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Life Against Gold
An aging man with a white mustache, wearing a peaked cap walks on the stage of an auditorium at Turkey's Middle East Technical University (METU), followed by 10 peasant women. More than 1,000 students filling the auditorium rise to their feet and give a standing ovation to the unlikely assembly on the stage: peasant women and elderly man, standing hand in hand. The faces of the women are sunburned and lined. The roaring ovation continues.
The aging man turns to the women, “Are you going to let Eurogold poison your lands?” He asks them. The women shout in unison: “No, we are not.”
“Are you going to sell your children's future to foreigners?”
“No,” the women call out to thundering applause, “We'll resist.”
The women on the stage are only ten of the thousands of peasants fighting Eurogold, a transnational company planning to use cyanide to extract gold from the hills of Bergama on the Aegean coast of Anatolia. The man is their leader in civil disobedience: Oktay Konyar, nicknamed Asterix for his drooping mustache. Konyar has just been sentenced to 21 months in prison.
The oldest of the women, Sahsine nine (granny) from the village of Yenikent near Bergama calls out, “We won't let them take our leader to prison. They'll have to take us with him.”
The hills on the Northern Aegean coast are covered with fertile fields, olive groves, nut-bearing pines, and fig orchards. In spring, blood-red poppies and wild daisies bloom on the roadsides, and the wind is scented with oregano and lavender. Today's town of Bergama was a thriving Roman city and healing center named Pergamon 2,000 years ago. With its thermal springs and its fragrant air, it was the city of Asclepios, the God of health. Today, tourists visit the remains of the Acropolis, the Temples of Athena, Zeus, Serapis, and Trajan, the steep amphitheatre, and the health center, Asclepion, where patients were cured by the sound of water and music in Pergamon. But if “the New World Order” has its way, Pergamon will become a wasteland.
In 1992, Eurogold obtained a license from the Turkish Ministry of Energy to look for gold on the hills of Bergama. Ten villages were located within a five-kilometer radius of the mine site. At first, the villagers thought the mine would provide them with jobs. But soon they learned that Eurogold would leach the metal with a deadly poison: cyanide.
They began to research gold mines. They learned that cyanide leaching had caused environmental disasters in the U.S., China, Guyana, Bolivia, Philippines, and Zimbabwe. Scientists told them the gold would be taken out of the country and leave the land contaminated with cyanide, that nothing would remain alive within a 30-kilometer radius of the mine. Cyanide leaching would also release other poisons such as arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury into the environment. What's more, a fault line passing through Kaynarca, only 1.5 kilometers away from the mine, posed an earthquake risk that could be catastrophic.
Bergama's peasants met with their mayor and held a news conference to announce these findings. They said they did not want the gold mine on their hills. Eurogold officials replied that the cyanide would be kept in strong clay pools and that it would evaporate under the sun.
The peasants organized under the leadership of Oktay Konyar to dismiss Eurogold from their olive groves. Konyar had grown up in Bergama, worked in various non- government organizations, and had served as the regional leader of the social democratic Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, Republican People's Party. “I knew how un-democratic this country could be,” he says, “ but I also knew that violence would never be a solution. So we vowed never to violate laws, never to commit any crimes.”
In November 1994, 652 people from the villages of Camkoy, Ovacik, and Narlica launched three lawsuits at the Court in Izmir, to get the mine's license canceled. But the regional court ruled in favor of Eurogold and the peasants took their case to the Court of Appeal.
Eurogold did not wait for the ruling. In 1996, they cut 2,500 pines and 800 olive trees and began constructing a mine surrounded with barbed wire and watchtowers.
The villagers launched civil disobedience. On November 16, 1996, 500 of them sat on an arterial highway close to the mine for 5 hours. “We don't want to die from cyanide,” they chanted. They set tires on fire and performed traditional dances on the road. On December 23, 1996, thousands of people from 17 nearby villages protested Eurogold. The men stripped to the waist and marched under heavy rain. In January 1997, the people of Bergama held a referendum and voted against the mine. But Eurogold declared it illegal. In April that same year, 5,000 peasants from 17 villages occupied the mine, forcing the regional governor to close it for a month.
