Life Against Gold

Üstün Reinart     

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

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

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

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
(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