“Do you think they're about to have sex?” one of the activists whispers. I'm in Transylvania, in central Romania, crouched in the bushes with a bunch of hardcore anti-frackers in balaclavas, spying on a car that's 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 more than an hour since the group started trashing equipment owned by the gas exploration company Prospectiuni, playing a game of cat and mouse with the security teams and police vehicles that are now sweeping the hilltops looking for us. Another light tears around the bend on the road and the shout goes through the team to hide. I throw myself down 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 the battleground 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 come here from across Romania, are working side by side with local farmers to resist the gas and oil exploration they claim is taking place illegally on their land.
The Romanian gas company Romgaz has had a long-stated desire to explore the low-lying hills of Transylvania, but it's only this month that it has started exploration in earnest. Thirty-four-ton seismic testing trucks — used by drilling companies to create artificial earthquakes in order to see what's under the ground — soon growled along the muddy tracks to the villages 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 cornfields. The ribbons indicate 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 inside Romania’s largest EU Natura 2000 site, which is strange, given that the stated aim of the Natura 2000 program is "to assure the long-term survival of Europe's most valuable and threatened species and habitats." These remote communities now resemble a territory occupied by a hostile army. When I arrive in one village, I watch as a team of workers prepares a hole with dynamite a few yards from the village soccer pitch. On the high street, private security jeeps are parked up at a 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 through the valleys. Away from the security guards, a woman 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 from the top and men poring over electrical equipment inside. A small, portly man introduces himself as is Gheorghe Daianu, a seismologist and director of operations for Prospectiuni, the exploration company that has been subcontracted for 40 million euros ($54 million) 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 the next day's anti-fracking protests. 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 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 350,000 kilometers [217,000 miles] on the odometer." 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 go around bend, the team begins 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 is sent diving for cover as the headlights of suspected security vehicles sweep across from the road. 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 7 AM the next morning I'm 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 wintry 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 multinational corporations, 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 an expansion by fossil fuel companies into the hills of Europe's second poorest nation. But Ponta’s government faces 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 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 tells me.
Faced with an increasingly galvanized 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 on mining, but many observers 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, who have by 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 on a cigarette. “Of course they have no permission to be here, but what can I do?” he asks.
Hans, my activist guide, claims that half a dozen laws are being breached by Prospectiuni in their exploration operations, including ones that restrict testing being carried out too close to homes and others related to permits and trespassing. “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, volunteers are dishing out potato soup, Transylvanian cakes, and hot tea to the anti-frackers outside a 600-year-old medieval church. Elderly ladies in headscarves and traditional dress are rubbing shoulders with pierced activists and men in balaclavas. 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 cable, 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.