Birsel Lemke

(2000, Turkey)

...for her long-standing struggle to protect her country from the devastation of cyanide-based gold mining.

About

Birsel Lemke was born in 1950 and studied political science at Ankara University and in the USA. She lived and worked in Germany from 1975-85, before returning to Turkey. From 1987-90 she was a Board member of the Green Party in Turkey. In 1990 she founded the Citizens' Initiative HAYIR (No) against gold-mining projects.

Contact Details

Birsel Lemke
PO Box 22
10700 Oren Burhaniye
TURKEY

Biography

The immediate cause of this initiative was the proposal by the companies TUPRAG and EUROGOLD to establish two gold mine pilot projects at the Bay of Edremit and in Pergamon, using them as a base to develop 62 mining projects from Troy to Pergamon in the Turkish Aegean and finally 560 projects all over Turkey.

The proposed extraction technology uses cyanide, which has been responsible for numerous environmental and human disasters worldwide. The most recent of these occurred in Romania in late January 2000, when 3.5 million cubic feet of mine waste contaminated with cyanide and heavy metals was released into a tributary of the Danube, killing practically all aquatic life along a 250-mile stretch of the river.

Lemke was determined to defend her homeland - with its agricultural wealth and natural beauty - from this ecologically barbaric technology, which Friedhelm Korte, professor of ecological chemistry at the Technical University of Munich, has described as 'disastrous and unacceptable' on scientific grounds.

Lemke began by convincing the farmers in the locality of the first proposed project to resist the proposal. She then persuaded the 13 mayors of the province to oppose it. She took them to Germany (whose Dresdner Bank was due to provide funding for the mines) and showed them the Rhein biosphere reserve as an alternative destiny for their own municipalities.

They won support in the Hesse parliament and the Dresdner Bank withdrew. HAYIR also won support in the European Parliament and made the issue of cyanide-based gold mining the first national focus of popular environmental concern in Turkey.

In 1994, HAYIR sued the Turkish Environment Ministry and EUROGOLD in the courts. Three years later the Turkish Supreme Court found in Lemke's favour and prohibited gold mining with cyanide in Turkey. Clearly, Lemke did not achieve this on her own, but she was recognised as the moving spirit of the campaign.

Her house was its informal headquarters and her financial resources its main source of funds.

EUROGOLD did not accept the judgement of the Turkish Supreme Court. It persuaded the Turkish government to carry out another environmental risk assessment and to submit the mining project to international arbitration, which opponents feared would be excessively influenced by corporate interests and ignore the strong public feeling against it.

Speeches

Acceptance Speech by Birsel Lemke

December 8th, 2000

God kväll  -  Merhaba!

Esteemed Madam Speaker, Mr. von Uexkull, Delegates of the Right Livelihood Award Foundation, Dear guests and friends, it is a great honor and pleasure for me to be able to speak to you today.

And I thank the jury of the Right Livelihood Award Foundation from the bottom of my heart for paying the attention actually due to the problem of gold mining with cyanide.

It is a great honor for me to be able to accept this award for a resistance movement, a movement that would not have been possible without the support of my friends.

And so, all my thanks go out to my esteemed Professor Friedhelm Korte, who is here today, but also to professors Ismail Duman, Sefki Filiz, Ümit Erdem, Paul Müller and former award-winner Prof. Michael Succow. I would also like to address my heartfelt thanks to Müsseref Hekimoglu, the grand dame of Turkish journalism and to the many courageous journalists in Türkiye and abroad - especially Mr. Halil Gülbeyaz from German TV NDR. I also thank my friend Petra Sauerland of FIAN Germany, the president of the Mineral Policy Center in Washington, Steve d'Esposito, as well as my good friend Ali Yurttagül in the European Parliament, likewise here with us today.

I would especially like to thank my long-standing friend for her support, Halo Saibold, former member of the German parliament, and Karin Hagemann, former member of the Hessian state parliament as well as the courageous mayors in the Aegean Sea regions, among them from Güre Kamil Saka the former mayor of Gömeç, Sefik Birdar and especially the former mayor of Bergama (Pergamon in Classical times), Sefa Taskın; but also head of the village, Ahmet Dinç from Kücükdere as well as spokesmen of the Pergamon village inhabitants, Oktay Konyar, likewise here today.

