Gold mine protests in Turkey a sign of deeper concerns

Protests broke out in Turkey after the government issued a licence to Canadian company Alamos Gold to mine for gold in the northwestern province of Çanakkale. Many trees were felled to clear the ground for the new mine.

Cutting down trees has always stirred protest in Turkey, even for a single tree, but this time, there was more public support for several reasons.

Firstly, it is close to a popular tourist destination – Mount Ida (Kaz Dağı) – where many people go there to spend part of their holiday and can see the razed forest for themselves. 

Secondly, the Turkish partner of the Canadian company turned out to be the husband of a member of parliament from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), so the issue gained a political dimension and opponents of the ruling party used the opportunity to voice their opposition to the government. 

Thirdly, there is already widespread discontent among the public because of Turkey’s economic difficulties and poor human rights record. Environmentalists capitalise on this general discontent and channel it to support their cause. 

Fourthly, the highly poisonous chemical cyanide will be used in the mine and local people fear it could seep into their drinking water. 

Canadian companies are responsible for six out of 11 cyanide catastrophes that took place in the world between 1971 and 2015, so there is a negative prejudice against them. In Romania, 89 peoples were poisoned to death in 1971 when cyanide leaked through a crack into drinking water. In Summitville, in the United States, another Canadian company stored cyanide at a mine, but when the company went bankrupt the U.S. government had to spend hundreds of millions dollars to clean it up. 

The number of trees cut down on Mount Ida became a separate controversy between activists and the government. The activists claim that 194,000 trees were chopped down, while the government claim this number is only 13,400. The pictures of the forest suggest the figure given by the government cannot be accurate. 

The government is careful not to let the present protests grow out of proportion and become like the Gezi protests of 2013 in Istanbul which grew into an almost a city-wide uprising and it had to take drastic measures to restore public order.  

Gold mining is a more sensitive issue than many others, because foreign companies stir up public reaction to limit the extraction of their competitors.

Twelve years ago, a similar environmental campaign was organised against a gold mine near the western Turkish town of Bergama and it turned out that professionals had been hired by a German Gold mining company to provoke protests. 

John McCluskey, the CEO of Alamos, said the issue had been unnecessarily politicised by using popular discontent over other problems. He said the mining would last about six years, the company had already paid $5 million to the Turkish government to reforest the area. What the mining company is saying may be true, but the activists have little confidence the government will in fact use the money for reforestation.

Some 1,168 mining licences were issued in the first 80 years of the republic in Turkey, compared to 149,000 licences during the 17 years of AKP rule. This increase in the number of licences has to be congratulated, but public opinion views the numbers with suspicion. The activists believe that corruption is widespread, that the gold mining will not serve any other purpose that enriching foreign mining companies and their Turkish partners.  

The natural resources of a country should of course be mined, extracted and their benefits should be shared equitably, but people complain about the lack of transparency. If public tenders were organised in a more transparent manner, many protests like this one could be avoided. 

Turkey needs activists, environmentalists and vigilant citizens who care for the preservation of its natural resources and environment. But what it needs more is good governance. 

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.