MAC: Mines and Communities

Bulgaria: Small-town Women Mayors Lead Opposition to Canadian mine

Published by MAC on 2011-12-05
Source: The Pulitzer Center

For well over five years, citizens of a small town in southeastern Bulgaria have raised alarms about a proposed Canadian gold mine. See: Dundee Precious Metals threatens to pull out of Bulgaria - or not 

Despite delays - and a variation in the mining plan forced upon the company in 2008 - Dundee Precious Metals now looks like receiving the go-ahead for a mine which, critics claim, will contaminate vital waters, destroy pastures, and jeopardise traditional economic enterprises, as well as threatening a wealth of local bird and animal species.

Two women mayors are leading official attempts to halt the project. Although some inhabitants are in favour of the enterprise, believing it will bring employment, the majority seems implacably opposed.

See also: "Bulgaria: The Real Cost of Gold," at

Bulgaria: Small-town Mayor Leads Opposition against Gold Mine

Dimiter Kenarov

The Pulitzer Center

18 November 2011

Ovchari, Bulgaria - The village of Ovchari, next to the town of Krumovgrad, isn't really a village. It's more like a jumble of hamlets-mahalas in Turkish-scattered across several hills, an archipelago of accidental settlements.

Deep gullies, filled with an ocean of trees and bushes and brambles, separate the mahalas of Ovchari, so that to get from one part to another a visitor has to follow a rather sinuous dirt-and-gravel road over the ridges. Only shepherds and cowherds venture to take shortcuts, trekking the secret paths their animals have intuitively discovered. It is both beautiful and forbidding here, houses and plants clinging to the slopes for dear life.

Hill of Ada Tepe, near the town of Krumovgrad, Bulgaria, site of potential mining
Hill of Ada Tepe, near the town of Krumovgrad, Bulgaria,
site of potential mining. Photo: Dimiter Kenarov

I don't know how my Ford Fiesta makes it over the dirt road-dry brush and stones, like coral reefs, scrape against the bottom of the car-but after a few anxious kilometers I finally enter Ovchari, or at least the part of it locals call Emurla mahala. The houses look ancient around here, some built with river-stones perhaps a century ago, but they are not necessarily decrepit or neglected. It is quite obvious that people, although destitute, have put care into their homes, the chipped stucco mended, the broken roof-tiles fixed, the yards bedecked with orderly vegetable patches, flowerbeds, and beehives. Chickens and geese roam freely in the streets, and even the chained dogs bark feebly. It's a place where strangers could feel welcome.

The pastoral beauty is deceiving. Ovchari is, in fact, on the verge of a precipice in more ways than one. The Canadian mining company, Dundee Precious Metals, plans to create an open-pit gold mine on the nearby hill of Ada Tepe-right across the ravine from Ovchari, or less than 500 meters from the nearest house. That ravine was initially slated to be a tailings facility for the cyanide-laced waste from the gold-leaching process, but under intense civil and legal pressure in 2008 the company was forced to abandon the proposed use of cyanide, substituting it with supposedly less harmful froth flotation.

For the people of Ovchari, however, the major problem is not the method of execution of the project - the choice between cyanide and froth-flotation is like the choice between the electric chair and lethal injection. The problem is the open-pit itself, where 14 tons of explosives will be used each week, or 728 tons per year.

"Nobody wants to live a few hundred meters from the mine," Zulbie Ahmed, the mayor of Ovchari, tells me. "Our houses are old and need repair. They may not sustain the vibrations from the explosions, from the daily crushing of the ore. The air will fill up with a lot of dust which we'll breathe, our children will breathe. The only thing we have left here is our clean environment."

Though only 35, Zulbie has been a highly successful mayor for four years now, promoting an anti-mining agenda (she was reelected in October 2011 by more than 94 percent of her constituency). With loose raven hair, large ear hoops, and tight jeans, she is the antipode of most other women of Ovchari, who are dressed in conservative Muslim fashion, wearing shalwar kameez and headscarves. That disparity does not create any conflict however-Ovchari's residents know that only a modern-minded person can make a real stand against a modern mining company, and Zulbie has not disappointed them.