My thanks also go out to my loyal friends accompanying me today, Attorneys-at-law Wolfgang von Nostitz and Senih Özay, who earns every bit of his title of "advocate of the people", as he is known in Türkiye. And I give my respect and thanks to the Supreme Court judges in Ankara and the judges in Izmir and, that's me, also to the "Olives and Figs" and to my country whose child I am and who gave me the education, inspiration and strength to fight Pandora's venom.

And of course I thank my foster mother, Ursula Lohmar, my father in law Manfred Lemke, my old friend, Feza Lochner, my five children and my granddaughter and grandson and my husband, who all traveled along with me and stood by me throughout the years of battle, despite trials to their patience and having to make sacrifices.

But I would also like to thank all my friends who stopped wearing their gold jewellery for my sake.

Because who really knows the story behind this glittering and allegedly valuable element? Isn't gold prospected for or panned or something like that?

That is at least the widespread opinion. Wrong: Gold is (chiefly) extracted using tons of highly-poisonous cyanide.

The famous nuggets no longer exist or cannot be found. There are tiny gold particles in many places, most probably even in the soil upon which this Parliament Building stands. Such gold particles are sufficient for modern industry. It extracts from one ton of soil one to four grams of gold in a simple process- in a chemical process- namely with sodium cyanide.

Gold production is wrongly classified as mining. Strictly speaking, these  companies are part of the chemical industry. Consequently, the term "parts per million" (ppm), that is grams per ton, that is to say of the smallest gold units invisible to the naked eye is used here. But as already mentioned, they can be found anywhere.

However, access to them is only possible in places where this is politically possible, e.g. in the US, where unique privileges have historically been conceded to gold producers: they "claim" entire areas of land for a few dollars - or, - and this to a great extent, in countries of the so -called second and third worlds, where little regard is given to the environment and human rights. There, the mining companies present themselves with voluminous project plans and sell the future wealth to the governments.

Once the permits have been obtained, the destruction starts, people are driven out, cemeteries moved, forests cleared, entire mountains levelled down and ground, enormous amounts of precious water wasted, gigantic holes drilled into the landscape and cyanide tailing ponds with the size of acres set up  - all in order to ultimately make jewellery. And yet we have enough gold worldwide, in the bank safes, or old jewellery at home and we can recycle both types as often as we wish.

The immense environmental damage caused by the gold mines with their enormous cyanide tailing ponds is shown by the accidents in British Guyana in 1995 or in Baia Mare / Romania in February this year, in which the dams of the cyanide tailing ponds burst and hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of poisonous cyanide mud flowed into the rivers, destroying all life there. It was not without reason that the World watch Institute in Washington called gold mining industry one of the largest environmental polluters.

After a relatively short operations period, in most cases after 6-8 years, the gold producers abandon the mine, leaving behind a lunar-like landscape and leaving the slag heaps contaminated with heavy metals and cyanide mud lakes to Nature. No thought is ever given to restoring or re-cultivating the mining field.

"It doesn't pay", it is argued. And as happens so often, it is the public who bears the costs of the environmental damage. That the latter are umpteen times higher than the economic advantage of gold mining, is easy to comprehend. Have you ever heard of a country that became rich through gold mining? Certainly not, even if they try to sell us a different story.

When multinational companies announced in the early 1990s that it was intended to make Türkiye one of the largest gold producers and to realize an incredible 560 gold mines, 72 of those on the coast of the Aegean Sea between Classical Troy and Pergamon, we fought against these plans.

For it was inconceivable how a region such as the mythological Ida mountains, a region so pregnant with history, the Olive Riviera, also called the "Coast of Light", the cradle of Homeros and Aristoteles, how this rich region worthy of protection, with its thermal springs, its olives and tourism could be left to the mercy of the gold mining companies. 

"Olives are our gold", became the slogan of our resistance movement on the bay of Edremit. In Pergamon, in turn, we recalled the motto on the entry of the Classical hospital in Asclepion, "Death shall not enter here". And we simply said HAYIR! (no!) to the projects, thereby knowing that the battle against the idol "Gold" would not be easy.

However, a nation-wide environmental movement which opposed the gold mining companies with wit and humor, mythology and reverence of Anatolian culture, with Esprit and original ideas developed and was supported at the grass roots and by the mayors, independent of their political views, by scientists, international NGOs and politicians, by the Turkish and international press and by the judiciary.

