The Fight of our Time
"As the tremors shake our doors and windows, and the hills that taught us how to live in harmony with nature are being ripped apart in front out our eyes, we stand stronger than ever, doing everything in our power to keep the Macedonian Southeast mine-free."
BY VIKTORIJA STOJCHEVA
In the heart of the Balkans, down in Southeastern Europe, lies the small, land-locked Macedonia. A country with vast natural resources, pristine forests, wide areas of fertile lands and a favorable climate. At the same time, a country that for the past 12 years has been beaten down by corruption, and stripped to its bare bones by crime and injustice.
This is a story of how injustice, driven by greed and glorified by power, found its way to the most sacred place of all - people’s homes. However, this is also a story of an uprising, and a revolution that united local communities in a fight to preserve what little they had left - their homes, their food and their lives. This is a story about what we, the activists from the Macedonian Southeast, like to call, the fight of our time.
One signature started it all. Back in 2012. The, former minister of Economic Affairs of Macedonia, approved 86 copper, silver and gold mining concessions covering the majority of East Macedonia. Half of the country sold in one day. Sold for pennies and personal gain, in the only way they know how to conduct business – away from the public eye.
A few years ago my friends and family, the citizens of Valandovo, a small town in the Southeast of the country, woke up to the sight of the first construction activities of an open pit copper mine. Right there, on the hill overlooking the town, blocking our horizon, just two kilometers away from my house. We quickly learnt that there were two other mines planned in our small municipality, enclosing our town in a ring of fire. Mining locations started popping up like mushrooms, covering the whole Southeast region.
The region is gifted with fertile land and particularly favorable climate. It is one of the biggest hubs of organic food production in the country. The range of products spans from tomatoes, grapes and watermelons to almonds, kiwi, pomegranates, figs and lemons. Unsurprisingly, the main industry is agriculture. Ninety percent of the population of this region lives off the land. Agriculture is the main, and often only, source of income for most families. This region is the largest producer of agricultural goods in Macedonia, feeding a third of the country and contributing great value to the economy. Agriculture is what we know and do best. Food production is our heart and essence. And it is under a huge threat.
An open pit copper mine. Daily drillings, detonations, and ore-crushing activities produce dust clouds “conveniently” enriched with heavy metal particles. Particles which, helped by winds, will find their way down to the valley, into our soil, water, food and lungs. Open air ore leaching, using, amongst others, sulphuric acid, cyanide, arsenic, and chlorine. Components which will rain on our valley, turning our fields into wastelands. At least 44 hectares will be deforested, leading to more erosion and floods, crushing down and drowning what will be left in the valleys. Immense amounts of water otherwise used for irrigation and livestock will be used daily, putting an irreversible strain on reserves which are already critically low during the summer.
A few hills away from here - a gold mine. Within its facilities is a 280m tall dam – the 6th tallest in the world. This dam, however is quite different to the other five. The rest contain water, while this one will contain heavy metals sludge and cyanide. Poison. And a vast amount of it. Hanging over people’s homes, above the garden of Macedonia. These are just two mines. This hell is replicated 84 times in East Macedonia.
Rage against the machines
Initiated by very few, the resistance was on the way. Awareness of the negative consequences of these deadly projects started spreading like wildfire. A fire fueled by fear, poverty, and last but certainly not least, fueled by rage. And so began the fight of our time. A fight against projects that not only threaten our livelihoods, health, environment, basic income, and food supply, but also our mere existence.
For more than a year now the activists from “SOS Valandovo” and the neighboring community organizations have been fighting the mines, the institutions, the government and the system that allowed this to happen. The activists, who all have been born and raised on the very land now threatened by the building of these mines, have taken it upon themselves to defend it from the personal interests of the few and the greed of the elite. Our fight has taken many shapes and forms. We’ve knocked on every door and spoken to almost every family in the region, informing them of the threats that these projects pose. We’ve organized local referendums, where citizens almost unanimously said NO to digging out our land and throwing away our future. We’ve protested, we’ve marched, flooded the streets of my hometown, stood side by side and voiced our rights and demands. We’ve organized public debates, inviting the investors and supporting government officials to engage in a public discussion.
To a large extent, our attempts have been met by a wall of silence. The investors hide behind fake social media profiles and slanderous platforms, and desperately try to discredit our movement. This does not, however, shake our resolve. We still take every opportunity to publicize these projects and the many dangers they pose.
I am saddened to say that in this process we have seen the worst of our country. We’ve been repeatedly betrayed by our legal system, disappointed by our institutions and plainly disgusted by government officials, who shamelessly stood against the people they are supposed to be serving. To date, activists continue to receive threats and attempts at blackmail, while the mines are pushed forward with the help of corruption and dirty quid pro quos. Faced with a large corporation backed by a corrupt government, our hands are often tied and there is very little legal or political recourse.
While the hope for a solution was revived with a newly elected government last spring, after a waterfall of promises during their campaign the new government is now deaf to our questions, blind to the dangers, and silent to our demands.
As I am writing this, the first mining detonations echo through the valley of Valandovo, giving us a glimpse of the horrors that the next 30 years hold. As the tremors shake our doors and windows, and the hills that taught us how to live in harmony with nature are being ripped apart in front out our eyes, we stand stronger than ever, doing everything in our power to keep the Macedonian Southeast mine-free.
VIKTORIJA STOJCHEVA is an energy consultant by day and an activist by night. She is an animal lover and nature enthusiast. To this day, she cannot get over the Dutch tomatoes.