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Swiss villages, sitting on a gold mine, refuse to budge

Switzerland's Medel Valley contains gold ore worth an estimated $1.2 billion, but residents soundly rejected a proposal to mine the deposits, despite the community's need for jobs.

By Correspondent / April 9, 2012



Medel Valley, Switzerland

They are sitting, literally, on a gold mine.

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But at a time when Europe is in the grip of the worst recession since World War II, a cluster of villages in Switzerland has rebuffed the chance to reap the benefits of the gold deposits buried underfoot.

The villages voted in a referendum this month to block a Canadian mining company from mining an estimated $1.2 billion worth of gold ore believed to be underneath the pine forests and snow-capped peaks of the picturesque Medel Valley (see map here). It would have been the country’s first gold mine and one of only a handful in Europe. 

Royalties from the mine would have guaranteed the five tiny villages and hamlets of the valley an income of around 40 million Swiss francs ($43.5 million) over the next 10 years – the kind of money that many towns and cities in Europe, forced to make savage cuts to public services to chip away at government debt, would have been glad to accept.

But the promised bonanza was not enough to sway the majority of the Medel Valley’s 450 inhabitants. With more than 80 percent of eligible voters turning out to vote, two-thirds of them were implacably opposed to the project, which would have lasted at least a decade. 

The proposed mine sharply divided the inhabitants of the valley, which is dotted with centuries-old timber barns and onion-domed churches, and surrounded by sheer-sided mountains. Proponents say it would have provided much-needed money and jobs to a community struggling with an aging population and an exodus of its young people, who have to leave to find employment. 

But those opposed to the project worry about the impact it would have, both on the environment and on the valley's well-preserved culture. 

Is there a future without gold?

One of the gold prospecting's most outspoken backers was Peter Binz, the mayor of the valley, who works as an executive with PricewaterhouseCoopers in distant Zurich.

“The population is declining and aging – 90 of the people here are over the age of 75 – and so we are looking for new opportunities,” he says. “The mine would have brought fresh blood. We cannot stay as a museum – we need a future for our young people.”

At the Hotel Vallastscha, which has the valley’s only bar and restaurant, Thomas Boehm was also convinced that the mine would have been beneficial.

“The mine would have been very positive. Look at this picture,” he sy, pointing at a black-and-white print of the village from 60 years ago that hangs on the wall of the bar, showing two children in grubby smocks playing in an unpaved back alley lined with wooden-tiled houses.

“If nothing new happens here, the valley will go back to as it was then. There’ll be no future for young people. The village is dying but people here are only thinking from one day to the next,” says Mr. Boehm, a German who has lived in Switzerland for 18 years.

Unlike many parts of Switzerland, the Medel Valley has no downhill skiing facilities to attract scores of tourists. The few who know the area come for cross-country skiing in the winter and fishing and hunting in the summer – the thick forests and exposed crags are home to red deer and chamois.

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