ore than cyanide leaching, says Todor Daskalov, a leader of the protest. And the region is well known for it’s intensive agricultural farming.
The air would become unbreathable, says the director of the Popintsi kindergarten Penka Daskalova. “We use wood and coal for heating in winter. There is a lot of smog. The children are often sick. I wonder what would happen if we got an open mine here, a constant source of lots of particulate matter in the air“, she asks.
The waters will be contaminated too, Anna believes. “Here we have a water supply system, but almost all the houses have their own water wells”, she explains. These wells were constructed a long time ago because the area had well-developed agriculture. There were 118 decares of greenhouses, thousands of decares of agricultural fields and a lot of sheep and cattle. Agricultural water wells also existed alongside the local river—Panagyurishtka Luda Yana. The villagers fear that all these wells will be poisoned by the mine.
Another source of concern is that the miners themselves are doomed to a slow and painful death. Silicosis, “the miners’ disease”, usually takes the lives of workers in the mines before they reach retirement age. “Our ancestors were miners, we know what it is all about”, says a local woman who speaks on the condition of anonymity. Local people tell tales of a villager who hung himself because he could barely breathe due to the illness. Another one died from suffocation while waiting at the bus stop.
There is one more reason to fear mining in the area: the people of Popintsi believe there is uranium under the surface of the hill. Opening the land for mining would then mean exposing their village to radioactive materials; and miners would die even more prematurely.
Asarel officially declares it would not use cyanide bleaching technology. “We are the only investor who can afford to extract [minerals] in the region without having to build an enrichment factory, tailing pond and landfill sites. With all the conditionality of the future development of the deposit and the extraction of underground resources, an option will be considered for processing the extracted ore using the capacities and facilities built on the Assarel industrial site”, a company’s statement reads.
But locals are convinced that the by-product from ore flotation will be a semi-liquid paste that will be accumulated in the the open hills and soon start turning into a poisonous dust easily dispersed by the winds.
Defending their livelihood
Near Popintsi there is an organic lavender farm across eight decares of land. It is the pride of the village. If an open mine was established, the farm would be forced to close. At the very least, it would lose its bio-production certification, fears Velka Redjova, an agronomist and the founder of the farm.
Her family handles all the work by hand, without any pesticides and herbicides. They trim the grass between the lavender rows instead of spraying with herbicide. The purple herb is blooming right now, and thousands of bees are buzzing around. Redjova grows the plant for the production of lavender oil. “The managers of the mining company told us that there is a bio-lavender farm right beside a mine on the other side of Panagyurishte. I can not imagine this is possible. The dust form a mine would not only affect the lavender blossoms, it will spill all over the land. And the acidification of the water can make the soil unsuitable for lavender”, Velka says.
What they are afraid of is what comes after the drilling: an automatically granted concession for mining.
Her sister grows pumpkins on the second half of the family’s farm, partially supported by an EU agricultural funding program for biological agriculture. Redjova and her sister are afraid their farm will no longer be eligible for the agricultural program once a mine is opened close to it. They may even be forced to pay back the funding they’ve received.
“People are really concerned about the prospect of earth metals exploration in the area”, says Ivan Kolibanekov, head of one of the two agricultural cooperatives in the area. The cooperative processes some 11,000 decares of agricultural land and is another source of income—and pride—for the people of Popintsi. Grain cereals are primarily grown on this land, such as wheat, barley and rye, but other crops orae sunflower, alfalfa, rapeseed, tomatoes and potatoes. Eight people work alongside Ivan. He has invested his money to purchase tractors, mowers, harvesters and other machinery, money that would be lost were a mine to open. Kolibanekov is worried about the situation. “In case a licence for an open mine is granted, we would probably be forced to cease our work here“, he says.
“There is a growing trend in Europe. People tend to move from the larger cities to smaller villages because of the clean nature, the agriculture, the peaceful way of living“, continues the young entrepreneur. He further worries that opening a mine close to Popintsi will mean many residents will leave.
The pastures in the area of the villages also feed hundreds of sheep, cattle and horses. All around Popintsi there are fenced areas; the meadows are surrounded by electric cattle fences so the cows, horses and sheep will not enter the fields of other landowners.
People in the village are afraid that all these pastures could be poisoned. “Look at that hill. Not a single blade of grass grows on top of the leftovers from the excavation of Petelovo“, the mayor Stavreva says. These “leftovers” were thrown down the hill 30 years ago and are still visible.
“Not a single plant will ever grow here, if we have an open mine beside the village”, an old woman says. As she hears about the possible exploratory drilling, she starts crying. Nenka Tersiyska recently lost both her husband and her daughter over a short period of time. Her husband worked for 44 years at the mines in the region. After retiring in 2013, he died of cancer just three years later. Cancer also took the life of Tersiyska‘s daughter shortly thereafter. “People here do not live more than two to three years after retiring”, she says. Today she works at the cooperative and wants her grandson to live in the village, in clean nature. That’s why she’s determined to fight to the end against the drilling, even if that means she has to stand in front of the drilling trucks again.
