Plans by big business to destroy an ancient site south of the Georgian capital Tbilisi are causing anger among local protesters and international scientists. They say it's an ancient gold mine dating back 5,000 years.
The rolling plains of Georgia's Bolnisi region aren't just serene. They also represent one of the most significant areas worldwide for archeologists looking for ancient human remains.
In the tiny village of Dmanisi, a 1.8 million year-old human skull was recently discovered to the amazement of scientists. Nearby, a team of archeologists from the National Museum of Georgia and the German Mining Museum (DBM) unearthed Bronze Era caves.
But the area is also rich in minerals. One site, known as Sakdrisi, is even believed to be home to a 5,000-year-old gold mine. The area was part of a concession of land the Georgian government allotted for the exploration of minerals in 1994.
In 2006, Georgia's Ministry of Culture and Monument Protection added the ancient gold mine site to its list of protected cultural monuments. The archeological significance of the region had been a source of pride to the company that had the initial rights to mine the area. But that's now due to change. The Russian-owned company RMG bought the lease in 2012, and now plans to mine for gold.
The power of gold
RMG believes that rich gold deposits are directly under the ancient gold mine site and petitioned strongly for the government to lift Sakdrisi's protected status.
The Georgian Ministry of Culture formed a commission to study the site's status in May 2013. After one month of investigations, the commission ruled that no grounds exist to justify the protected status. In July 2013, the Ministry of Culture revoked its protected cultural heritage status.
The commission also held that the previous Georgian government had granted the protected status illegally, although they say they cannot find the 2006 documents that granted Sakdrisi permanent protection.
Thomas Stöllner, from DBM, challenged the commission's scientific qualifications though, requesting in an open letter that a new international committee be set up to test the site's archaeological signficance. So far the request has fallen on deaf ears.
Conflicts of interest
Gold exports are big business in Georgia. Sales of the precious metal overseas totalled 25.7 million euros ($35.5 million) in 2013, nearly 3 percent of the country's total export earnings.
RMG Commercial Director Solomon Tsabadze, a former Georgian Environment Ministry official, says the mining company provides 85 percent of the local budget through licensing fees and is the largest single employer in the region.
But civil society groups suspect collusion between the mining company and the government. Back in 1994 a Ministry of Environment official, Zurab Kutelia, issued the original mining permit for Sakdrisi. Today, he is the chairperson RMG's supervisory board and a company shareholder. On the other hand, other former mining company directors have become government officials too.
For Marine Mizandari, Georgia's former Deputy Minister of Culture, the ministry's decision to remove Sakdrisi from its list of protected sites is a serious setback.
"Why are we called the Ministry of Culture and Monument Protection of Georgia, if we don't protect our monuments of culture?" she said to DW, adding that she believes she was dismissed from her post in the culture ministry for reasons related to Sakdrisi.
Citizens stand up
Mizandari is now at the forefront of the Public Committee to Save Sakdrisi, a coalition of civil society groups and students demanding that the Culture Ministry appoint a non-partisan group of international experts to re-evaluate Sakdrisi.
But her protest work is not yet getting results. At a recent meeting with university students on the issue, Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili reiterated the commission's controversial findings, saying there was no proof gold had ever been mined in Sakdrisi. He stressed that RMG has already invested heavily in the Georgian economy and that protecting Sakdrisi would jeopardize the jobs of 3,000 people.
RMG has now been given the green light to begin excavating, and activists and students have organized protests against the Culture Ministry's decision in Tbilisi and near the mine site. One of their chief complaints is their exclusion from the decision-making process.
"You can stop anybody on the street and every Georgian will tell you they are proud of their history and culture," said Avtandil Ioseliani, representing Unanimity, a local NGO coalition. "I don't know what the Culture Ministry is doing, but they are not answering the questions society has."
Although Sakdrisi has lost its cultural heritage protected status, it is still an archeological site, which prevents RMG from destroying it completely. The Culture Ministry has announced that it will appoint an independent group of archeological experts to monitor the mining work done.
But mining opponents fail to see the logic in the policy, since the mining process requires blasting and the destruction of the ancient tunnels, they say.
Nikoloz Antidze, from the National Agency for Cultural Heritage and Preservation of Georgia, recalls how archeological sites were ruined when BP laid an oil pipeline across the country in last 10 years.
"State interests often override archaeological interests all over the world, not just in Georgia," he told DW.