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The Rhodope Mountains are magnificently beautiful and the parent Rhodope Mountain is often called the ‘magic mountain’. The area is connected with the mythical figure Orpheus and it might be regarded as hiding in its folds some great wealth. Recently a great archaeological discovery was made Krumovgrad: the oldest goldmine in Europe. The dispute which is raging about discoveries like this illustrates the dilemma facing the Rhodopes today – whether to stick to sustainable tourism or remain in mining. In our modern world these industries are difficult to reconcile.
People in the Rhodopes depend on mining
In the 1960s Bulgaria was one of the leading exporters of lead and zinc in the world. Intensive mining operations however have taken a considerable toll on the Rhodope mountains. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 sparked a sharp fall in the price of these metals. GORUBSO, a Soviet funded mining had already taken over the Bulgarian-Swiss-German consortium PIRIN but was later sold off cheaply. The area began to be depopulated and currently ore mining in the Rhodopes is about one-fifth of its level in the past.
But without mining the population has nothing to eat and they are doomed to migration or a return to home production of the most primitive kind. Although from 2004 there has been a substantial increase in the prices of non-ferrous metals, wages of miners in this region remain low.
The large mines are old and in decline but their impact remains
The village near the Erma river has had mining operations for half a century and its tailings, from flotation plants run into the river course, leading to banks of silty mine spoil. Under modern legislation this could never happen. Equally dramatic is the situation in the Kardzhali region with a tailings pond within 100 metres of nearby villages. Until recently there was no irrigation system and the wind freely blew tailings dust over the houses. To add to the problem, the local landfill site is located on the other side of the villages. Further problems are the abandoned mines for which no one takes responsibility and the rivers consequently remain contaminated. As if this were not bad enough, the Rhodopes are beginning to suffer from more frequent summer droughts and dust dispersal. It is easy to guess that the health problems hereabouts are serious and silicosis is not forgotten.
The new Klondike?
Amid all the environmental concerns, there are still proposals for investments of billions of dollars for new mines including some which do offer environmental guarantees, for example the Bulgarian-Dutch project NTG (New Thracian Gold) which places value on the heritage of the area such as its gushing mountains streams and history. It should be noted however that Bulgarian gold ore is not an easy commodity to exploit, having some of the highest arsenic content in the world which necessitates cyanide extractive technology.
Tourism provides sustainable livelihoods for Men and Women
Tourism, as well as providing stability over time, brings a wider range of employment opportunities for women in an area where they are presently mainly engaged in low paying sewing workshops. Many would have a better future in the hospitality, catering, organic/niche farming and local crafts which would be supported by tourism. The problem is a mismatch of timescales: the tourism industry is probably viable but in its infancy. For fast results in male employment, mining would be the way to go.
Experts warn that if all the proposed mining investments are allowed to go ahead, the cumulative effect on the environment would be devastating. But pulling out would lose valuable foreign revenue and may even mean future metal imports at higher prices.
Will the Rhodopes proceed at a slower pace to a sustainable and balanced future for these beautiful and fascinating mountains? We shall see.