Along with the strong-willed female mayor of Krumovgrad, Sebihan Mehmed, she has traveled to the capital city of Sofia on numerous occasions, confronting the company managers and ministry officials, and consistently voting against the mining development.

Even her Herculean efforts, she complains to me, are not enough anymore. In early November, the High Ecological Expert Council at the Ministry of Water and the Environment approved the Environmental Impact Assessment, overruling the serious opposition of the local community (only the mayors from the Krumovgrad municipality and one environmentalist voted against the project, while all the ministry experts stood firmly behind it).

"The voice of the local residents is not heard at all," Zulbie tells me, her words full of resigned desperation. "The company and the government have decided everything together, and prefer to ignore us. Not a single person from our village defended the mining development during the public hearings. But what's the point of public hearings if nobody is listening to us?"

The total population of Ovchari is 700, but only about 200 live here on a permanent basis-the rest have second homes in Turkey, where they moved in the late 1980s during the so-called Revival Process, the violent attempt by the Bulgarian communist government to change the names of Bulgarian Turks and erase their cultural identity.

Yusuf Emurla (whose family gave the name of Emurla mahala) is 70 today and lives in the Turkish city of Izmir, but he comes back to his native Ovchari with his wife at least once a year to rest, plant some vegetables, and enjoy the clean air. Even though he is not a permanent resident anymore and has another home to go back to, he is horrified by the idea of the gold mine.

"I know every spot on Ada Tepe. I grew up here and lived for 50 years in the area, so every tree is dear to me and I feel connected to the native land" he says with a soft voice. "When I was young, the forest rangers would fine us if we let our cattle wander among the trees. And now the mining company wants to just tear open the breast of the mountain!"

Yusuf's house in Ovchari is one of the houses closest to the proposed open mine. He believes that if the project goes ahead he and his wife would never be able to return here anymore. He picks a ripe tomato from his garden and gives it to me.

"Try it," he tells me with a smile.

It is one of the most delicious tomatoes I have ever tasted.

Bulgaria: The Gold Mine and the Beekeeper's Fable

By Dimiter Kenarov

The Pulitzer Center

16 November 2011

Krumovgrad, Bulgaria - Silent Ali was once a talented journalist. In the early 1980s, he used to write for Literature, a Bulgarian newspaper, and was one of its most promising contributors. His career was cut short by the Revival Process, the brutal nationalistic campaign waged by the communist government between 1984 and 1989 against the country's Turkish-Bulgarian minority. T

The aim was simple but vicious enough: to erase the cultural identity of Bulgarian Turks (about 10 percent of the population and once citizens of the Ottoman Empire) by replacing their Muslim names with "pure" Bulgarian ones.

Ali refused to lose his heritage and so instead he lost his job at the newspaper. He was lucky, of course: others were thrown in prison at the time and sent to labor camps for their resistance, some were murdered in cold blood. Even tombstones were not spared, the ancestors forcefully renamed in their death.

Watching events unfold, Ali gradually withdrew into himself, stopped talking to people, and moved to a small village in the Rhodope Mountains, where he took up beekeeping. Soon, he became known among his neighbors as a recluse, the Silent Ali. But that didn't mean he had given up writing.

Over the years he kept a meticulous journal of his life and thoughts, a historical record of his personal tragedy: the way a government turns against its own people and takes away their voices and their names, the way life's absurdities pile upon one another until they become just normal life. To keep his journal and typewriter safe, Ali had to hide them inside one of his beehives - and it was there that another person found them years later, embalmed like an ancient mummy.

That story is not true: it is fiction, the rough plot of the novel "Under the Chestnuts"by Ismail Yakup, a 71-year old Turkish-Bulgarian writer and president of the beekeeper society in Krumovgrad, a small town in the Rhodope Mountains of southeast Bulgaria.

Like any good fiction, however, it is not false either.

