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THE BATTLE FOR PUNGESTI

Written By Maria Olteanu, Frack Free Group, Bucharest, for the book Global Resistance to fracking, coordinated by Samuel Martin-Sosa, Ecologistas in accion, Spain

Pungesti is a municipality in the Romanian NE county of Vaslui, considered as one of the poorest in Romania. It consists of 9 villages with a total population of little over 3000 inhabitants, mostly consisting of self-sufficient farmers and small scale farmers, with agricultural production focused mainly on cereals and raising cattle. Due to its relatively long distance to the next bigger city, around one hour drive, the job opportunities are rather scarce. The available jobs are mainly unskilled jobs during the agricultural season, and the youth tends to migrate to bigger cities, in search of jobs. Yet the elderly population consists mainly of self-sufficient farmers, which makes them heavily dependent on their water and their land staying clean. They have always grown their own food and, due to the relative poverty, they were kept away from the mechanisms of the consumerism and waste, leading a life mostly in harmony with the nature, like most of the Romanian countryside.
This place turned from one normal backwater village in the region of Moldova into one of the hotspots of the environmental fight, whose name became well-known throughout Romania and even abroad in 2013. 

Setting the stage for the first modern day peasant revolt in Romania
In order to understand how the fight in Pungesti was possible, it is important to give a short overview of how the whole antifracking fight started in Romania. It all started due to the Bulgarian activists, who have contacted the Romanians involved into some Facebook groups fighting cyanide mining, and alerted them on the plans of Chevron to start fracking in Romania. The Bulgarians were already protesting for months against it in Bulgaria (and they did get a ban in January 2012, that is now coming under pressure by the new Government, who has exit the South Stream project). At the beginning of 2012, barely anyone knew in Romania about shale gas and the Government leases to various companies, for fracking purposes.

That was the point when Facebook basically exploded with dire information on fracking and people started watching the documentary Gasland. People started to organize and soon after followed the first protest, in February 2012, simultaneously in Bucharest and in Barlad, not far from Pungesti. As at that time, the current government party was in opposition, they were displaying a very critical position to fracking, supported by the party in power at that moment, the Liberal Democrats. Therefore, at the beginning of the antifracking protests in Barlad, the Social Democratic Party was supporting the protests. Also this support led to the biggest known antifracking protests in the world being organized there, with up to 10.000 particpants. 6 protests with 3000 to 10.000 people took place between March 2012 and September 2013 in the city of Barlad, one hour drive from Pungesti.

The massive mobilization in the Region of Barlad was in fact possible due to one team made up of local elite of the city of Barlad, who was formed around the issue of fracking, featuring an orthodox priest as the frontman, a rather unusual sight for Romania. A lady who used to live in Pittsburg and made her first hand experiences with fracking was also part of the group. Since the priest was having a position in the local church hierarchy, he was also able to spread the message also across his own church, thus having a not just a local impact, but a regional one. This group was holding regular meetings and was trying to inform and mobilise the countryside, where the fracking plans were to be implemented. Yet, until the Vira, an NGO made of young men came to town, in the summer of 2012, no one really knew what was fracking in Pungesti. When then arrived, they started to inform the locals via leaflets and documentary evenings at the local church, followed by discussions with the locals. It was a hard task to mobilise a community who has previously never fought against a company and against its own government. When VIRA boys heard about the fracking plans of Chevron in their birth region, they mobilized to get a grant from a bigger NGO and used it for an information campaign in three municipalities of the Vaslui County, one of which was Pungesti, all three in the perimeter of Chevron.