Let me give you a few examples: A mayor wanted to insure his municipality against the imminent risks of gold mining with cyanide. The insurance company refused to provide coverage, arguing that the damage would certainly occur and thus could not be insured.

Thereupon several of the "13 mayors of the Bay of Edremit" applied for asylum in Germany for its 300,000 citizens on the grounds that the gold mining projects of the European companies would destroy their natural subsistence - a campaign well received by the press and made the problem internationally known almost overnight.

Moreover, in May 1993 we organized a symbolic meeting of a Greek and Turkish ship at high seas with children, citizens and mayors of the Greek Island of Lesbos and the Bay of Edremit as well as Bergama. With this it was intended to demonstrate that gold mining was not only a Turkish problem and to show the friendship and solidarity between the two peoples.

The Pergamon village inhabitants ran unclothed in the demonstrations, bearing signs with the slogan, "Before EUROGOLD strips us, we'll strip". The women, who always were at the head of the demonstrations and campaigns, denied themselves to their husbands until the former had expelled the gold mining companies.

The village inhabitants occupied the mining field and held a huge mass picnic as well as the famous Bosporus bridge in Istanbul, but also the first Turkish Parliament house in Ankara. "This is our true parliament", they cried. "Our leader is Mustafa Kemal Atatürk".

And recently, the village inhabitants marched 300 km from Pergamon via the Bay of Edremit to the war graves in the Dardanelles. Toward hundreds of thousands of fallen Turkish and Australian soldiers, the village inhabitants gave their vows that they would do everything to prevent the Australian gold mining companies from sowing enmity between the peoples of Türkiye and Australia. 

The initial protest cry HAYIR (no) became a peoples' environmental and democratic movement and a symbol of civil disobedience. And when the Turkish Supreme Court in Ankara approved our legal action and prohibited gold mining using cyanide, referring to §56 of the Turkish Constitution, "the right to live in a healthy environment", the movement experienced a great success: we had achieved the prohibition of an outdated, environmentally harmful and non-sustainable technology, namely the cyanide-leaching process even before any damage could be done.

It is very important for me to stress here that strong friendships were forged between all people involved in our movement - of national and international origin. In this way, I also regard our resistance as a triumph of friendship and of love of ones native country and culture over the plans of a billionaire industry which we would have like to persuade to grow olives instead of mining gold.

Unfortunately, the gold mining industry has hitherto still not respected the Supreme Court's decision. It is not withdrawing and even intends to obtain permits with the help of new, implausible expert statements. In this context, I recall how the Western countries demanded that Türkiye protect human rights and strengthen the rule of law. And how is that going to happen if companies from these countries do not even observe court decisions which even appeal to human rights?

Gold mining projects in Olympiada, Greece the birth place of Aristotle are also being planned. And there too, the people are fighting against this plan. One of my warmest congratulations came from Olympiada from my friend Eleni. She only sent me the one phrase: "I believe there are gods in the Aegean region after all."

That reminded me of the story of King Midas in the Aegean region, who wished that the gods would give him the power to turn everything he touched into gold, and this way his bread and even his daughter were turned to gold.

Ladies and gentlemen, as I mentioned at the beginning: I'm a child of Türkiye. One part of me comes from the Aegean Coast, the other part of me from Mount Ararat eastern Türkiye. And I appeal to all our future friends. Türkiye is a beautiful country with a 7,000  year old history, an enormous open-air museum and the cradle of Occidental, this means also of your culture. For this reason, I also want you to protect it.

Dear Prof. Korte, you often told me I was a rebel and you were right. Besides, my maiden name is Altin which means "gold". What can you expect from a rebel whose name is "gold" on top of that  - other than...: 

HAYIR to cyanide gold mining in Türkiye, HAYIR to cyanide gold mining in Greece and HAYIR to cyanide gold mining in the world.

Tack för att Ni lyssnade - Hosçakalın (stay with pleasure)

Contact

Right Livelihood Award Foundation

Head office:
Stockholmsvägen 23
122 62 Enskede
Sweden

Phone: +46 (0)8 70 20 340
Fax: +46 (0)8 70 20 338

Geneva office:
Maison de la Paix
Chemin Eugène-Rigot 2, Building 5
1202 Geneva
Switzerland

Phone: +41 (0)22 555 09 55

E-mail: