Pungeşti, Romania. Photos by Dana Popa for VIRA Association
Back in 2010, energy titan Chevron bought around two million acres of Romanian land. Their plan was to start fracking for shale gas throughout the northern Vaslui and southern Dobrogea regions of the country in the second half of 2013 and continue to do so for the next 30 years while building giant gas rigs and pumping up to 238,000 gallons of chemicals into the earth along the way.
The problem with fracking, environmentalists say, is that pumping all those chemicals into the ground can contaminate the local water supply—affecting both the stuff farmers rely on to grow their crops and the stuff you drink from your tap to stay alive—and all that subterranean rock being blasted all over the place might cause earthquakes. These side effects are a particular worry for the Vaslui region, where the soil is dry and drinkable water is a rare commodity in rural areas.
As soon as the initial probing started in the Dobrogea region, hundreds of small earthquakes hit the nearby Galaţi county. And even though there's no scientific proof that it was Chevron's operations that were responsible for the quakes, it presumably wasn't what the company's PR department wanted to hear.
That's how 600 angry farmers from the village of Pungeşti in Vaslui county ended up forming a human chain last week to stall the Chevron bulldozers heading for their land.
The protest in Pungeşti.
The authorities responded by aggressively defending Chevron's interest. Two hundred riot policemen showed up on the scene during the first day of the demonstration, and according to the protesters, roughed up five elderly locals so badly they ended up in the hospital.
Costică Spiridon, a 76-year-old who's become something of a hero for the Pungeşti movement, was apparently having a tube inserted into one of his orifices by hospital staff when I called, so instead I rang Ovidiu Tiron, a protester who's a member of the center-right Civic Platform party, to talk about the violence.
"They pushed Spiridon for daring to build a tent next to this location," he told me from the demonstration, referring to the campsite he was trying set up to continue the protest overnight. "I'm sitting next to it and the generator he brought. The riot police, in full battle armor, keep trying to raze it."
After speaking to Ovidiu I called Father Adrian Ţapu, who seemed a little overexcited by the protests: "Spiridon was pushed in the ditch by the riot police," he said. "Bulldozers are crushing people around here. Even though we were sitting peacefully, the riot police started pushing and provoking us. I think they killed one of the leaders of the protests."
A tent at the protest in Pungeşti.
Nobody had been killed, but the paranoia surrounding the protest explains why Father Tapu may have thought they had; various Facebook groups for the movement are saturated with rumors about riot cops attempting to slaughter everyone in attendance. There is, however, no evidence for this. Though footage on the Romanian site Bârlad Online shows the policemen scuffling with the farmers and forming a human chain around them, that's a far cry from them bludgeoning pensioners to death with their nightsticks.
￼Matei Budeş, an activist with the campaign group VIRA Association, told me that the paranoia was fuelled by the actions of some of the police officers. "They got into an ambulance so the protesters wouldn't see them approach," he said. "It was very suspicious. Some [officers] were talking about how they should throw gasoline on the protesters to scare them. Luckily, there were people filming so they couldn't do it."
Protesters marching in solidarity with Pungesti in Bucharest. Photo by Cristian Munteanu
Another rumor suggested that riot police were going to turn up under the cover of darkness to force the protesters out, which caused hundreds of people from nearby cities to rush to the farmers' aid.
One of those who came to help, Ioan Creţu, told me, "Yesterday, I got a call from a colleague, who was protesting [in Pungeşti]. She was crying that the riot policemen had shoved them. At 5 PM, I arrived along with a lot of people from the cities of Bârlad, Roman, Vaslui, and Iaşi, so the people of Pungeşti got a morale boost. None of us reacted violently."
For now, the protests have worked—Chevron has suspended the fracking operation in Pungeşti. However, all of their equipment has been left half an hour's drive from the village and Matei told me that he expects the protests to continue.
With the demonstrations against the Canadian-funded Rosia Montana goldmine in western Romania also continuing, and with crowds in Bucharest demonstrating in solidarity with both rural antifracking and antimining protesters, the country is currently a hotbed of environmental protest. It remains to be seen whether the huge international companies behind the two controversial projects will listen to the Romanian people and move their equipment out for good.
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