The municipalities were selected because one knew that they will be the first places where Chevron will drill exploration rigs. The community facilitators from VIRA had to go there a few times, to make sure the community has received the message. At that point, the government was already changed, and the Social Democrats, who were at the begging strongly opposing fracking, took power and said that Romania has an oral moratorium on fracking. Which was soon after, by the end of 2012, when they voted into power, totally forgotten.
No type of environmental opposition was familiar to the villagers in Pungesti when the information about Chevron, fracking and shale gas struck them, as it was the case with almost all the Romanian villages. The environmental movement was something rather unstructured in Romania and with rather urban roots. In the first place, the Pungesti people did not know what to do, so they have rather waited for one more year, when Chevron plans started to get more concrete. In the summer of 2013, when the Government started to increase pressure on the local communities on the issue of fracking, the Ministry of Environment organized a so called “public debate”, in the 3 municipalities, that took place simultaneously in the 3 locations where the first exploration rigs were to be drilled. They have done this in order to deceive the opposition, thinking that the activists armed with counter arguments would cluster at just one location.

When the representatives of Chevron and of the authorities came to Pungesti to present “the benefits” of fracking coming to their community, they were awaited with a hostile attitude by the meanwhile informed local community and their lies were exposed, partially by the locals, partially by the activists travelling from various cities of Romania to support the locals.
Despite the massive objections of the local community, Chevron’s planning application was approved on the 3rd of October 2013. The works for the first official shale gas exploration rig in Romania were expected to begin, yet no official date was known and the people started to become very aware of the fact that the rig will arrive any time soon. So, on the 14th of October, when the first heavy machinery for the exploration site came, it was no surprise for the local community, who was meanwhile mentally prepared to resist. The authorities were aware of the wave of resistance among the peasants, so when the first machinery was brought to Pungesti, it was not without the presence of the police.

The antifracking camp
When the first news that the heavy machinery will arrive to the village, 150 people organized quickly and spontaneously blocked the road, on the 14th of October 2013. At that point, no one from the village knew anything about civil disobedience and direct nonviolent action. Soon after, activists from the surrounding cities started to come at the site and were encouraging the people to resist. For two days, the 14th and the 15th of October, the riot police was non-violent. After having blocked the road, kneeling down in front of the trucks, people aligned on the side of the road, forming a human chain. The riot police was forming a chain opposite the villagers. For two days, the people stayed like this, in shifts. This was until the 16th of October, when the riot police got the order to use force in order to remove the villagers who were blocking the access to the perimeter, despite the presence of many children on the site. On that day, 500 villagers, joined by people from surrounding communities, as well as cities like Iasi, Bucharest, Vaslui, Barlad showed up, in solidarity with the locals. The riot police, equipped as if for war, despite the majority of the protesters consisting of elderly, women and kids, started hitting and pushing the protesters forming a human chain along the road, into a ditch filled with water and mud, especially at spots where there were no cameras. More people were wounded and taken to hospital, and there were rumours that later on proved to be false, that two men died.

On that day, in a matter of hours after the news of the dead persons hit, more than 3000 people took to the streets in Bucharest, in solidarity with Pungesti, and had to face the intimidation of the riot police. Media outlets were barely reporting on the subject. On the 16th of October, the first improvised tent was erected and an old trailer was brought to the field and with it, and so the first antifracking permanent camp in Romania was erected. From that day on, a massive wave of solidarity with Pungesti started, with people from all over the country donating food and useful items to the camp.

Also, people from all over Romania and even foreigners started coming to tie camp, to show solidarity. The camp was run by both locals and people who came from elsewhere in Romania. The locals were organizing shifts to come and stay at the site and there were kids sleeping in a covered horse cart, who were refusing to go home. For more than one month and a half, the presence of the antifracking camp, set up on a private land opposite Chevron’s pad, prevented them from starting their work at the site. October the 19th, the 2nd Global Frackdown, coincided with the very tense situation in Pungesti. Therefore many people from all over Romania made it there, to support the locals on the Global Frackdown gathering in Pungesti. More than 700 people gathered, including 2 buses who travelled from Bucharest and were systematically prevented from reaching Pungesti – they were stopped 5 times by the traffic police on the road, just to delay them from arriving at their destination.

