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[Ambassador report] The new Greek environmental bill, Skouries, and a Democracy in distress [Thematic Report]

by Theodore Bechlivanis | 21-05-2020 06:06 Comments 11 Comments recommendations 0 recommendations



On May 5th, 2020, the Greek government passed a controversial environmental bill that sparked unrest among citizens and local governance. The bill, entitled “Modernization of Environmental Legislature”, introduced multiple reforms and raised eyebrows over the future of natural asset management. However, one change in particular has established the Mitsotakis administration as its predecessors’ political progeny, and that is the zoning of Natura 2000 areas. 


The phrasing might seem innocuous, but what “zoning” suggests in this context is essentially stripping the Natura 2000 reserves of their protection status in some way or another. To better understand what this means, let’s look into the specifics.


What is Natura 2000?


In 1992, the European Union created Natura 2000, a biodiversity mapping network that identifies key species and habitats across member states. Natural reserves of interest are divided into conservation and protection areas, and their respective assignments play an important role in state-wide environmental governance. With its extensive recognition of natural wealth and influence over its member states’ legal frameworks, Natura 2000 is considered the biggest conservation project globally and serves as the EU’s flagship for environmental stewardship. 


Greece contributes a total of 443 protected areas across its mainland and island complexes. For decades, their Natura 2000 designation has shielded those reserves and the communities surrounding them from mining, deforestation, and quarries, but not completely; mining companies in particular have time and again challenged the inviolable status of Natura 2000 areas, setting up shop in or near protected habitats. 


The new environmental bill heavily dilutes the Natura 2000 designation by introducing a new category these habitats can fall under: “suitable for mining activities”. This includes - but is not limited to - mines, quarries, and hydrocarbon extraction zones. Although the effects of mining on the environment and human health make this reform outrageous in itself, it is, unfortunately, the product of a decades-long legislative war between mining companies, greek rural communities, and the government.


Skouries: history repeating itself


Skouries is perhaps the most stellar example of Greece’s struggle against mining companies. With a ground supposedly rich in high-grade gold-copper, the area was highly sought-after by international mining companies since the early 1990s. It was ultimately acquired in 2013 by Hellas Gold, a subsidiary of the Canadian firm Eldorado Gold, after a questionable ruling by the Greek Council of State. 


In the roughly twenty-five years since it first attracted foreign interest, Skouries locals have been at constant odds with Hellas Gold and local authorities, with several protests, blockades, and even armed conflicts that constituted one of the best-remembered environmental controversies in the country. Interestingly, Skouries belongs to the “KAZ” complex of protected areas, which means that the current administration’s bill will only make the company’s access to the vicinity easier.


Hellas Gold representatives marketed the mining business as an opportunity to provide locals with some 4,000-5,000 job openings; the locals protested that this was a paltry recompense for the health hazards and environmental destruction the Skouries mine would cause. Their concerns were well-founded: studies by the Technical Chamber of Greece (TCG) concluded that not only would the consequences of operating a mine in the area be immense but also that the technical reviews Hellas Gold submitted were both lacking in data and methodologically unsound.


Nature and communities in peril


With all that being said, it’s difficult to follow the Skouries conversation without a basic understanding of what gold mining does to the environment. Fortunately, the Technical Chamber of Greece made its - highly condemning - study available online, but for the purpose of this article, we will stick to the essentials.


First of all: is the technology reliable?


In its original technical review, Hellas Gold failed to describe many of the operational aspects that will prove crucial to the conservation of Skouries’ natural resources. This ranges from the absence of emission control and ore purification processes to even using outdated explosives in the extraction process. 


The unreliability of the technology in question is deeply worrisome; it’s evident that the Skouries mines are an engineering rush job with exorbitant maintenance costs and the potential to compromise the area’s ecosystem, as well as the health of nearby communities and the mineworkers themselves. 


Will operating the mine lead to water pollution?


