Mining company RMG claims the 5400 years old gold mine has no archaeological value and demands that its employees are not left idling as experts work to determine whether Sakdrisi should be protected. (Culture Ministry.)

TBILISI, DFWatch–Activists in Georgia are trying to prevent a five thousand year old gold mine from being opened up for commercial exploitation.

It started in spring 2013, when archaeologists became aware that the mining company RMG was about to start excavating gold in an over five thousand year old gold mine where there have been found tens of thousands of human artifacts.

The site was only recently discovered, and had it not been for the archaeologists’ protest less than a year ago, it might never have been fully explored by experts, and prehistoric traces of humanity of immeasurable value might be lost.

Due to the archaeologists’ protests, RMG applied to the Culture Ministry on April 26, 2013, to lift the status the site had as cultural heritage, to allow for mining to continue.

RMG was at the time mining in a place called Kazreti, and the ancient gold mine in Sakdrisi was the next place it wanted to excavate.

Archeologists say Sakdrisi mine is more than 5400 years old and has great historical importance. Tens of thousands of stone weapons have been discovered there during archeology excavations and much may yet remain to be discovered. The prehistoric mine goes 50 meters into the ground and was discovered only a few years ago by Georgian and German archeologists.

While waiting for an answer to its application, RMG closed down their mining operation, in which about one thousand people were employed.

About one month later, the ministry set up a commission to study how the decision was made to give Sakdrisi mine cultural heritage status.

A few months later, in the summer of 2013, the commission concluded that when Sakdrisi was given status as heritage site in 2006, this was in violation of law. Incidentally, it happened at the same time as RMG received permission to extract gold in the wider area where Sakdrisi is located.

The law says a site may only be granted status as cultural heritage after decision by a commission, which didn’t happen. The new commission also claims that no documentation was discovered at the ministry which would prove the grounds for granting such a status to the Sakdrisi mine.

Archaeologists claim that documentation was provided in 2006.

The ministry decided to construct a museum close to Sakdrisi where there would be exhibited items discovered at the site.

Soon after Sakdrisi gained status as cultural heritage, RMG received permission to carry out mining there.

July 5, the ministry stripped the cultural heritage status from the site, but it still has status as an archeological site that needs protection, which means that no activity is allowed there, which would harm the cultural heritage.

The commission which was set up on request of RMG had 11 members and worked for 35 days. It concluded that if the gold mining stops, it will have a negative influence on the ecology. The commission also doubts the historical background of the mine and considers that scientific proof about its historical importance is not well proven by arguments and material findings.

When it became clear that the site might be opened for new exploitation, rallies to protect Sakdrisi gold mine started in the fall. Students protested against removal of cultural heritage status from the object. In October representatives of non-government organizations and students traveled to the mine and later continued protesting outside the local municipality building in Bolnisi.

Mariam Gurgenidze, one of the participants at the rally, said their goal is to save the ancient gold mine and preserve cultural heritage of worldwide importance.

Activists have launched an online petition for protecting the gold mine, which so far has more than 2 500 signatures.

“We demand that Sakdrisi gets cultural site status again and the planned international and interdisciplinary studies and investigation should continue according to the represented project,” the text of the petition reads.

RMG had a license to carry out work on the site until 2014, but according to the contract and the law about minerals, the company doesn’t have a right to touch the cultural heritage without the agreement of the Culture Ministry.

Soso Tsabadze, an advisor for RMG, said that due to the status as archeological site, no-one has a right to carry out work closer than 500 meters from Sakdrisi mine, but he pointed out that when we are talking about the use of explosives, even using it 500 meters away may harm the mine.

January 7, 2014, RMG started work at Sakdrisi, causing concern among archeologists, scientists and others, and several rallies were organized to demand the protection of the area.

RMG resumed work in Sakdrisi on January 7, and last week, the demonstrations continued.

“A lot is still to be researched there and until it is possible to save this unique place, we came here to demand that company stops works there immediately,” Mariam Gurgenidze, one of the activists, said during the demonstration.

People demand that Sakdrisi is given back its status as a heritage site and that the mining work there stops.

Friday, several hundred RMG employees demonstrated outside the Culture Ministry against the decision to not allow RMG to continue work at Sakdrisi.

RMG representatives said it is not right to leave so many people unemployed.

January 10, the Culture Ministry published a statement informing that RMG had resumed work at the mine and called on the company to immediately stop.

Two days earlier, on January 8, the National Agency of Georgia’s Cultural Heritage had observed large scale work in progress at Sakdrisi. The agency informed the ministry that the company had continued its mining operation on the anciet site even though it hasn’t been fully explored by archaeologists yet and no impact assessment has ever been conducted to clarify what danger it will pose to the place to conduct mining there.

The agency also warned RMG and called on the company to stop work until a study has been completed. Another demand the agency made was to allow its employees into the site to conduct their own examinations.

RMG responded that it has a license to conduct work on the site and that it doesn’t harm the cultural heritage or archeological values.

The company gave the following reasons: That the special commission created by the Culture Ministry failed to confirm the historical importance of the site; the object no longer has status as cultural heritage after a decision by the ministry, and from October 7, 2013, the object doesn’t even have the protection offered by being an archeological site.

September 26, 2013, ex-PM Bidzina Ivanishvili met with representatives of RMG. The meeting was attended by representatives of the Culture Ministry, the National Museum, the Georgian National Academy of Sciences and experts. During the meeting a decision was made to allow archaeologists to study Sakdrisi mine and wait for their findings before making a decision about whether to allow work there or not.

Archeologists started studying the place in October. RMG claims that as a result of these examinations, it was revealed that the are is devoid of archeological value and no artifacts or traces of ore processing from ancient times were found.

RMG therefore decided to resume work there.

Deputy Culture Minister Marine Mizandari said on Monday that RMG’s statements were weak and misleading. She said it is false that there has been found nothing of historical importance. On the contrary, from 2001 there are annual reports of German and Georgian archeologists which only prove the archeological importance of this place.

She said the main question is how to reconcile the interests of this company and the interests of cultural heritage so that it is beneficial for everyone.

She continued saying that it is important to take into account the interests of people who work there, but also think about the development of tourism, which in such a place is likely to mean an educational center that will make the heritage accessible and instructional for visitors, like at Sataplia, the dinosaur cave in Kutaisi.

RMG has currently ceased work in Sakdrisi. January 13, the Culture Ministry prohibited the company from continuing.

Ministry representatives say they will decide whether to restore the mine’s cultural heritage status next week.