During this six weeks while the camp was on, the people of Pungesti tried to talk to the local and regional authorities and show their opposition to the project. Yet no one was there to listen to them. The mayor was in fact the one who leased his land to Chevron, to start the project. The land was previously obtained by the mayor by means of a very controversial land exchange. On the 14th of November, a convoy of more than a dozen horse drawn carts made it to the county capital city, Vaslui, in an attempt to tell the President of the County Council that they oppose the project (it was not the first time). His reaction of disdain was beyond any imagination: “if your water gets spoiled, well, don’t worry, drink some vodka!” His incredible reaction was an allusion to what the Prime Minister has uttered before, that a handful of “drunk, lazy, backward villagers are stopping progress in Romania”.

By the end of November, Chevron was already in a massive delay and was showing signs of impatience. Having a government that changed positions by 180 degrees and turned up to be very supportive of fracking, they dared a very risky PR move. On the night of 2nd December, just a few hours after the Romanian National Day, the heavy machinery for the site preparation tried once again to enter Pungesti, in the middle of the night, at 4.15 a.m. The heavy machinery was, of course, preceded an army made up of around 1000 riot policemen equipped as for war, to fight a village of 300, mainly consisting of elderly, women and children. The intervention was illegal by all standards, the law stating that the interventions of the riot police are done after 7 a.m.

There was some leak of information about a possible intervention of the riot police the evening before and the people slept with their clothes on, ready to exit their houses when the alarm was given. So, when it was given and the people tried to exit their homes and head for the antifracking camp, to join the people there, they were prevented by the riot policemen, who were ordered to repress any opposition by using force. So they started hitting whoever was in their way, elderly persons, women, children altogether. Prior to this, they have previously switched off the public lighting, so it was impossible to film what was going on. Then they went to the antifracking camp and started to arrest those who already made it there, by violently removing them from the private land the camp was on, leased by the activists from a local. In this time, with no lights on, no media there to film what was going on, they were able to entirely clean the antifracking camp, either by arresting the protesters or by making them flee. After all resistance was brutally eliminated, Chevron has brought in the heavy machinery and started setting up the site, on the morning of December, the 2nd.

Incredible abuses of the riot police in Pungesti
After they cleaned the camp, a chain of riot policemen was installed at the exit from the village of Silistea. No one was allowed to enter the perimeter and the media access was entirely restricted. On the same day, the Minister of Interior has announced that in Pungesti, a “special area of public safety” was instated, due to “threats to public safety”. They installed a road block and allowed no traffic along the road where the Chevron site was. The local shop was shut down, as it was the place where people would gather to discuss. The police cars would follow groups of kids along the street, dozens of cars of the intelligence were parked along the streets of the village, and the village was paralyzed. Hundreds of riot policemen were marching up and down the village, intimidating the locals. Many have deemed the 2nd of December as the end of the fragile Romanian democracy.

The week-end after these incredible abuses of the riot policemen, on December the 7th, due to the strong Facebook campaign exposing the incredible abuses of the riot police in Pungesti, people from all over Romania gathered again to support the people in Pungesti. No one knew what was to happen, yet everyone could feel the tension in the air, which culminated with the angry mob pulling down the newly erected fence around the Chevron compound. Afterwards on that day, a violent clash with the riot police started, and dozens of people were arrested and the camp was evacuated. Some of the activists from other cities who spent the night in the village witnessed the police entering the yards of the people and even their homes, to intimidate them.

After the activists left Pungesti, some days of violent repression followed, with riot policemen hunting the locals during the night, beating them up in the dark and creating a state of terror. The people were fined for not being able to show their documents while on the fields with their cows or while going to the local shop and very high fines were given for ridiculous imaginary “crimes”. The week after the 7th of December, no one was exiting their homes after the fall of the dark. The children were terrorized by the presence of the riot police in the village, who even dared to go to the kindergarten to make the kids tell their parents not to go to the antifracking camp. Also the school was prevented from organizing the Christmas party. The mayor, who was considered by the locals as a traitor, since he owned the land Chevron was building its rig on, even dared to beat up a 14 years old kid who was passing on the street calling him a traitor, in front of other kids. The kids of Pungesti were, in fact, among the bravest and most impressive symbols of the Pungesti fight, inspiring everyone with their courage and resilience.

Meanwhile, the antifracking camp was destroyed by the riot police and everyone was evacuated on the 7th December, on “hygiene” grounds. Another camp, closer to the village, was erected and people entered a collective hunger strike over the winter holidays. This was as a reaction to the hunger strike started in Bucharest, on the 21st December, by Alexandru Popescu, who stayed in hunger strike for 22 days, sleeping under the stars in the center of Bucharest, to protest against the incredible human rights abuses in Pungesti. Also this second camp site was evacuated by the riot police soon after, and the people forced out again illegaly. The hunger strike of the locals in Pungesti and that in Bucharest, which went on for almost two months, with more people entering hunger strike in Bucharest, sleeping under heavy snow, stayed totally uncovered by the media.

The protests in Pungesti went on also in 2014, until summer, with Chevron working to set up the site, unbothered by the constant protesting of the locals. Every week, there were protests with more than 200 locals participating (out of a population of 300 people in the village of Silistea, the closest one to the rig). Despite the massive and constant protests, the derrick was brought on March the 18th, during the night, yet the resistance could do nothing to stop it. Chevron started drilling officially on the 1st of May and the drilling lasted for some 10 weeks, as usual.

During the drilling, the people complained about the heavy noise made by the rig, especially during the night, the heavy traffic and the high speed of the lorries passing through as if wishing to disturb them on purpose, the heavy smoke released every now and then by the engine of the derrick, and by the dark water coming down the ditch surrounding the Chevron compound, which was flowing down to the village. Of course, no baseline water tests were done prior to the beginning of the drilling in Pungesti. There was even a working accident at the site and rumors have it that someone was killed while wrongly manipulating some toxic substances, yet it was hard to get more details, as they have tried to keep all negative rumors away from the public scrutiny, with all the eyes on Pungesti. A massive cover-up action is suspected to have happened in this case. Chevron came out with no official explanation, it just orderd an article in some newspaper, which was telling everyone how well everything is going and how the environmental screenings at the site found no problems. The derrick was taken away this summer, the rig was sealed and Chevron maintains it that they are analyzing the results in the laboratory, yet sources from an international conference confirm that Chevron is bragging that the shale in Pungesti proved to be economically viable, yet to official release on this was made.

The riot police stayed there, enforcing “law and order” at the Chevron site and preventing any “unsocial behavior” since December 2013 through to the autumn of 2013, even if its presence dwindled a bit and was mainly restricted to the area around the Chevron pad after January 2014. The total amount of money the Romanian spent with the operation of the riot police is not known, yet there are unofficial numbers saying that one day of mobilization costed the Romanian state up to 60.000 Euros, in the days when the presence of the riot police was massive. Of course, the money was paid by the taxpayers for the state to defend a corporation against the citizens in self-defense, protecting their water and land, which they so desperately need to make a living. The riot police was guarding the site even after the rig and the machinery was removed from the site, in early autumn 2014. This means more than 10 months of occupation of Pungesti by the riot police, at the costs of the Romanian taxpayers. Furthermore, there are reports of the employees of local authorities, such as the traffic police or the Environmental Guard, who report that they were told to close their eyes in whatever happens in Pungesti.

Meanwhile, many of the criminal files of the locals and of the activists were turned into simple files, which can be considered a sign that the justice in Romania is not entirely corrupted. Yet, despite the many court cases trying to block the drilling in Pungesti and elsewhere, none was definitely won by the civil society. An entire community was taken hostage in its own habitat, in order for Chevron to be able to work unbothered on its premises. No Romanian politician, but one, talked about the huge human rights abuses. Of course, no one paid for Pungesti, even if the Minister of Internal Affairs was soon after replaced.

