Mining in God’s Garden
A beautiful, yet impoverished and depopulated border area of Bulgaria, home of bears, wolves and lynx, faces a difficult dilemma: should it welcome or oppose plans for vast new gold and silver mines.
The mining area will come within 100 metres of the village of Erul, buried in the forests close to the border with Serbia. Currently the village has 18 inhabitants but was crowded in mid-June for the annual subor when generations of people who have left the village return to celebrate their roots.
Outside the tiny monastery on a rare piece of flat ground next to the holy well, old and young were joining hands in traditional dancing. Archimandrite Joseph, the priest in charge, had no doubt that the mine would be bad for the people. “I am against the mine because it will destroy nature. God’s garden should not be destroyed. We hesitate to build our houses bigger because it will damage the ecology but the mining company want to remove the whole hill.”
He was also concerned because the mountains contain uranium and in blasting the rock radioactive dust would drift across the village.
At the well Rumen Angelov was filling several bottles with clear spring water gushing out of the hillside. He explained he was taking it to his home village of Tocharevo because of its medicinal qualities. He used it to bathe his sore eyes. He said: “I would like the mine to happen because the village will profit from it and bring jobs.” When told the mine might destroy the spring that feeds the holy well he said “but that would be very bad.”
The profusion of wild flowers, including many orchids, help to make the area a Natura 2000 site, supposedly giving it special protection under European legislation. This has led the mining company Euromax Services to amend its original plans. Instead of all being opencast quarries three of the proposed mines inside the protected area will be underground. Three outside the Natura 2000 site will still be opencast.
The mining company case is that the mine will provide 500 jobs in the impoverished municipality of Trun in which Erul lies, where by coincidence 500 of the population of 4,000 are unemployed.
The company is part Bulgarian but the holding company Assarel Medet is registered in Malta. It has taken over an empty shop in the town and turned it into a well-furnished information centre, where staff entertain local school children to geology lessons to educate them about the wonders of gold mining.
Elitsa Georgieva, the community relations chief for the company, said the company wanted to take 750,000 tons of ore out of the mountain over 26 years to extract the gold and silver. She dismissed fears of uranium contamination and said the 320 hectare tailings pond would be lined to prevent chemicals contaminating the water supply. In any case the chemicals were not dangerous.
The large quantities of water needed for the mine would constantly be re-cycled but topped up from the River Erma that flows near the site and later downstream through the famous Erma Gorge that attracts thousands of tourists from the capital Sofia 80 kilometres away.
She said the local people were 100 % in favour of the mine because of the jobs it would create and even tourism would improve because of the roads the company would build to transport the ore.
The proposed mine is on a ridge of mountains, which have been exploited since ancient time with Greeks and Romans having extensive mines. The last one in this area closed in the 1970s, but while gold remains at $1,200 an ounce demolishing mountains to reach the ore becomes an economic proposition.
The company is currently paying experts to compile an environmental impact assessment required by law before the government grants a permit to mine. It will not be ready for another six months so the locals and wildlife groups still have a chance to raise objections.
Across the town square at the municipal headquarters there was no one available to answer questions. The Mayor and the his deputy were both said to be on holiday and the District Secretary was out to lunch so no one could talk to journalists. Later in the day the deputy mayor was said by local people to have been seen leaving the building and the district secretary would not come out of her office.
However objectors to the proposal were more forthcoming.
Rumiana Boyanova, aged 34, whose grandparents come from the district and spends week-ends in the area is organising a meeting in the town this week to form a local resistance group. She is wholly opposed to gold mining. “We have the cleanest air in Bulgaria, an untouched wilderness, with many rare and protected species. There are lots of interesting archaeological discoveries, Thracian, Roman and others yet to be properly studied.”
There is a much better alternative to mining in the increasing development of eco-tourism.
She does not believe company promises about recycling the water for the mine and fears the poisoning of drinking water and the rivers.
“There is a much better alternative to mining in the increasing development of eco-tourism.” There is already an established local industry of picking wild herbs and hunting wild game like pigs and deer.
“When the gold digging is finished in 20 years we will be left with a moonscape.”
Jordan Stanilov, who runs a lodge in the forest, says he gets tourists from Germany, England, the United States and Denmark as well as from the Bulgarian capital Sofia. “The tourism is connected to nature. Twenty to 30 people come to stay a week. If there is a mine there will be no nature.
Yes the region is dying but we could revive it. If the mine comes it will kill it for sure.”
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