Midnight Sabotage with Transylvania's Anti-Fracking Activists
“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 on why a car has crept to a halt close to where we are hiding. “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 found themselves at the front of a new war, one that has pitted gas exploration companies, the Romanian government and international investment firms against a small band of environmental activists. The activists, who have been drawn here from all across Romania, are working side by side with local farmers to resist the 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 have a long-stated desire to explore the low-lying hills of Transylvania for sources of gas and oil. However, nobody gave it much thought until the exploration began in earnest this month, when the 34-ton trucks used by drilling companies to create artificial earthquakes growled along the muddy tracks to the villages here, accompanied by cohorts of security guards and busloads of workers.
Today, the villages and fields are laced with strips of ribbon, which stretch like spaghetti across the ancient landscape of beech forests, beehives and the harvested stubs of organic cornfields. The ribbons are signals for where the companies plan to lay their cables and plant the explosives for the seismic fracking tests. Locals told me that they awoke to find ribbons being laid across their land, with some even attached to their garden fences.
All the seismic tests are taking place within Romania’s largest EU Natura 2000 site, which is strange, given that the stated aim of the Natura 2000 sites is "to assure the long-term survival of Europe's most valuable and threatened species and habitats". As well as that, several of the churches here are UNESCO heritage sites, visited by foreign dignitaries like Princes Charles and Edward in recent years. Driving into these remote communities where the seismic tests are taking place feels like entering 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 are parked up at crossroads, black uniformed men filming and following our every move.
My guide for the day, community activist Hans Hedrich, says such intimidation tactics are typical for Romania. “You must understand that in Romania people are still afraid to speak out. All this security makes it seem as though the people have no right to object to what is going on. You could easily be forgiven for forgetting that this is the 21st century, and that we are within a democratic country and in the EU,” he says, exasperated.
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 the shrill ringtone of his mobile. Fifteen minutes later, he returns to the kitchen, having been told again by his superiors to keep 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 round the valleys. Away from the security guards, a lady speaks up, “They are thieves,” she hisses. Her neighbour 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 poring over electrical equipment inside. A small portly man introduces himself; he is Gheorghe Daianu, a seismologist and director of operations for Prospectiuni, the exploration company that has been subcontracted for 40 million euros to carry out tests in the region. Daianu condemns the protests against his work, calling opponents of gas exploration “neo-fascists”. He is insistent that the company has permission to be on every square foot of land where the tests are taking place, a claim he says can be backed up with paperwork, before he orders us to leave the area.
I head to the nearby village of Mosna, to the home of farmer Willy Schuster and his wife Lavinia, who've invited me to stay while covering an anti-fracking protest. Chickens cluck, fires roar and cheese is made in the kitchen, as a dozen activists begin to arrive from across the country, checking Facebook and charging their cameras for the following day. This will be the first protest against gas exploration in Transylvania, they explain, urging me to get an early night's sleep. But first I have another appointment to keep.
Later on, after arriving at a pre-arranged location under cover of darkness, I'm bundled into the back of a rusty van. Soon I find 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," she says, "it's super quick, it's only got 350,000km on the clock." She laughs out loud as the door slams shut, and we head off into the frosty night. Minutes later, I am led out to the roadside, scurrying into the undergrowth with half a dozen activists, all armed with pliers and wire cutters. As soon as the headlights fade round the bend, the team begin their work, snipping the orange seismic wires and slicing through any electrical converter or generator box they come across.
Every so often a shout goes up, and the team are sent diving for cover as the headlights of suspected security vehicles sweep across from the road. Part army, part anarchy, the evening is spent scrambling around the remote hills beneath the light of a full moon, clawing through scratchy thorn bushes, woodland clearings and boggy streams. Beneath the balaclavas, the team gradually opens up to me. “Several months ago none of us knew each other, but now we are united,” says one. “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 future."
At 7AM 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 and chases after them, apoplectic with rage. I arrive on the scene just in time to see workers from the exploration company filing out of their company coach and spreading across his wintery fields. Willy screams at them to go 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 sobs, 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 and people are following his lead in growing numbers.
Southern Transylvania’s rolling hills are one of many locations that Romania is scouring for homegrown deposits of natural gas and oil, in the same way that a broke man might scavenge down the back of a sofa for lunch money. According to energy extraction advocates, any potential find would prove to be a treasure trove for the country's government. Victor Ponta, the Romanian prime minister, laid out his argument in a statement to journalists back in June: 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,” he explained. "If not, if we import it from Russia, it will be expensive."
This paved the way for a swathe of expansion by fossil fuel companies in the hills of Europe's second poorest nation. However, Ponta’s government face an unexpectedly tough battle to meet their domestic 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 that have brought tens of thousands of Romanians out on to the streets of their cities. And in the latest public showdown, communities deeply fearful of the damage that they believe fracking may cause have chased a rig operated by Chevron away from a test site.
With almost 4 million peasant farmers in the country reliant on clean air, water and soil for their livelihood, a considerable number of Romania's anti-fracking civil disobedients have sprung from a surprising source: the country’s rural heartland. I speak to 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,” she says.
Faced with an increasingly galvanised opposition, the government is preparing to fight back. A “law of expropriation” currently being drafted in Romanian parliament will potentially allow multinational companies to take over privately-owned land if it is felt that it is in the “national interest”. At present, the law is focused primarily around mining, but observers widely expect it to be extended to energy development projects in the near future, adding legal muscle to stifle local opposition, however vocal it may be.
The standoff 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. He 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?” he asks.
Hans claims that half a dozen laws are being breached by Prospectiuni in their gas exploration, including ones that restrict testing being carried out too close to homes, and others related to permits and trespass. “The real problem here is that villagers simply don't know their rights,” he says. 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 said: “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, outside a 600-year-old medieval church, volunteers are dishing out potato soup, Transylvanian cakes and hot tea. Elderly ladies in headscarves and traditional dress are rubbing shoulders with pierced activists and men in balaclavas. It is an interesting social mix. The crowd marches to the road to tear out more seismic wires in full view of the policemen, who stand watching. Residents who had been too scared to talk the day before now stand outside their houses, cheering and clapping on the protesters in delight. “Honestly, I feel sorry for them,” one of the officers tells me, as they stand by and allow the protesters 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 is just wrong. Actually, it's illegal,” he whispers.
Follow Jim on Twitter: @Jim_Wickens
WATCH – Toxic: Imperial Valley