What’s next
The lesson of Pungesti has helped the antifracking movement in Romania to quickly grow, yet the people understood that Pungesti was an experiment of terror the Government and Chevron used to make sure everyone gets their lesson learned in case they feel like rioting again against fracking. Nevetheless, after Pungesti, other communities started protesting fracking and the abusive seismic testing on their fields. The people of Pungesti, despite the fact that they were not able to prevent the rig from being drilled on their land, are regarded as an inspiration by all the other communities who fight fracking against Romania and their story will continue to inspire the antifracking movement in Romania and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the drilling of new exploratory rigs continues, yet hidden, with people discovering new exploratory rigs all over Romania. The authorities and the companies, in fear of reactions like that in Pungesti, would not admit again that they are searching for shale gas. The words “fracking” and “shale gas” have turned into no gos for industry and the authorities, who now keep doing their unceased dash for gas without using the “dirty word”.
The Romanian Government is even bragging that it will become the energy hub of Europe, with large gas reserves discovered in the Black Sea, plus the 3rd shale gas resource in Europe and still large quantities of conventional gas to be taken out of its underground (100 billions euros are to be invested in the energy sector in Romania, if we are to trust the Energy strategy draft of Romania for 2020 and 2035), while any support for the green energy was cut. A “public consultation” on the energy strategy for 2020-2035 was launched on December the 5th, over the winter holidays, ending soon after the winter holidays (covering the whole winter holidays, when everyone is busy with Christmas). This strategy, aimed not to take on board any of the complaints of the civil society, will underline again the importance of “new ressources” and of “new technologies” (without naming them) for the energy independency of Romania. Fair enough, this term has long ceased to be defined as producing gas for its own needs by the Romanian authorities, and is now being defined rather as producing gas for the neighbours and rest of Europe (Romania is, in fact, already producing more gas than it consumes).

At the same time, a very untransparent and undemocratic process of undermining the in-takes of the state from oil and gas, involving actors like The IMF, the World Bank, the Israeli Minister of Finance and the American one is under way. This will set the scene for the next 10 to 15 years of oil and gas activity, in which the companies will be taxed almost nothing for extracting the Romanian gas (shale gas including) in order to sell it abroad. There is also a heavy activity on the issue of gas transport infrastructure, with Romanian sea ports getting ready to turn into energy hubs of world class. Meanwhile, the Romanians, with the lowest incomes in the EU, 5 times lower than the EU average, will soon (by 2019) pay their internally produced gas at the same price like the countries importing it from Russia, due to the gas price liberalization negociated by Romania with the IMF and the World Bank.

As we clearly see, Romania is bracing itself for a very harsh future, with the prospect of massive environmental crimes of international companies who will frack for gas, leaving no revenue to the country. The new taxing system of the oil and gas industry will no longer be based on the extracted quantities (the royalties system), but will be based on the profits made by the company. The current practice of the big companies is showing us that most of the profits are fleeing to Cyprus, with Romania getting nothing out of it, which is expected to happen with the oil and gas companies, as well. On top of it, the Romanians will be burdened with soaring gas prices, which will entirely blow the economy and destroy the local companies.

Despite all these dire prospects, the Romanian antifracking fight, despite of lacking resources, has yet managed to worry giants like Chevron (currently, there are 44 companies granted permit to search for oil and gas in Romania, with more than 60% of the surface licensed and new perimeters to be licensed nex year). The American oil and gas industry, hihly interested in the the Romanian oil and gas market, has recently ordered an article about the fight in Pungesti, in New York Times, in which the author is explicitly saying that the resistance in Pungesti has been supported by Putin and Gazprom, without being able to bring any evidences. This ridiculous try is thus proving that the antifracking fight in Romania was to an extent successful.

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