Fracking has sparked protests in Britain, but these look subdued compared with a campaign in Romania by peasant farmers, who are fighting their own government. Jim Wickens and Paraic O’Brien report.
They are the unlikeliest of eco-protesters, a lifetime of hardship engraved on their faces. Wrapped up in scarves and propped up on walking sticks, dozens have hiked through snow-covered fields to march.
The peasant farmers from Pungesti, a sleepy village on the remote Moldova county on the edge of Romania, are fighting to stop fracking in their village. Their impassioned protests are rapidly becoming a thorn in the side to the Ponta government and the energy companies he has invited in to explore unconventional sources of gas.
Scenes of riots, heart attacks and police beatings were screened around the world in November, when Chevron first tried to construct the pad for an exploratory tracking well on a muddy field on the edge of Pungesti village.
In sub-zero temperatures and metre-high snowdrifts, we returned last week. The protests go on. We watched as a solemn procession of villagers, flag-waving children and elders propped up on sticks, made the slow solemn march along the village road, their every move watched by van-loads of police who monitor their every move, towering over tiny elderly women tottering on sticks and ushering them along.
Silvica became a YouTube hit when the first protest clashes occurred in November, filmed as she struggled on hands and knees to wrestle herself out of a line of riot police on the proposed fracking site.
We tracked her down and she told us: “The gas they want from here, we don’t agree. We will starve to death… our flesh will fall off. I’ve heard about this and we don’t want it at all… If Chevron come they will singe us with gas… We don’t want them.”
On the day we filmed, Chevron had sent around a communication leaflet explaining the benefits of fracking. As with many in the village we spoke to, it seems to be too little too late.
Stories abound of Chevron representatives attempting to hand out yoghurts and t-shirts on the village high street months earlier, crude acts of poorly-calculated PR that backfired spectacularly, yoghurts thrown back in disgust at the people distributing them.
In a written reply Chevron claims it spoke to more than 350 people in the village, but “unfortunately Chevron was not able to speak to more residents due to threats from protesters”.
Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta laid clear his plans for fracking in June 2013. “Do we want to have gas – first of all to stop importing from Russia – 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.