Quest for Gas: a Story of Peasant Resistance

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by  / Agricultural and Rural Convention (arc2020.eu)

Dynamite, earthquakes, destruction of world heritage sites, violation of constitutional rights. Rural citizens of Romania are under a new kind of siege. Tacitly, since 2000, succeeding Governments have approved more than 50 agreements with multinational corporations or with Romanian exploitation companies. These agreements open up the possibilities for prospecting, specifically the exploration and exploitation of shale gas. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), Romania has a shale gas reserve of almost 1.5 billion cubic meters, placing the countries potential not far behind Poland and France. France has already banned share gas extraction. However all this gas is under peasants’ lands, communal pastures, historical churches and local water resources.

While the Government struck deals with companies like Chevron, OMV Petrom, Lukoil or Romgaz, which was just listed on the London Stock Exchange, local populations on the ground are worried. While people are concerned about environmental, cultural and social risks, there are also serious concerns about the way companies violated their constitutional rights, and how poorly local authorities have been dealing with the emerged tensions.

The case of Pungesti, Vaslui county, where, in the middle of October, the local community resisted the installment of an exploration well by Chevron, is notorious. While the company got all its permits from the national authorities, this didn’t convince the almost 3500 peasants of the eight-village commune. With Chevron, on its way to start the drilling, the peasants of Pungesti occupied the exploration perimeter, where they created a human chain and refused to leave.This standoff went on for days. Then the prefect of the county ordered the gendarmerie to drastically intervene over the peaceful protest. Several people were injured and needed hospitalization but at the end of the day Chevron representatives stated: “”Chevron can today confirm it has suspended activities in Silistea, Pungesti commune, Vaslui county. Chevron is committed to building constructive and positive relationships with the communities where we operate and we will continue our dialogue with the public, local communities and authorities on our projects“.

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More than a month has passed and since then Chevron started a door-to-door informing campaign in Pungesti, regarding shale gas extraction. A local peasant woman, Anisoara Lavric, measures their success like this: “They came and told us only nice things, but they did not convince us that we will not suffer. So, they should leave us as we are. We have clean wells and we want to keep that. They should go back to America”.

Though they have suspended their activities in Pungesti, Chevron still have the support of a Government which is keen to explore and extract gas resources, its citizens dwelling on them or not.

The resistance of Pungesti is not a singular event. As this map shows,Romanian authorities sealed prospection, exploration and extraction deals in almost every region of the country. All that is left between a large scale exploitation of gases is the awareness and capacity of farmers to oppose.

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One such farmer is Willy Schuster from Mosna, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Sibiu county. Willy, co-president of peasant association Eco Ruralis, and his family have an organic milk farm in the village and they own several plots of certified organic pastures and croplands near their home. The struggle of the Transylvanian peasants started a few months ago, when the employees of a prospection company, Prospectiuni SA, owned by controversial businessman Ovidiu Tender (also grabbing land for biofuels in Senegal and Gabon), started to illegally stretch on their lands hundreds of meters of prospection cables and explosives in order to map the areas potential for extractive natural resources, including shale gas. Willy opposed. He repeatedly gathered all the cables from his lands and soon others followed the “late harvesting” actions, as the cables were in the way of cattle and through their installment, workers destroyed crop fields.

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They simply didn’t ask us. Moreover, when I gathered the cables from my property, they accused me of stealing and filed a complaint against me at the police. I told them I didn’t know what they were, considered them abandoned trash and that I will give them back. The bottom line is that they were trespassing. They also threatened me and my family. Despite these illegalities and my various complaints at the local and regional authorities, they are still free”, declared Willy Schuster.

Also villagers complain that the company workers did not warn them about what they will bring on their fields, and were reckless in the handling of the explosives. “I personally found dynamite on my land. There were some company employees but I went there and picked one up – a child could pick them. It was made by Maxam Deutschland GmbH ad the name of the explosive was Rioesis Plus”, said the farmer.

Nongovernmental organizations accused the company of damaged several UNESCO World Heritage Sites and local houses, with their explosions. These include the fortified church from Mosna which dates back to the 15th  Century. On the other hand, Mihai Mitroi, the manager of Prospectiuni SA comments that the company entered on unauthorized private property by mistake, but they do not have cables on his land and didn’t affect him with anything.

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By the 15th of November Willys’ house became a headquarter for resistance. dozens of NGO representatives, neighbors, activists and scientists gathered in the small peasant house in a sign of solidarity. They spent the weekend informing people, publicly protesting against the illegal activities of Prospectiuni SA, helping villagers to “harvest” the hundreds of meters of cables and identifying where dynamite was put on private land. Their solidarity culminated in a colorful demonstration in Alma Vii, one of the most affected village from the prospection perimeter.

Hundreds of protesters from all regions of Romania transmitted a strong message: “Together we can save Romania!”, creating a unified stand against all kinds of destructive, short term projects, from shale gas extraction to gold mining and agricultural land grabbing.

Although the abuses of Prospectiuni SA and other prospecting, exploration and exploitation companies are still taking place, violating the constitutional rights of Romanian peasants, discrediting the important role they have in society, there still is hope. But people like the “watchmen” (how they are called by the national media) of Pungesti or local community leaders like Willy Schuster, should not find themselves alone in front of the tide.

As a reporter from Reuters wonderfully documented the crowd from Pungesti ecstatically shouting: “Can we live without water?”, NO!, Can we live without Chevron? YES!.

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