Turkish Mines Operate Despite Court Rulings

By Jon Gorvett

ISTANBUL, Turkey, August 2, 2001 (ENS) - "Here, if we win, it is a victory for the rule of law," says lawyer Noyan Ozkan, "and if we lose..." he hesitates, "it’s a victory for lawlessness."

We’re talking just hours after a high court in Ankara overturned a ruling that had been hailed by many in Turkey as a massive step forward in environmental protection. In May, a lower court in Izmir had banned international gold mining giant Normandy from operating at Ovacik, near the ancient Aegean coast city of Pergamon.

However, after weeks of intensive lobbying by the corporation, the higher court had overruled the Izmir decision, giving Normandy a green light for mining.

The decision came as a severe blow to local villagers, who nave been at the forefront of the campaign to stop the mine. They say that the cyanide leaching method used to extract the gold is dangerous, threatening them and the local environment.

They have conducted an energetic campaign against the mine for the best part of 10 years, during which time many have suffered arrest and imprisonment.


The Hotel Cypriot in Ovacik between Fethiye and Oludeniz serves tourists visiting one of Turkey's best beaches. (Photo courtesy )
At the same time, Normandy, originally operating the mine as Eurogold, have continued to extract gold using the controversial method despite court rulings. An original Supreme Court decision banning them from operating was ignored after a circular from the Prime Ministry said the mining was safe.

But in Turkey, prime ministry circulars cannot officially overrule Supreme Court decisions.

The current financial crisis in Turkey has also worked in Normandy’s favor, as calls have been made for the country to fully exploit its gold reserves - estimated at around 6,500 tons - to help pay for the large domestic debt.

"This decision lies outside the due process of law," says Ovacik Mayor Oktay Konyar, who has led the local protest. "At the mine itself they have been working day and night ever since the Izmir decision to stop the operation - they have always disregarded the law."

"There is a more general problem with environmental rulings here," says Greenpeace Mediterranean co-ordinator Melda Keskin. "We’ve seen in Turkey many instances where a local court - or even a national one - makes a good decision, but then this is simply ignored by the state. Either they continue to operate installations that have been ordered closed, or private companies operating under their protection continue to work too."

Normandy executives argue that the cyanide leaching is safe, and that they have taken extra measures to ensure that there is no danger.

"Results of scientific and technical research show that there is no threat of damage to human health or the environment here," says Normandy Executive Board member Orhan Guckan.

Recently, executives went to the mine and swam in the reservoir that stores the cyanide impregnated water used in the extraction process. They then drank glasses of water from the pool.


Pool at the mountainside Red Rose Hotel & Apartments in Ovacik, a small, family run accomodation. (Photo courtesy Buzzy's Travel)
However, environmentalists argue that the mine is within an earthquake zone, exposing the reservoir to potential cracking. They point to the longer term effects of the storage system, citing to the potential danger of outflow water getting into the local water table.

They also point to tragedies caused by cyanide leakages elsewhere, in particular, that from a mine in Romania last year which hit international headlines after severely polluting the rivers Tisza and Danube.

Despite the adverse ruling though, protesters vowed to keep up their action.

"We have faced bad odds before," says Konyar, "and we’ve carried on. You will see what will happen here. We won’t let this company work here."

Protesters are due to launch an appeal against the ruling, though a decision is unlikely until after the end of the summer recess at the start of September.