Residents of the Kaz Mountains (pictured) in Turkey are worried about the impact of gold mining. Photo: B@ni / Creative Commons.
With few legal or political avenues open to fight what they say is illegal and environmentally damaging mining, four Mongolian activists took drastic action earlier this fall: They opened fire with hunting rifles on gold-mining equipment owned by two foreign firms, China's Puraam and Canada's Centerra Gold.
"We targeted these companies because they are mining illegally in a historically important place and right next to the headwaters of two crucial rivers in a healthy forest region in defiance of existing laws. They need to be shut down," Tsetsegee Munkhbayar, a former herder turned conservationist and recipient of a 2007 Goldman Environmental Prize, told EurasiaNet.org.
Mining-Related Confrontations On The Rise
While not condoning the attack, it's not hard to see why Munkhbayar and the other activists felt driven to it. Investors are rushing to grab a piece of the estimated $1.3 trillion of untapped mineral assets in the country, which they've dubbed "Minegolia," and the government appears unable or unwilling to enforce laws to protect Mongolia's water resources from mining. The frustration seems to be growing. According to EurasiaNet, there have been at least six mining-related confrontations and one death this year alone.
"This will increase and escalate, if there is no mechanism for participation and no mechanism to resolve conflict," said Rena Guenduez, a senior mining adviser at the USAID-sponsored Economic Policy Reform and Competitiveness Project.
Gold Mines Threatening Western Turkey
Though the issue hasn't yet reached the same level of tension in Turkey, mining disputes seem poised to join dams and nuclear power as major environmental battlegrounds. Three years ago, protesters in northwestern Turkey managed to halt toxic gold-mining operations in the Kaz Mountains, a sensitive alpine environment, but now the digging work has begun again.
"This process brings an end to vegetable and fruit farming and stock-breeding. The cyanide [used to extract the gold] mixes with the atmosphere and comes back to the soil in the rain," Bayramiç District Mayor İsmail Sakin Tuncer told the Turkish newspaper Radikal last month.
According to the paper, the Turkish government "recently amended the Mining Law, effectively giving prospectors permission to search for prospective mine sites closer to water basins, wildlife, and restricted areas than was allowed in the past."
The mining company in charge of the operation, Canada's Teck Mining, claims they are not using cyanide, though the toxic chemical is not required during the current exploratory stage, as it is used to extract gold after it is found.
Olive Harvests At Risk
Local residents and politicians say the continuation of mining operations would damage the area's water resources as well as its tourism and olive-growing industries. The threat is being felt down the country's Aegean coast as well, where pine-nut growers in the Bergama region and olive and olive-oil producers near Ayvalık are also concerned about increased gold mining -- particularly the mining industry's lobbying to lift restrictions on how close they can mine near olive groves.
"The mining sector has an eye on our olive trees. If they succeed, we will not be able to harvest anymore," Rahmi Gençer, head of the Ayvalık Chamber of Commerce, told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review. Local landowners are being pressured to sell their property to mining interests, something the olive producers say is short-sighted.
"Olive trees have been [benefiting] humankind for the past 6,000 years, whereas the average activity of a mine is around 10 years," said Mustafa Tan, head of the National Olive and Olive Oil Council. "And at the end of that 10 years, mines leave behind environmental damage that takes hundreds of years to heal."
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