Ismail's career was cut short by the Revival Process. He used to be the head of the local Nar-Coop, a state-run cooperative, but in 1985, during the worst repressions, he was fired from the job and given a new, Bulgarian-sounding name: Vladimir Yankulov. His brother, Muharem, did not fare that well. He was sent away to the most notorious labor camp in Bulgaria, an island on the Danube River called Belene, for writing a poem against the communist dictator Todor Zhivkov.

"It was like the story about the man beating his donkey, trying to turn it into a horse," Ismail tells me, remembering the Revival Process. "You can't change nature with violence."

These days, the repression against Bulgarian Turks is a shameful thing of the past. Ismail has taken back his old name and writes his books without fear of censorship. Bulgaria is a democratic state, and part of the European Union. Yet, the local community and its traditions are in danger once again, as violence against nature has resumed, this time literally.

A Canadian mining company, Dundee Precious Metals (DPM), has made plans to open a big open-pit gold mine on a prominent hill called Ada Tepe against the protestations of the overwhelming majority of residents.

Their fear is that the mining project could very likely pollute the water and soils in the region with extremely toxic arsenic, which is found in high concentration in the probes.

DPM has tried to assure people that the arsenic is non-soluble and will not affect their health or environment, but few are buying the arguments. Even the promises of 230 new jobs in this economically-depressed region are not enough to sway opinion.

The feeling among many locals is that the government in Sofia, though nominally democratic, is in cahoots with the mining company and deliberately ignores the voice of the Krumovgrad community, just like the Communist dictatorship did in the 1980s.

Except that today the driving engine of repression is not ideology but money.

Ismail is especially worried for his bees. Apart from writing, they are his favorite pastime: a source of income and solace. He bought his first hive on May 31, 1976 - he remembers that important date with perfect clarity - and today has expanded his operation to about 70 hives. He has a whole library of beekeeping books and his reputation among his colleagues is such that he was elected head of the local beekeeping society (there are currently 226 beekeepers in the Krumovgrad municipality, with about 3000 hives total). With his snow-white, receding hair and deeply furrowed forehead, Ismail has the air of experience and knowledge that has not come for free.

"I'm not against gold mining in principle, but I'm very worried about the pollution of soils, water and air," Ismail tells me over breakfast with bread, honey and milk at his house. "Bees are the cleanest creatures - they can feel every little change in the environment and are very susceptible to pollution. If our bees die, the plants will die, and you can be sure that humanity will follow soon after."

When the mining company began exploration drilling a couple of years ago, the water in many of the wells muddied up and bees began dying en masse, Ismail says. He is not sure if there is any kind of direct relationship between the two events, but such are the observable facts.

"The mine will negatively affect honey production in the region. Even if there is no pollution, which is difficult to believe, the psychological factor will affect people's buying habits," he says with a sigh. "Our benefits will be significantly smaller than the damages we'll incur."

On my way out of the house, Ismail gives me a signed copy of his novel "Under the Chestnuts". Then he takes me to the nearby field to show me his beehives: blue and yellow and green boxes scattered like giant Easter eggs in the grass. But it is autumn here in the Rhodope Mountains, the air has turned crisp, and most of the bees are already wintering, warming each other in their hives. I ask Ismail about the most interesting bee story he remembers.

"Once, a lizard crawled inside one of the hives. I was worried at first, but I knew that the bees should be able to defend themselves against the intruder. And indeed, a few days later, when I opened the hive, I saw only the skeleton of the lizard, all covered in resinous propolis. It looked like the mummy of Lenin."

Bulgaria: A Town Debates Plans for an Open-Pit Mine

By Dimiter Kenarov

The Pulitzer Center

14 November 2011

Friday is market day in Krumovgrad. Monday through Thursday the town looks almost deserted, the cafés are empty, the streets are eerily quiet, and only the random gaggles of schoolchildren and the wailing prayers of the muezzin over the mosque's loudspeakers break through the workday monotony. But Friday-Friday is different.