Water pollution is one of the primary reasons mining is unsustainable in the first place. The Technical Chamber estimated that operating the Skouries mine will produce sulfuric acid runoff, which will join the water cycle and potentially lead to acid rain, as well as the endangerment of local aquatic life.


But that’s not all; Skouries has a substrate so rich in arsenic and cadmium that it far exceeds the risk threshold. Both the extraction method and the contents of the ore are bound to create additional heavy metal runoff that will end up accumulating in the area’s food chain. This can affect the nearby population in multiple ways, including reduced growth, permanent brain damage, and cancer, with children being the most vulnerable due to the higher intake of polluted water relative to their body mass. 


What about air pollution?


The presence of arsenic in the ore will greatly diminish the air quality of Skouries, and measurements show that its concentration in nearby residential areas has already surpassed the threshold by two orders of magnitude. At the same time, operating the mine produces roughly 430 tonnes of PM10 (particulate matter) per year, which is comparable to the yearly pollution of a moderately big electric plant. The TCG is confident that Hellas Gold will regularly exceed the daily limit of 50 μg per cubic meter due to the absence of emission control, while both pollutants are expected to spread to the wider area via weather phenomena. 


How will the Skouries mine affect the area’s landscape?


Perhaps the most dramatic effect of Hellas Gold’s presence will be on the region’s waterways: for the purposes of making the Skouries mine operational, the company will have to “completely drain the mountain of its water”. The Technical Chamber warns that once the necessary interventions have been completed, the “KAZ” complex might find its springs drained and its streams interrupted; this will disrupt the circulation of nutrients, increase the likelihood of cave-ins, and negatively impact the water availability in an area that’s already decisively water poor.


Skouries’ history of fighting against the mining industry tells many stories; the constant jeopardization of protected areas is one of them. The new environmental bill is the latest addition to a long list of measures, reforms, and legal controversies that progressively stripped natural reserves of their conservation status. Granted, mining companies are always one environmental violation ahead, so why aren’t fines enough to discourage them?


Making a profit out of fines


A common policy among polluters is to simply pay the fine. It’s economics 101: as long as the profits far exceed the sum owed, or the payment can be delayed or minimized through copious legal battles, fines can be part of a cost-effective business model. This is why fiscal and environmental responsibility don’t necessarily overlap. It’s not just corporations that are guilty of this; every year, the European Court of Justice opens multiple cases against member states that fail to fall in line with EU policy. 


Curiously, the European Union has yet to respond to the modernization bill, even though it has attracted attention from international NGOs like Greenpeace and WWF. In the two weeks since the bill was ratified, the Commission has issued multiple warnings to Greece for its sustainability failures, none of which seem to concern the endangerment of protected areas (ironically, May 21st is the EU-wide Natura 2000 Day). There is a final line of defense, however; European authorities might not have taken action, but locals have.


Protests are perennial in Greece. Be it the burgeoning financial crisis, the dismal state of public services, or government corruption, there is ample reason for dissent, and demonstrations are a common sight. It comes as no surprise that the new bill wasn’t taken lightly: despite the continuing coronavirus pandemic, environmentalists and concerned citizens showed up to nationwide marches and flooded social networks with posts in protest of the unprecedented reforms, starting a long-overdue discussion on Greek environmental affairs. 


Challenging democratic values


It’s safe to say that the modernization bill has redefined environmental politics. Unfortunately, it also set a strong precedent for how democratic the decision-making process is going to be in the future. For instance, sustainability and transparency go hand in hand, but this wasn’t the case here: out of a total of 130 articles, only 66 were originally released for public consultation. 


However, the most significant reform - from a democratic perspective, at least - was Article 110, which allowed contractors to operate hydrocarbon extraction installations on municipal property without having to obtain consent from the local authorities. Although the article was modified to limit these activities to three months, it still serves as a removal of political power from rural communities and its re-centralization to the state government. Some may argue that local officials lack the required know-how, but if that is the case, wouldn’t establishing expert positions within rural municipalities be a more democratic solution?