On May 13, 1997, after ten years of court battles, the Court of Appeal ruled in favor of the peasants saying Eurogold was violating the article in the Turkish Constitution, guaranteeing all citizens' right to life and right to protect their health and their environment. It declared Eurogold's licenses invalid and said the mine should be closed. Under the Constitution, the country's law enforcement agencies had to comply with the court decision.
The peasants of Bergama danced in circles to the music of pipes and drums. “Get Out Eurogold,” they chanted. “This land belongs to our ancestors and our children.” But the mine remained. The Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources commissioned a new environmental report from a scientific institution called TUBITAK, and obtained a report saying Eurogold had installed new safety equipment after the Appeal Court ruling, and the cyanide would no longer pose a threat to the environment.
The peasants kept demanding that the court order be enforced. On July 1, 1997 they got word that cyanide trucks were on their way. They occupied the mine and burned some trucks and a social hall belonging to Eurogold. On August 26, 1997, three busloads of people went to Istanbul with Oktay Konyar, and tied themselves to the bridge parapets to stop traffic. In February 1998, nine months after the Court of Appeal ruling, Eurogold blatantly violated the laws by using 3 tons of cyanide to obtain 1.5 kilograms of gold.
Early in 1999, the people of Bergama learned that 18 tons of cyanide had been delivered to the mine. Hundreds of people hit the mountain roads to demand that the poison be removed. On April 2, 1999 the cyanide was taken away from the mine and delivered to an unknown place.
The police laid charges against Oktay Konyar and 80 of the peasants, accusing them of forming a secret, illegal organization.
Eurogold seemed confident that it would have its way. The company had tied its hopes to an imminent Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), which would introduce international arbitration to overrule national courts in disputes involving transnational investors. But in 1999, MAI talks collapsed. Still, the IMF pressured Turkey to accept international arbitration anyway. “The only way to encourage foreign investors,” they said. In the fall of 1999, while Turkish people were reeling from a killer earthquake, the government rapidly changed the country's Constitution to allow international arbitration. Now, a foreign board sympathetic to business interests would overrule national courts. This was what Eurogold had been waiting for.
The company bought full-page advertisements in major Turkish newspapers, saying gold would enrich Turkey and provide jobs. It began to distribute job-application forms, and circulated rumors that ordinary miners would be paid upwards of U.S.$1,000 a month.
The fight against Eurogold now became a fight against neo-liberalism. The peasants of Bergama compared their struggle to that of the aboriginal peoples of Chiapas, Mexico. They vowed to oppose international arbitration, and the New World Order. They became the guests of honor at rallies against nuclear energy, against the IMF, McDonald's, Cargill, and all the others set to plunder Anatolia.
On the morning of November 28, 1999, hundreds walked from the village of Camkoy towards the village of Ovacik, carrying placards reading “Eurogold gidecek, bu is bitecek” (this job will end when Eurogold leaves our lands). That morning, Eurogold launched a complaint against Oktay Konyar and the police charged the leader of the peasants with organizing an illegal demonstration.
“We are demonstrating against the violation of Turkish laws,” said Konyar, “I am being charged for protesting the violation of our Constitution.”
The charges stood. On March 30, 2001, under laws passed during the 1980s by a military junta in Turkey, Bergama's Court of first instance sentenced Konyar to 21 months in prison.
Oktay Konyar has appealed his sentence. He continues to travel across Anatolia with groups of peasants from Bergama to call for resistance. In his leather briefcase, he carries a stethoscope and pills for high blood pressure and heart disease. “I have health problems,” he says. “It's the stress.”
Then, he turns to granny Þahsine, whose own blood pressure rose to 24-12 during the METU rally, and who barely escaped a stroke.
“No dying before we get rid of Eurogold, eh granny?” he jokes. “I'll dance with you yet, when it's time to celebrate.” Z