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Turkish olive producers vow to fight gold miners

AYVALIK, Balıkesir - Hürriyet Daily News | 10/26/2010 12:00:00 AM | BARÇIN YİNANÇ

Olive and olive-oil producers gathering for annual harvest festivities in Ayvalık have vowed to protect their land, which is under increasing pressure from mining companies. Producers learned by pure coincidence last spring that the mining lobby tried to amend a law on olive production prohibiting any mining within three kilometers of olive groves

Turkish olive growers in the north Aegean are increasingly worried their industry – worth a billion dollars a year – is under threat from another sector that many see as even more lucrative: gold mining.

“Olive oil production is increasing. Annual consumption per person has risen from one kilogram to 1.5 kilos in five years. But the mining sector has an eye on our olive trees. If they succeed, we will not be able to harvest anymore,” said Rahmi Gençer, head of the Ayvalık Chamber of Commerce, during festivities over the weekend marking the beginning of the olive harvest in the north Aegean.

Olive production has had its share of difficulties in recent years, particularly from meteorological extremes and a lack of government subsidization. For most growers, however, the ever-present threat remains mining companies, as the north Aegean is especially rich in minerals.

Because of that, olive producers attending the sixth annual festivities to welcome the harvest season in Ayvalık, Balıkesir, urged “vigilance” against mining.

In 2002, olive growers stopped an attempt by mining companies to amend a law prohibiting mining within three kilometers of olive groves; last year, such companies again tried to amend the law. In response, growers launched a heavy lobbying effort in Ankara, stopping the amendment from being endorsed by Parliament at the last minute.

[HH] Increasing production

A total of 150 tons of olive oil worth $1 billion is produced annually in Turkey. If the forecasts of the Agriculture Ministry are met, olive oil production in 2014 will increase to 750 tons, enabling the sector to reap $3 billion.

Mustafa Tan, head of the National Olive and Olive Oil Council, or UZZK, voiced his frustration on how an amendment that affects “the lives of at least 10 million” made its way so quickly to Parliament.

“Our fight will continue, because the mining industry will not stop. We need to be vigilant at all times,” he said, addressing guests at the opening of the festivities.

“Olive trees have been giving life to humankind for the past 6,000 years, whereas the average activity of a mine is around 10 years,” said Tan. “And at the end of that 10 years, mines leave behind environmental damage that takes hundreds of years to heal.”

[HH] The allure of gold

Participants at the festivities said local landowners who are tempted to sell their land in exchange for a lucrative payout need to be convinced of the long-term negative effects of mining.

“If you go on the street and ask which is more valuable, gold or olives, 99 percent will say the answer is gold,” said Ali Ekber Yıldırım, an agriculture journalist. “[But] gold has a certain reserve and will finish one day while an olive tree can live for thousands of years.”

Estimates vary on Turkey’s gold reserves, but according to official figures, the country has 328 tons of gold underground and a potential for 650 tons more. These figures make it easier to understand the incentive for gold extraction.

While Turkey does not rank high in global gold production, it ranks third in the production of gold jewelry after Italy and India. It is a country with one of the highest volumes of gold imports – 150 tons annually – at a cost of $5 billion.

“Gold is also a source of power,” said Yıldırım, noting that even the representatives of the olive oil sector use expressions like “golden liquid” or “green gold” while promoting olive oil.

“Obviously the best option is to exploit both those resources that are on the surface as well as those lying beneath,” he said. “But that is not always possible. And in this case we need to opt for what is best for humanity. Mining has tremendous side effects on environment. And the figures show that olive production is more valuable than gold production.”

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