It’s been established that the omnipresence of the COVID-19 pandemic allowed many governments to proceed with dubious environmental policies. In Brazil, the virus drew our attention away from the accelerated deforestation of the Amazon; in the US, fossil fuel giants received millions of dollars under the pretense of small business aid; and in Greece, the government opened up the gates of endangered habitats for mining companies and undermined rural authorities’ ability to intervene, marking a pivotal moment in the country’s history of sustainable leadership. But even though the advent of the coronavirus overshadowed environmental coverage and prevented big-scale demonstrations, people still voiced their protests. This raises a question we should have addressed far earlier into the pandemic: are these consecutive environmental injustices our cue for reconsidering the flow of information during a crisis, or are they the telltale signs of a democracy in distress?

11 Comments

Theodore  Bechlivanis

Theodore  Bechlivanis

  • Theodore Bechlivanis says :
    Hello, Taehyun and Sang Su! I appreciate your feedback and your concern. Fortunately, locals are making a stand even though the coronavirus situation is making community organizing difficult to say the least.
    Posted 27-05-2020 03:48

Sang Su Mentor

  • Sang Su Mentor says :
    Hi Theodore Bechlivanis, this is a mentor Sang Su Lee.

    Thank you for introducing how Greece is facing the challenge of environmental threat by mining company. I was so sad to read that simply paying fine would cause no harm to the big company. The purpose of fine is to prohibit the action, but the fine less than the profit that the company would make only provides an excuse for this company to continuously pollute the environment.

    Green Cheers!
    Posted 26-05-2020 22:52

Taehyun Mentor

  • Taehyun Mentor says :
    Hello Theodore Bechlivanis, this is mentor Taehyun!

    Thank you for your article on Greece's current environmental problems! I'm really sorry that there's a policy going in the opposite direction of the environment when people can't protest against the environment because of the Corona virus. A mine in an ecological diversity conservation zone. It's a pity that the policy seems to be a retrogressive idea of the times, even if we come up with more policies that think about the environment, such as global warming, will not ease the tendency to deteriorate. Let's hope many citizens will continue to voice their opinions about this and resolve it smoothly!

    Thank you for the report!

    Green cheers!
    Posted 26-05-2020 02:53

Kushal Naharki

  • Kushal Naharki says :
    Hello Theodore!

    I do hope that you are fine and doing great with your works.
    Thank you for your report about The new Greek environmental bill, Skouries, and a Democracy in distress

    Green Cheers from Nepal :)
    Keep writing great reports.
    We are eager to read more reports from you.

    Regards,
    Kushal Naharki

    Posted 24-05-2020 22:10

Theodore  Bechlivanis

Asmita Gaire

  • Asmita Gaire says :
    Greetings Theodore
    I hope you are doing well
    Very detailed report.
    Happy Natura 2000 day, to you too
    Thank you so much for this report
    Keep writing
    Green cheers
    Regards
    Asmita Gaire
    Posted 22-05-2020 13:57

Theodore  Bechlivanis

  • Theodore Bechlivanis says :
    Thank you, Sonika and Alok! I'm glad you enjoyed the article.
    Posted 21-05-2020 23:11

Sonika Pariyar

  • Sonika Pariyar says :
    Hello Theodore!

    I hope you are fine and doing great!

    Happy Nature 2000 Day!

    Thanks for sharing!

    GREEN CHEERS FROM NEPAL!

    Regards,
    Sonika


    Posted 21-05-2020 22:13

ALOK DHAKAL

  • ALOK DHAKAL says :
    Thanks for sharing!
    Posted 21-05-2020 20:43

Theodore  Bechlivanis

  • Theodore Bechlivanis says :
    Happy Natura 2000 Day, everyone! I took this opportunity to write about one of the many recurring environmental injustices in Greece, and tried to cover as many aspects of the Skouries story as I could. I know a lot of you are facing similar issues in your countries, so I hope you can reach out with your own experiences!
    Posted 21-05-2020 06:15

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