PM Irakli Garibashvili said that stir over gold mine Sakdrisi has been caused only by a small interest group, which, he claimed, tries to benefit from “grants” for archeological research; he dismissed allegations against government about disregarding cultural heritage as “very irresponsible and groundless.”
Launch of gold mining activates at Sakdrisi, a hillock in Bolnisi municipality of Kvemo Kartli region, which some archeologists believe is the world’s oldest gold mine, caused outcry from preservationists, opposition parties; it also drew condemnation from the Georgian Orthodox Church and has been disapproved by President Giorgi Margvelashvili as well.
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PM Garibashvili suggested that livelihood of about 3,000 employees of gold and mining company RMG should not fall victim to, as the PM put it, “sterile archeological site.”
“I do not remember anyone mentioning Sakdrisi-Kachagiani in course of this year; it was an interest triggered by some kind of narrow group, which had obtained a grant of 1 million Euro. And as far as I know, as I was told, they are also waiting for an additional grant to continue archeological digs,” PM Garibashvili told journalists on December 20 while visiting Samtredia in western Georgia.
“It’s all good – archaeology is good; cultural monument is also very good, but there is livelihood of 3,000 families and their well-being on the one side, and on the other there is a sterile archeological site,” Garibashvili said.
“I want to ask the public – which one do we prefer? Saving 3,000 families and the entire Bolnisi municipality, which is completely tied to this company, or preserving of something, this archeological site, which will be of no use?” Garibashvili said.
A group of Georgian and German scientists started research of the site with the funding from Germany’s largest private science funder, Volkswagen Foundation, in 2004. 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.
Sakdrisi 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 on December 12, after hastily going through otherwise lengthy bureaucratic procedures, the National Agency for Cultural Heritage Preservation at the Ministry of Culture took a decision, further endorsed on the same day by Culture Minister, allowing RMG to launch activities at the Sakdrisi mine. Next morning, on December 13, the company carried out couple of blasts at and sent heavy equipment to the site, prompting protest from activists, who have been campaigning against open-cast mine at Sakdrisi.
President Giorgi Margvelashvili, who met campaigners for Sakdrisi on December 19, said in a statement that carrying out mining activity at the site, while court proceedings were still underway, was “inadmissible.”