The unspoilt pastoral landscape of Transylvania is the latest battlefield in the war against aggressive fossil energy extraction. Jim Wickens reports on the farming communities fighting back against multinational energy companies.
“Do you think they’re about to have sex?”, one of the group whispers. I’m in Transylvania, crouched in the bushes with a bunch of activists in balaclavas, taking turns to speculate why a car has crept to a halt close to where we are hiding out. “No, it must be the cops, you can see the light from the mobile phone”, another one says. Time to move on.
It has been over an hour since the group started trashing equipment owned by the gas exploration company Prospectiuni, playing an edgy game of cat and mouse as we struggle to stay one step ahead of the security teams and police vehicles that are now sweeping the hilltops looking for us.
Another light tears round the bend on the road and the shout goes through the team to hide. I throw myself down, stretched out once again in the cool damp grass of a Transylvanian meadow. It’s going to be a long night.
In recent weeks the sleepy Saxon communities and protected forests of Sibiu county in Transylvania, have become an unlikely front for a new battleground, pitting gas exploration companies, the Romanian government and international investment firms, against a small band of environmental activists from across Romania, who are working side by side with local farmers to resist gas and oil exploration that they claim is taking place illegally on their land.
Listed on the London Stock exchange just two weeks ago with brokering assistance from Goldman Sachs, the Romanian gas company Romgaz has long announced plans to explore the low-lying hills of Transylvania for conventional and also unconventional sources of gas and oil.
Nobody gave it another thought till the exploration began in earnest this month, when 34 tonne earthquake-inducing seismic trucks growled into the muddy tracks of villages here, accompanied by cohorts of security guards and busloads of workers.
Communities told me that they awoke to ribbons being laid out across their lands even attached to their garden fences, signals for the companies to lay cables and plant the explosives for the seismic tests.
Today the villages and fields are peppered in strips of ribbon, stretching like spaghetti across this ancient landscape of beech forests, bee hives and the harvested stubs of organic corn fields intermingled with medieval villages and citadels.
The village gathers to protest fracking. Photo: Jim Wickens / EFU.
All the seismic tests are taking place within Romania’s largest Natura 2000 site, and several of the churches here are UNESCO heritage sites, visited both by Princes Charles and Edward in recent years.
Driving into the remote communities where the seismic tests are taking place, feels like walking into an occupied territory. I watch as a team of workers prepare a hole with dynamite a few metres from the village football pitch. On the high street private security jeeps can be seen parked up at the cross-roads, black uniformed men filming and following our every move.
At the end of the road an elderly orthodox priest ushers me inside nervously, asking not to be identified. “They told me not to talk with you”, he says. “The bishops say it is not the role of a priest to get involved in community affairs.” He pauses, a flash in his eyes, almost thinking aloud.
“We thought they had come to rebuild the playground – then the earthquake happened, shaking the houses here, causing cracks and breaking ornaments inside the houses. The people were scared. Nobody asked us permission, they didn’t even tell us what they were doing.”
He is interrupted by a shrill ringtone on his mobile. 15 minutes later he returns to the kitchen, told again by his superiors to be quiet. The interview is over. “They know you are here”, he says, showing us the door.
We keep moving out of the village, following the ribbons and the intermittent booming sounds of controlled explosions echoing around the valleys. Away from the security guards, a lady speaks up, “they are thieves”, she hisses. Her neighbor comes over begging for answers. “We’ve heard the land will be poisoned, is this true? We live from this land. We don’t have salaries!”.
At the top of a hill I find a giant geological lab on wheels, antennae dangling on top and men pouring over electrical equipment inside. A small portly man introduces himself. Gheorghe Daianu, a seismologist and director of operations for the exploration company Prospectiuni, which has been subcontracted for 40 million euros to carry out the tests in the region.
He condemns the protests against his work, calling opponents of gas exploration “neo fascists”, and is resolute that the company has permission to be on every parcel of land where the tests are taking place, a claim he says that can be backed up with paperwork, before he orders us to leave the area.
I head to the nearby village of Mosna, where farmer Willy Schuster and his wife Lavinia have invited me to stay at their home to cover a protest planned against the exploration activities.
Amidst clucking chickens, roaring fires, and cheese-making in the kitchen, a dozen activists began to arrive from across the country, updating facebook accounts and charging their cameras for the following day. This would be the first protest against gas exploration in Transylvania, they explained, urging me to get an early night’s sleep. But first I had another appointment.
Bundled into a rusty van under cover of darkness from a pre-arranged location, I found myself sat in the midst of a dozen men and women in balaclavas. The driver turns to greet me. “Don’t worry about our get-away vehicle – it’s super quick. Only 350,000km on the clock!” She laughs out loud as the rusty door slams shut, and the team trundles away into the frosty darkness.
Fracking protestor with seismic wires. Photo: Jim Wickens / EFU.
Minutes later, I am bundled out onto the roadside with military precision, scurrying into the undergrowth with half a dozen adrenaline-fuelled activists, armed with pliers and wire cutters. As soon as the headlights fade round the bend, the team began their work, snipping the orange seismic wires and slicing through electrical converters and generator boxes they come across.