Krumovgrad is alive on Friday, wearing its Sunday best. It seems like all of its 6,000 inhabitants have suddenly decided to flash-mob the public spaces, as if upon a hidden signal. Men and women, young and not so young, Turks and Bulgarians and Pomaks and Roma.

Some wear low-cut jeans and fashionable shades, pink shirts and hair gel, while others are dressed in traditional shalwars and headscarves and taqiyahs. Delicious, mouth-watering steam rises from the huge outdoor barbecues and there isn't a single vacant seat in the open-air cafes and restaurants. Fidgety children form long lines in front of the ice-cream and cotton-candy machines. Pensioners have occupied the benches under the chestnuts, putting away for a few hours their canes and cares. The buzz of conversation-muhabbet-fills the autumnal air. Even the sky clears up on Fridays.

But it is the outdoor marketplace that is the true heart of the town. Craftsmen and farmers from all over the municipality gather here to sell their products: agricultural tools, pottery, shoes, vegetables, animal skins, meat, wine. The crowd moves slowly and deliberately, like viscous liquid, through the narrow channels between the stalls. You could always strike up a conversation with a stranger because nobody is really a stranger here.

Krumovgrad- Kosukavak, in Turkish- is not so very old, although traces of settlements in the area go back at least to the Bronze Age. In the 19th century, when this territory was part of the Ottoman Empire, there was a wooden mosque here and people would gather on Fridays for conversation and prayer and maybe some trade. It was only in 1913, during the Balkan Wars, that two local merchants opened shop and the town soon began to put on fat. Tobacco farmers and shepherds would trade their produce here; potters came in, then tanners; there was even production of silk cocoons. Houses started to spring up.

Today, Krumovgrad is just a small provincial town huddled in the southeast corner of Bulgaria, among the low-lying hills of the eastern Rhodope Mountains. There is nothing unique about it. It doesn't offer any major architectural and natural wonders, and some could describe the place as unassuming: streets with rows of unimaginative two- and three-story houses, a few of those horrendous apartment blocks built during communism, a town square with flowerbeds and a bulky equestrian statue of Khan Krum (a medieval Bulgarian ruler, after whom the town was named), a church and a mosque, a small football stadium, and the trickling Krumovitsa river beyond.

That is what the town looks like on most days, except Fridays; on Fridays, everything is transformed, as in a fairytale. If Krumovgrad has something valuable, it is neither monuments nor sights, but a vibrant and gracious community - a community now pulled apart by a debate around the plans of a Canadian mining company to open a large open-pit gold mine on a prominent hill called Ada Tepe, just three kilometers from the town.

The mining proposal is the topic of conversation in every café. People argue about it, old friendships are broken, and neighbors are alienated from each other. The supporters claim that the company will help the depressed economy of the region by providing much needed employment; the detractors fear that the limited water resources will be contaminated, affecting the agricultural production in the whole region and the health of the people. Instead of adding jobs to the local economy, they claim, the company might end up destroying the few that are already there.

"Our real treasure is not gold but water," says Usein Usein, 50, the owner of the downtown café Oasis and a local farmer. "How am I going to look at my grandchildren, when I know I've poisoned their lives? What do I do with the gold then?" Usein has grizzled stubble and the weary look of someone who knows intimately life's complications. His wife had a miscarriage in 1986, after the fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster affected large swaths of the Balkans, and he is particularly sensitive to environmental and health issues. "Terrorists blow up people once. But here the company wants to slowly poison us. They are worse than terrorists," he says.

Severin Yordanov, 40, and Hassan Hassan, 27, regular customers at his café, disagree. "We'd just like to have jobs. There's no money in tobacco agriculture anymore," Hassan says, referring to the traditional industry of the Krumovgrad region.

Semovi Mestan, 42, and his wife Gulnaz Mestan, 42, also customers of Usein's café, take the opposite view. Both of them work as shepherds and today their flock numbers 130 sheep, one of the largest in the region. They are afraid that the mining development would compromise the very foundations of their business. "If they open the mine, we're leaving this place," Semovi says. "We won't be able to sell our sheep, the meat, nothing."

