Launch of gold mining operations at a site, which some archeologists believe is the world’s oldest gold mine, caused outcry from preservationists, opposition parties and also drew condemnation from the Georgian Orthodox Church.
The site in question is Sakdrisi, a hillock in Bolnisi municipality of Kvemo Kartli region, where Russian-owned RMG holds license to carry out mining operations.
The company carried out blasts at and sent heavy equipment to the site on December 13, a day after the Ministry of Culture issued permission for the company to carry out works.
The site has been in the center of dispute since 2013 when the Ministry of Culture removed it from the list of protected heritage sites, which was then followed by the ministry’s decision in March, 2014 to give permission to RMG to launch open-cast mining at the area. But facing resistance from a group of preservationists, backed by some civil society organizations, including through a court case, RMG was not able up until now to carry out works.
The Culture Ministry’s March 13, 2014 decision was challenged in court by Tbilisi-based legal advocacy Georgian Young Lawyer’s Association (GYLA) and as an interim measure, pending final verdict, court ordered in early June not to carry out any operations at the disputed site.
But groups, campaigning against open-cast mine at Sakdrisi, were caught by surprise when RMG announced on December 13 that it was given by the ministry a new permission to carry out works. The groups, among them GYLA, said the public was deliberately kept in dark about the ministry having plans to issue new permission; they also say that this decision runs counter to court’s earlier interim ruling.
Minister of Culture, Mikheil Giorgadze, said the decision was fully in line with legal requirements.
Head of the National Agency for Cultural Heritage Preservation at the Ministry of Culture, Nikoloz Antidze, said that the decision, allowing RMG to carry out works, was taken because part of the site was already fully examined for archeological purposes; he also said that it would have been impossible to carry out any archeological excavations on the remaining portion of the site because of safety reasons as there was threat of collapse.
A group of activists, which has been campaigning against open-cast mine at Sakdrisi, say that although newly launched mining activities have caused irreversible damage to the site, it will not stop them from campaigning, which will now focus on shaming those officials, who have been behind the decision allowing RMG to dig gold at Sakdrisi, as well as on pushing for new cultural policy that would help prevent similar cases in the future.
“Blast of Sakdrisi-Kachagiani is not the end,” campaigners, who plan a protest rally outside the Culture Ministry on December 15, said in a statement. “A movement is being launched to achieve a fundamental change of country’s cultural policy and policy of environment protection.”
Head of the Georgian Orthodox Church Ilia II joined condemnation by saying in his Sunday sermon: “Blasts were carried out at the ancient gold mine. We condemn it and those people, who have done these blasts. We ask the authorities to investigate it and to punish appropriately those people.”
The Georgian Orthodox Church also released a written statement on December 14, saying: “It is incomprehensible how could the Ministry of Culture issue a permit to destroy the site when scientists, large part of specialists, civil society, were all against of it.”
The move also drew criticism from opposition parties.
Ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili, chairman of the UNM party, said in a statement on his Facebook page that “barbaric explosion” of Sakdrisi is “a heavy blow for the Georgian culture, as well as for the world heritage.” When in 2013 the Ministry of Culture removed Sakdrisi from the list of protected heritage sites, the decision was also endorsed by relevant changes in a presidential order, which was signed by then president Saakashvili.
Free Democrats opposition party, led by ex-defense minister Irakli Alasania, also condemned launch of mining operations at Sakdrisi as a “barbaric” act.
A group of Georgian and German scientists started research of the site in 2004 with the funding from Germany’s largest private science funder, Volkswagen Foundation. Artifacts found there, archeologists say, show that the mine dates back to the early third millennium BC and some samples even point to the second half of the fourth millennium BC, making Sakdrisi one of world’s oldest known gold mines.
RMG said that it would fund construction of an archeological museum in Bolnisi, which would house all the artifacts found as a result of the archeological excavations at Sakdrisi.
The company argued that although Sakdrisi-Kachagiani site makes only a small portion of its licensed territory, it is so rich with gold deposit that without Sakdrisi it would be financially unviable for the company to continue operations in the country. RMG said that because of delays to launch mining at Sakdrisi it already had to downsize operations, which was causing financial losses.
Export of raw or semi-processed gold in 2013 declined 16.6% y/y to USD 73.3 million. Gold worth of USD 27.97 million was exported in the first nine months of 2014.
The government was backing the company. PM Irakli Garibashvili said in March that it was not possible to prove that Sakdrisi represented the world’s oldest gold mine; he also said at the time that RMG invested USD 300 million in Georgia and halting of company’s operations would leave 3,000 employees without job.