Earth metals exploration amidst NATURA 2000
What’s more surprising to the villagers is that the exploration is planned to happen in an area that is a part of the NATURA 2000 network. This designation means the area is a known habitat for several types of invertebrates and a few types of tortoise, bats and fish.
“When the zone was included in the NATURA 2000 biodiversity protection network, we thought our fight for clean land is over, the problem is solved”, says the mayor. That’s why all the villagers were really surprised by the new licence in 2018.
The Ministry of Environment issued a statement that the Borova Mogila area does not fall within the protected areas under Bulgaria’s national law, but confirmed that it has been an EU Natura 2000 site since 2007. Therefore, the overall working project for the exploration of mineral resources, metallic minerals, within the area of Borova Mogila was subject to environmental impact assessment procedures. However, the ministry declared that “the overall working project for the exploration of metallic minerals in the boundaries of the Borova Mogila area is not likely to have a significant negative impact on the natural habitats, populations and habitats of species protected in the BG0001039 “Popintsi” protected area“.
The ministry emphasises that the decision is only for searching and exploring underground natural resources not for the extraction of any minerals found. “The investment intention for the extraction of underground natural resources (if it is proven that any such resources exist as a result of the prospecting and exploration) shall be subject to the procedures under the environmental legislation—the procedures under Chapter Six of the Environmental Protection Act and Art. 31 of the Biodiversity Act“, the ministry stated.
“If the research does not prove the necessary stocks of economic interest, we will fulfil our obligations under the contract, including the recultivation of the places of the geological works”, Asarel declared. Still the company does not detail what technology of extraction it could use in the case that enough copper is found.
The statement from Asarel continued: “The entire investigation procedure until the start of the mining process takes at least ten years. Without a geo-economical assessment, no mining company in the world can answer the question of what [extraction] technology will be used. The dynamics of the technology development in recent years is revolutionary. We can not assume any choice of technology, but in all cases at the rate of development of the sector, it will be the best available in the world practice in terms of safety, environmental and efficiency requirements.“
But the people of Popintsi say that having a mine close to Popintsi will destroy nature in the whole region. And neighbouring settlements will also suffer. For instance, locals fear that any poisoning of the aquifers will affect the neighbouring village of Banya, which is famous for its mineral springs. Many tourists visit Banya just because of its mineral water. But this water will become acidic if a mine is opened, says Georgi Daskalov.
Strelcha, another big village in the region, will also suffer because the exploration territory lies right beside the borders of the village. A lot of people in Strelcha grow roses for the production of rose oil.
And if cyanide leaching is used, people say the pollution of the aquifers could even reach the waters of Maritsa, the biggest river in the valley. This river crosses the border between Bulgaria and Greece and enters the Aegean Sea. It serves as the source of water for hundreds of farms down the valley, where people grow tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberries, rice, etc.
So far, villages around Popintsi have no clear position on the problem with the earth metals exploration. “It’s always the same—unless the problem knocks on our own door, we think it does not affect us“, says Daskalov.
The company declares it will do whatever is needed to offset the environmental costs of its activities in the region. “Asarel-Medet JSC guarantees that it will fulfil all regulatory requirements and provide all necessary means for full technical and biological recultivation of all partially damaged terrains in the geological exploration activities, according to the commitments under the contract with the Ministry of Energy.”
The Mayor’s fight
The warrior woman that she is, the mayor of Popintsi, Stoyanka Stavreva, has no intention of stepping back from the village position. The locals say she vigorously defends them, is quick to give them news on the problem and goes to the protests with them as well. She also often posts in the Facebook group for the initiative focused on saving local nature.
Stavreva has already sent a letter to the national Ombudsman, the President and the Ministry of Energy. And the Ombudsman has already answered saying some form of inquiry has been started and that they have asked the ministry to provide all the documentation related to the exploration license.
Another argument the mayor points out is the local General Development Plan, which was voted on by the municipality in 2016. The plan allows for the area around Popintsi to be dedicated to agriculture, nothing else. The Detailed Development Plan was also approved based on this plan.
Now Stavreva has two more steps in mind. First, she will prepare an official opinion with all of her arguments and send it to the Municipal Council of the Panagyurishte municipality. “We must never forget we are people in elected positions. We have to remember that people have elected us, and we ought to always hear their voice in the first place“, she says.
The mayor of Popintsi is also ready to meet the MOEW in court, if necessary. And if this is not enough, the mayor may also refer the situation to the court of the EU.
Whatever happens, Stavreva says she will continuously defend the position of Popintsi with full force.
The people of Popintsi are waiting for the decision of the Municipal Council of Panagyurishte. The petition with 900 signatures was sent to the Municipal Council in the beginning of May 2018, prior to the Municipal Council session that was set to decide on the start of the exploratory drilling. The mayor of Panagyurishte, Nikola Belishki, withdrew the discussion from the agenda of the Municipal Council session.
The topic will however be discussed soon, and the residents of Popintsi are quietly waiting for this to happen. “It all depends on Panagurishte now”, they say.
