By COSTAS KANTOURIS
IERISSOS, Greece (AP) â¿¿ Barbed wire cuts across woodland patrolled by dozens of private security guards. Burly and stony-faced, they demand identity cards from anyone trying to pass through, and order cameras to be put away.
Beyond lies a precious prize: a gold mine â¿¿ and its owners are taking no chances. Protesters, they say, have torched company property in violent demonstrations.
The oak- and beech-covered forests of northern Greece's Halkidiki peninsula have yielded various metals for more than 2,000 years. But as modern extraction and processing methods took over, they became a flashpoint in the debate over large-scale mining, environmental protection, job creation and tourism.
Champions of an ambitious new mining project say that it will create jobs and pour hundreds of millions into the local economy, as Greece struggles with a devastating financial crisis. Opponents argue that mining will endanger lives through pollution, wipe out precious forests and drive tourists away from a region of striking natural beauty.
Hellas Gold â¿¿ 95 percent owned by Canadian mining company Eldorado Gold Inc. and the remaining 5 percent by Greek construction company Aktor â¿¿ holds mining licenses for an area covering 317 square kilometers (122 sq. miles) with proven and probable reserves of lead, zinc, silver, gold and copper. Many see the foreign investment as vital to helping Greece emerge from what is essentially a depression, with a quarter of the workforce unemployed and the economy heading into a sixth year of recession.
"In this difficult time â¿¿ but also regardless of the circumstances â¿¿ we owe it to ourselves to ensure the best possible exploitation of wealth this country has to offer to drive growth and bolster the economy," Deputy Energy and Environment Minister Asimakis Papageorgiou said in Parliament during a recent acrimonious debate on the Halkidiki mines.