The Russian-owned mining company RMG Gold this past Saturday, December 13, overlooked an earlier court order and went ahead and started working a piece of Georgian land, Sakdrisi, that many archeologists claim contains the world’s oldest known gold mine. Opponents to the mining operation are putting up a fight, but, as yet, the economic odds appear stacked against them.
The battle began in July 2013, when Georgia’s Ministry of Culture abolished Sakdrisi’s seven-year-old status as a permanently protected historical site. The decision produced a sharp reaction from local civil society activists and international academics.
In June, the Tbilisi City Court overruled the Ministry of Culture’s decision about Sakdrisi’s status, putting a hold on mining operations. RMG Gold and archaeologists were supposed to discuss a compromise, but, apparently, matters were taking too long for the mining company, believed to be one of Georgia's largest taxpayers.
Unexpectedly, the culture ministry late last week gave the green-light for mining operations to start up again.
The archeological site sits on a 22.24-acre plot of land believed to contain 75 percent of an estimated 20 tons of gold. At $38.83 per gram, that’s nothing to sneer at.
Gold happens to be one of Georgia’s top ten exports and brought in $3.52 million in 2013, or 2.9 percent of the country’s total export earnings. As of earlier this year, RMG, which owns the plot of land on which Sakdrisi stands, has invested $300 million into the cash-strapped Georgian economy, according to Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili.
It’s hard to deny government officials are not attracted by the glitter of gold. The list of RMG Gold’s board members is like a roster of former government officials: Supervisory Board Chairperson Zurab Kutelia was the Ministry of Environment official who actually issued the original mining permit for Sakdrisi in 1994); former Commercial Director, Solomon Tsabadze, is also an ex-environment-ministry official. The company's current legal consultant is Archil Kbilashvili, a former general prosecutor under ex-Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Kbilashvili on December 16 reiterated the gold company’s argument that the site had been fully excavated and that not enough evidence had been found to back the claim the mine was 5,000 years old. An RMG Gold spokesperson was not available for further elaboration.
Culture Minister Mikheil Giorgadze, though, has seconded the notion that the company’s actions, which have involved the use of explosive devices, are entirely legal.
As the public outcry gains steam (gaining the voice of the highly influential Georgian Orthodox Church Patriarch Ilia II, to boot), some MPs from the ruling Georgian Dream think the question of whether to allow work at Sakdrisi could come up before parliament to put a legal seal on the ministry’s decision, Rustavi2 reported.
Critics, who have launched protests, counter that an independent team of archeologists was not permitted to study the site and given the time to reach a decision about Sakdrisi’s origins.
The nearby Dmanisi site, for example, was first discovered in the 1930s, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the earliest known hominid outside of Africa was found there.
Yet even as RMG Gold starts removing layers of earth at the site, the company states that preserving cultural heritage and protecting archaeological artifacts are priorities, news outlets have reported.
To prove its supposed sincerity, it has announced plans to build a new archeological museum in the town of Bolnisi, 20 kilometers away from the nearest gold mine -- ancient or otherwise.