This spring's accidents at a Romanian gold mine caused environmental damage that hurt nearby villages, raising a question: Can a small town stop a big, multinational mining company from operating in an environmentally sensitive area if the national government has given the green light? Two Greek villages have shown that small communities can fight international companies -- even when their own country's government doesn't want to. Alexi Papasotiriou reports from Athens.
Athens, 26 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Last year, several Greek ministries, including the Environment Ministry, agreed to give mining permits to two multinational companies, despite local concern that their operations could put the environment at risk.
The French multinational giant Pechiney wanted to start aluminum mining operations in the Greek town of Variani. And the Canadian-based multinational mining company TVX Gold wanted to mine at Olympias not far from the village of Stageira-Akanthos. The two communities took the companies to court in a case that eventually made its way to the Council of State, Greece's highest court. The Council of State revoked the mining permits for Pechiney and, pending a final decision, suspended the permit for TVX Gold.
Angeliki Harokopou is a lawyer who represented both towns in their court cases. She told RFE/RL that, in court, it mattered little that the villages were taking on powerful multinationals. What mattered, Harokopou said, was the legal basis for challenging the permits:
"To start such [mining] activities, a multinational must be given administrative permits. In other words, permits for ground installation and operation must be provided by the authorities. According to the Greek constitution -- more precisely, article four of the 1975 constitution -- all Greeks are equal before the law. The Council of State, which is competent to decide in these cases, deals with a company and a community in the same manner."
Variani is a picturesque little village perched on legendary Mount Parnassos, the site of the ancient oracle at Delphi and home to other Greek historical treasures. Kimon Hadjibiros -- an environmentalist who did an impact study on the possible consequences of mining in Variani -- told our correspondent that the village has great ecological, as well as cultural, value.
For the past 30 years -- without much luck -- Pechiney has been drilling near Variani in search of bauxite ore, the principle source of aluminum. In 1998, a Greek subsidiary of Pechiney -- Delphi Distomon -- started to dig only 400 meters from the village. That triggered alarm among the villagers, who complained they had not been warned in advance. They feared the drilling would damage the environment and interrupt the flow of water from underground springs.
The townspeople took their complaints to the Council of State. Their lawyer, Harokopou, said if companies don't stick to the rules, their permits can be successfully challenged in court.
"The critical issue in this case is whether the permits, the ground installations and the operating permits have been issued legally, and if they are consistent or agree with the constitution and the laws of the state. [The issue is] not whether they will benefit a multinational or a community or a municipality."
A lot was at stake for Pechiney. Most of the bauxite mined by its subsidiary Delphi is processed at a large parent company plant. Delphi officials warned that a drop in mining output could shut down the plant, putting 2,000 employees out of work.
The Council of State nonetheless revoked the permit -- basing its decision, according to Harokopou, on how best to serve the public interest.
"In this case, the public interest is especially important. And the public interest covers not only economic development also environmental protection. In the case of Variani -- or Mount Parnassos -- the court decided that the protection of the environment was more important than the mining works."
The court's decision to revoke the mining permits invoked the rule of sustainable development as spelled out both in the Greek constitution and in the European Union's 1992 Maastricht Treaty. The EU treaty explicitly states that the current generation should satisfy its needs "without endangering the needs of future generations."
In the town of Stageira-Akanthos, residents for years have opposed plans by TVX Gold to build a gold processing plant in the region. The company's plans were met by fierce local opposition in 1996 and 1997. On several occasions, riot police were called in, and there were clashes with local residents. Opposition further stiffened following the cyanide spill at a gold mine in Romania that poisoned waterways and left tons of fish dead.
TVX Gold wants to build a tailings dam in a swamp that the Greek government has requested be included in a EU habitat protection plan. In gold mining, cyanide is mixed together with ore to separate out small quantities of gold. The leftover poisonous waste, called tailings, is stored in a dam or lagoon.
Harokopou said the site for the tailings dam was situated near an earthquake fault line, and that a strong quake could cause the dam to crack. She also said the dam was susceptible to the type of flooding that caused the Romanian disaster.
According to the president of the Greek branch of TVX, Ioannis Drapaniotis, there would be no repeat of the Romanian cyanide disaster because, he said, the Greek operation uses a different processing method. The company also said that its planned involvement would be the largest foreign investment in Greece in recent years, aimed at making Greece the biggest gold-producing country in the EU.
The Council of State issued a temporary halt to operations at Stageira-Akanthos pending its final ruling. The halt order cited the poor environment record of TVX Hellas in the past.
Ancient Stageira near Olympias was the philosopher Aristotle's home town. After Philip of Macedon destroyed the city in 349 B.C., he rebuilt a Hellenistic Stageira, to honor Aristotle, the teacher of Philip's son, Alexander the Great. TVX Hellas wants to build a gold processing factory on the site where archaeologists believe they have found Hellenistic Stageira. That finding strengthened the Council's temporary halt order.
Both cases show that determined local opposition to environmentally harmful development can compete with the power of a giant multinational. And such civic action, Greek activists say, can also serve a greater social purpose. It increases awareness among the public, the government, and the companies themselves of important environmental issues.