And it goes like this, arguments traded back and forth, the whole day, over hand-rolled cigarettes and Turkish coffee.

Plans for Gold Mine Divide Bulgarians

By Dimiter Kenarov

The Pulitzer Center

14 November 2011

At the edge of Europe in southeastern Bulgaria, the fields of tobacco have been harvested. Flocks of sheep roam the grassy hills, herded by shepherds and their shaggy dogs. Far off, the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer.

Forty-five years of Communist dictatorship and 20 more of a rush to recreate a market economy have had little effect here, where ethnic Turks and Pomaks form a majority in a community of quiet dignity, a remnant of the Ottoman Empire. The workdays begin at sunrise and end at sundown; poverty is a daily companion, wrapped in the smoke of hand-rolled cigarettes and chatter in Turkish.

But change is coming, and many here think it will not be for the better. Spurred by the rising worldwide demand for gold, a Canadian mining company, Dundee Precious Metals, and its Bulgarian subsidiary, Balkan Mineral & Mining, have made plans to open a big open-pit gold mine near this town, which is close to the Greek border and a four-hour drive southeast of the capital, Sofia.

The project has been mired in social and environmental controversy from the beginning, but this year the Bulgarian government provisionally granted the company a go-ahead, overriding the fierce opposition of the community.

"The mine will destroy our livelihood," Ahmed Ahmed, a 64-year-old shepherd from the village of Dazhdovnik, said as his flock grazed near the site of the proposed mine.

His neighbor Shukria Mehmed concurred. "We just don't need the mine," she said, her clothes and hands soiled brown from picking tobacco. "We already have all that we need."

The proposed mining site, atop a prominent hill, Ada Tepe, lies just outside Krumovgrad, a town of about 6,000 people. It is close to more than a dozen other settlements with adjoining agricultural fields and pastures, some no more than a stone's throw from the area expected to become the open pit.

Balkan Mineral & Mining has repeatedly assured local residents that there would be no serious adverse effects to their health and the regional environment. And the central government is convinced that the mine would bring much-needed wealth to the area and the country as a whole. But most of the people here remain unconvinced and openly hostile toward any large-scale mining.

Unlike other areas in the Rhodope Mountains, which were heavily mined and industrialized under Communism and today bear the scars of environmental destruction, the landscape remains surprisingly pristine.

Much of the Krumovgrad region is in Natura 2000, the network of environmentally sensitive areas protected by the European Union. Of the 191 bird species in Bulgaria, 46 percent are found here, as well as half of the country's species of reptiles, amphibians and mammals.

Small-scale tobacco farming has been a traditional occupation, with a high-end variety used in many of the major cigarette brands. Livestock grazing is also popular, as well as vegetable production, the cultivation of medicinal herbs and beekeeping. There is also a small shoe factory.

Still, the region is far from thriving. The unemployment rate is officially around 13 percent, and tobacco production has sharply declined with the loss of government subsidies. Many families are barely managing to make ends meet.

The company says it can help reverse this predicament, promising 300 jobs in the construction phase and 230 jobs during the exploitation of the mine. In addition, it has pledged to create a municipal fund for infrastructure projects and an investment fund for supporting small and medium-size businesses.

"There are economic factors that cannot be ignored," said Alex Nestor, the top public affairs official at Dundee Precious Metals and deputy chairman of the Bulgarian Mining Chamber, an industry group. "A large investment like ours will raise the standard of living in the whole municipality and will turn the wheel. There must be a change of thinking; otherwise, the region will remain poor."

"The arguments against us are weak," he added, "based on emotion and irrational fears."

There is more than emotion, however. Potential pollution of the limited water resources in the area is the principal cause for concern among residents. According to interviews with several farmers, the extensive drilling during exploration has dried up local wells or muddied the water. Danko Zhelev, the exploration manager of Balkan Mineral & Mining and the head geologist of the project, attributes this situation to the hot and exceedingly dry weather of recent years.