Every so often a shout goes up, and the team are sent diving for cover as the sweeping headlights of suspected security vehicles sweep across from the road close-by. Part army, part anarchy, the evening is spent in a whirlwind of adrenalin-fuelled scrambling among remote hills under the light of a full moon, clawing through scratchy thorn bushes, woodland clearings and boggy streams. Beneath the balaclavas, members of the team gradually open up to me.
“Several months ago none of us knew each other, but now we are united. We are so angry about the way our country is being run. 2013 must be the year that Romania wakes up, that citizens begin to have a say in what is happening to our country. Things like fracking have to stop. We cannot accept the destruction of our own future.”
At seven the next morning I am sat drinking coffee with Willy in his farmhouse kitchen, when a convoy of gas trucks rolls past his window en route to his fields. He runs out of the door chasing after them, apoplectic with rage.
I arrive on scene just in time to see workers from the exploration company filing out of their company coach and spreading out across his wintery fields. Willy screams them away, impounding a company pickup and refusing to let it go until the police come to file a criminal complaint.
As the morning unfolds, streams of security trucks are chased, kicked and turned away from Willy’s land. “I am terrified for my children”, he says, waving a flimsy branch at the assembled security forces facing him down on the muddy track. “I am fighting for their future”.
A man more accustomed to milking cows than fighting multinationals, he is nonetheless standing up to the gas companies. Many more are beginning to follow the example of this accidental hero who is rapidly becoming a thorn in the side of the country’s energy ambitions.
Southern Transylvania’s rolling hills are one of several new fronts opening up in Romania’s search for home-grown deposits of natural gas and oil, a treasure-trove of energy opportunities according to energy-extraction advocates.
Victor Ponta, the Romanian prime minister made a bold statement to journalists in June this year, laying the way for a swathe of expansion by fossil fuel companies across the hills of Europe’s second poorest nation.
“Do we want to have gas? First of all to stop importing from Russia. Do we want to have it cheap and do we want to make the Romanian industry competitive and, of course, to have lower expenses for the people? Then we must have gas.”
But Ponta’s government is facing an unexpectedly uphill battle in meeting their resource ambitions. In recent weeks the controversial Canadian-owned gold mine in Rosia Montana has been put on hold, forced into submission by waves of protests in city streets numbering tens of thousands.
And in the latest public showdown, a fracking rig operated by Chevron further south, has been chased away from a test site by communities deeply fearful of the damage that they believe fracking may bring.
With almost 4 million peasant farmers in Romania reliant on clean air, water and soil for their livelihood, support for natural resource protection campaigns are finding fertile ground in the most unlikeliest of places, among the conservative communities in the country’s rural heartland.
I meet Hettie, a 26 year old activist from the nearby city of Brasov, as she blocks the road to Willy’s land: “If villagers see us doing it, they will do it too. We have to give people the courage to do this at any time.”
Faced with an increasingly galvanized opposition, the government is preparing to fight back. A “Law of Expropriation”, currently being drafted in the Romanian Parliament, will potentially allow multinational companies to take over privately-owned land if it is felt the developments are “in the national interest”. At present, the law is focused primarily around mining. But observers say it is widely expected to be extended to energy development projects in the near future.
Fighting with the police. Photo: Jim Wickens / EFU.
The stand-off in Willy’s field is rapidly escalating into a community affair. Half a dozen security cars remain blocked, prevented from moving forward by a growing throng of local residents, joined by Roma kids on bicycles and a young woman riding a horse. A farmer appears in an orchard on the other side of the valley where minutes earlier gas workers had been busy rolling up electrical wiring.
Gheorghe Daianu, the Prospectiuni seismologist, spits angrily, wiping his wrinkled forehead in frustration and sucking heavily on a cigarette. “Of course they have no permission to be here, but what can I do?”
Community activists claim that half a dozen laws are being breached by Prospectiuni in their gas exploration, from lacking the appropriate permits, testing too close to homes, through to committing trespass. “The real problem here is that village people simply don’t know their rights,” says community activist Hans Hedrich.
Prospectiuni and Romgaz both turned down an opportunity to comment on claims of illegality, but in a statement on their website the CEO of Prospectiuni states: “Occasionally we still make mistakes, but they are not ill-intentioned, however we try to have active environmental permits and town planning certificates.”
By late afternoon, under the lee of another 600-year medieval church, volunteers are dishing out potato soup, Transylvanian cakes and hot tea – with surprising efficiency. Elderly ladies in headscarves and traditional dress are rubbing shoulders with pierced activists and men in balaclavas.
It’s an intriguing mix. The impassioned crowd marches out to rip out more seismic wires in full view of the policemen who stand watching from the side of the road. Residents too scared to talk the day before now stand outside their houses, cheering and applauding the protestors in delight.
“Honestly, I feel sorry for them”, one of the police officers tells me, as they stand aside and allow the protestors to rip out a mile of bright orange cabling, dragging it through the dust on their way back to the village. “What the company is doing here … well … it’s just wrong.” Then he moves his head closer to mine. “Actually it’s illegal”, he whispers.
Jim Wickens is an investigative journalist. He works for the Ecologist Film Unit and is a regular correspondent for The Ecologist.