Gold turns Turkish villagers green

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The Independent Online
Environmentalists in Turkey are a lonely lot. Governments know that Turks tend to be more interested in getting a job than saving the earth. Environmental issues are skirted by politicians of all hues, and Turkey's motley Green Party recently closed down. To add to the gloom, when a court recently ordered a controversial power station, plonked by a pine-clad Mediterranean bay, to suspend operations, the decision was overruled by ministers in Ankara.

Prospects for green-minded Turks are brightening, though. At Bergama, 20 miles inland from from the Aegean coast so beloved of European holidaymakers, an alliance of farmers, local politicians and friendly media companies is propelling Turkey's first environmental movement. The villains are executives at Eurogold, a company formed - by Canadian, French and Australian backers - to exploit Turkey's still untapped gold reserves. The issue is cyanide which Eurogold wants to use to recover the gold from heavy metals which lie around it.

Eurogold may have been unlucky to hit on gold on the lip of a valley - at Ovacik, 10 miles from Bergama - full of villages. They were downright foolish, though, to neglect public relations - a mistake, opponents argue, they would not have made in western Europe. Foremost among these opponents is Sefa Taskin. Bergama's impish mayor has cleverly donned green, and persuaded local farmers to pester deputies in Ankara and parade through Bergama in their underwear to publicise their cause. Villagers too lazy to join in have been yanked into line by decidedly emancipated wives. The campaign is now so fashionable, a group of Volkswagen Beetle owners is supporting it.

For all the protest's unexpected modishness, though, it was only recently that Mr Taskin scored his first major victory. In May, a court in the capital recommended that Eurogold's mining permit be revoked on environmental grounds. While both sides wait nervously for a local court to accept or reject this recommendation, Eurogold's investment - $30m to date - has begun to look unwise. To all except Eurogold, that is; armed with permits from no less than 12 ministries, the mining company is busy developing its site. Eurogold insists that the mine at Ovacik will be operational before the end of this year.

The inhabitants of Camkoy, half a mile from the barbed wire surrounding the site, are equally insistent that it will not. A handful unwise enough to accept jobs with Eurogold have been firmly ostracised, and the determination of environmentalists is inscribed in stone - a marble plaque at the entrance to the village reminds visitors of opposition from 17 villages. Polat Bektas, a habitue of the local cafe, remarks: "We are ready to die to ensure that the environment is not sullied." This is not the activism of Istanbul sophisticates, but a popular protest. "Never again," says Mr Bektas, "will foreign mining companies think of Turks as ignorant villagers."

At Ovacik the environment is only half the issue, the others being politics and economics. According a lawyer working on behalf of the farmers, the area boasts 5,000 "militants" prepared to stop the mine starting production. This, understandably, does not cheer Turkey's new government, which likes mining and votes in roughly equal measures. Ministers worry that, should the local court shut the mine down, Eurogold will open a big compensation suit, and others will be put off from entering Turkey's fledgling gold mining sector. While Ovacik waits for its cyanide, and the mining industry for the court's verdict, politicians - both local and national - are holding their breath.