The climate, with hot Mediterranean summers and mild winters, is indeed at the root of the quandary facing the region. The Krumovitsa River, which supplies a large portion of the water for drinking and irrigation in Krumovgrad, runs dry in the summer months, exposing its gravel bed. The mining project, which would produce gold concentrate through a process of crushing, grinding and flotation, calls for the use of large quantities of water that could further strain resources.

And the planned waste facility - where as much as 14.6 million tons of waste rock and 7.2 million tons of tailings would be deposited over the expected nine-year life of the mine - would be about 150 steps from the river.

"Our real treasure is not gold but water," said Usein Usein, 50, the proprietor of a popular coffee shop in Krumovgrad, where the proposed mine is a constant topic of discussion. "How am I going to look at my grandchildren when I know I've poisoned their lives?"

Even the few residents who support the project, hoping that it would provide an economic lift, have reservations.

"I think it would be nice to have a big employer in the region," said Plakan Mehmed, 38. "On the other hand, I don't trust that Bulgarian institutions could provide the necessary control."

Company and government experts at the Environment and Waters Ministry say no heavy metals would be released into the water system. Up to 98 percent of the water from the industrial process would be recycled, though some of the seepage would be discharged directly into the river, after solid particles are clarified.

But Gergana Chilingirova, an ecologist in Krumovgrad, points out that there are high levels of toxic arsenic in the ore. "There is a real danger that the drinking water of the region would be contaminated," she said.

The Krumovitsa River is part of the Maritza River Basin, which flows through Turkey and Greece and empties into the Aegean Sea, creating potential pollution in other countries.

Talks have been held about building a treatment plant for the water released into the river, but Balkan Mineral & Mining is reserving this only as a backup, in case the water quality deteriorates in the first year of mining.

"The fears that something would happen to the environment are unsubstantiated," said Asen Turdiev, deputy regional governor and a fervent supporter of the mining development. "A large number of experts have given a green light to the project, so I have no worries."

The mayor of Krumovgrad, Sebihan Mehmed, is distrustful of such assertions. Despite her interest in attracting outside investments that would improve life in the area, she argues that this project fails the test.

"I have demands not because I'm against the project as such - my father was a miner - but because we don't want vandalism," she said. "We don't want to be robbed of our clean environment and resources. As the project stands, the damages to our region would be much greater than the benefits."

Mrs. Mehmed, who has just won her third term as mayor with an overwhelming majority, has made detailed plans for creating an alternative economy for her town, based on environmental tourism, bioagriculture and meat processing, all of which she says would generate jobs. Whether that is realistic is hard to say: Her municipality is counting on structural funds from the European Union, and they could provide support for her vision.

All of that effort would be wasted, she said, if the mining project goes ahead.

"Our town is not made to last 10 years," she said. "The company will finish its business and leave, but what will happen to us afterward? Nobody is telling us."

After an extensive series of public hearings in September, the High Ecological Expert Council recommended approval of the environmental impact assessment.

The Bulgarian environment and waters minister, Nona Karadzhova, has yet to endorse it - the environmental impact assessment was returned for second approval because of a minor technicality - but its passage is virtually assured.

"What is the point of holding public hearings, if nobody is hearing us?" asked Rami Azis, the mayor of Dazhdovnik. "Why should a private company and the government in Sofia decide the fate of the people who live in the Rhodope? Nobody is listening to us, and we'll be the ones who'll bear the brunt of all this."

Some residents of Krumovgrad even make comparisons between the old Communist government and the current one. In the late 1980s, Bulgaria undertook a campaign, called the Revival Process, that sought to force all Bulgarian Turks and Pomaks to change their names and erase their cultural identities.

Yusuf Emurla, 70, who escaped from Bulgaria to Turkey during the campaign but comes back to his birthplace next to Ada Tepe every summer, sees the same political recklessness now.

"I grew up here, and every tree is dear to me," he said. "But I have no idea why the Bulgarian government so easily destroys its own country."

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