The mayor of Panagyurishte refused to meet with BlueLink regarding the topic, and as of the preparation of this article, the municipal press office had not answered questions sent.
“In 1986 there was an experiment here”, Daskalov recalls. “It was about microbiological harvesting of gold by using lactobacteria. Through the boreholes, an acid solution was pumped into the hill. Down inside there was a 900-meter-long mining gallery where the acid had to be collected. It had to be transported up here to the concrete pool. Here in the pool, the lactobacteria was supposed to extract the gold from the acid solution. However, it turned out that only about 40% of the acidic solution was collected. The rest just disappeared. Soon we found that fish in two nearby river dams were dead.”
“It is clear that it is not about research any more. We understand the mining company wants to expand its mine“, says Penka Daskalova, the headmaster of the local kindergarten. She believes the reserves the company owns are decreasing, so it needs new mines.
At the Petlovo hill, while watching the concrete pools, Daskalova and his friend Todor Petkansky say there are 15 million tons of gold ore below their feet.
Neither corruption nor threats can stop the people of Popintsi in their fight.
The mining company Asarel is proud of the renovation of Panagyurishte and especially the renovation of the local hospital there. It is an important part of the company’s CSR program. But locals think the hospital is somehow dedicated to “the victims of their own production”. The people of Popintsi believe that patients do not get out of this hospital alive. “Well, it is an oncology hospital, right? How about opening a gynaecological clinic here, huh? Nay”, says Petkansky, also a resident of Popintsi. It is the same hospital where the husband and daughter of Nenka Terziyska died. “Our people are sick, very sick”, Perkansky says, “and the hospital is full—but it is not because the treatment is that great, it is because too many people are too ill in this region”.
The mining company gives us some gifts, says Daskalova. “For June 1 they send us a party cake, every year… All kindergartens in all the villages of the region receive a cake for the Children Day”, says Daskalova. Asarel also provides Christmas gifts for children in the kindergartens in the region.
“They give us 1000 levs every year for the traditional village festival”, says Stavreva. “1000 levs is not much for a village like ours, the festival costs us at least 3000 to 4000 levs”.
Petkansky says he’s been threatened because of his decisive position against mining in the region. He says he received calls from unknown people with threats. Someone even talked to him about where his children live and work. “I’m not afraid”, he says.
The people of Popintsi say they are not hostages of the big employer in the region, although Asarel provides jobs to more than 1,400 people in the district. There are some 50 to 60 people in Popintsi who work at Asarel. They seem to be afraid that they may lose their job and will not comment on the problem; but the rest are happy they have other jobs.
There is a large medical optics company in the area, tens of textile companies in Panagyurishte and a big towel factory as well. Another large company in the region produces machine equipment. And, of course, a lot of people deal with agriculture or livestock:
Farming is in fact the main form of livelihood in the region, and in recent years more and more people have started growing roses for rose oil or lavender.
Only 5% of the people in Popintsi are jobless—and apparently these are people that simply do not want to work. The village is famous for its hardworking people. “That’s it: only the lazy ones have no job”, locals say.
Providing jobs is not the way a big mining company will make Popintsi give up its fight, Georgi Daskalov says. “Twelve years ago there was terrible unemployment here, more than 60%”, he remembers. “Even so, we did not accept the presence of the Canadian mining company.” The mayor confirms the numbers.
The situation in Panagyurishte is different. A lot of people there are employed at the mining company. Even some of the members of the Municipal Council work at Asarel.
Unity means strength
Whatever happens, the people of Popintsi are united. “We may be quarrelling over local everyday matters, but we are together in the big battle”, says Petkansky. And once again he points out, “We are not against Asarel. We are not against a particular company. We are against the spoiling of our land”. Twelve years ago he was one of the people who stayed at the tent camp, up at the hill. Today his children are helping him write letters to the institutions against the exploration plans.
“We have not inherited the land from our ancestors; we have borrowed it from our children“, Daskalov says. Twelve years ago he was also one of the few people who had a job. “I was coming back from work and going right up there to the tent camp, bringing food and water to my fellow-villagers”, he says. Today his children are making efforts to protect the nature in the region.
“We will drive the drilling trucks back. We will succeed because the whole village is united,“ says Nenka Terziyska. She is ready to stay at a tent camp again—if needed.
Mayor Stavreva also says there will be protests and even tent camps if the drilling machines are allowed to go to Borova Mogila. “We will challenge this decision. It goes against the local community“. She says it is unacceptable that in the 21st century in an EU country that local people are forced to fight for their right to live.
Nedka Terziyska fears that a victory of the locals will be just a temporary success. The corporate interests may leave for a while, but they will surely come back again some day. The next generation will have to defend the land again, she thinks.
“The gold is there. We know it. Today we may say ‘no’, but the gold remains there. We cannot stop the interest in it. Twelve years ago it was Martern; today it is Asarel. Next time it may be another company”, says Daskalova, the head of the kindergarten. “There will always be some big enterprise interested in the gold underground.”
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