Birsel Lemke

Awarded 2000


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

After living and working in the US and Germany and studying Political Sciences, Bisel Lemke returned to her native Turkey and became an anti-mining activist. For three years, she was a member of the Green Party.

She founded the Citizens’ Initiative HAYIR (“No”) to oppose more than 500 cyanide-based gold mining projects in a large area of Turkey. With her house as headquarters and her finance resources as economic funds, HAYIR carried out a successful judicial process that stopped externally financed but locally authorized mining initiatives.

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.

Birsel Lemke, 2000 Laureate

Birsel Lemke founded the Citizens' Initiative HAYIR (meaning "No") against gold-mining projects in 1990. The immediate 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 used cyanide, which has been responsible for numerous environmental and human disasters worldwide. One 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. Friedhelm Korte, professor of environmental chemistry at the Technical University of Munich, described it 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 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 resolved 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 the 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 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.

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