“Do you think they’re about to have sex?” one of the group whispers. I’m in the central Romanian region of Transylvania, crouched in the bushes with a bunch of activists in balaclavas, taking turns speculating about why a car has crept to a halt close to where we are hiding out. “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 Romanian 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 appears around the bend in 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 months the sleepy Saxon communities and protected forests of Sibiu County in Transylvania have become an unlikely front in a new battle pitting 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 gas and oil exploration that they claim is taking place illegally on their land.
The Romanian gas company Romgaz long ago announced plans to explore the low-lying hills of Transylvania for conventional as well as unconventional sources of gas and oil. While Romania lifted its moratorium on fracking in March 2013, nobody gave it another thought until the exploration began in earnest in November. At that time, seismic trucks — used to set off artificial earthquakes, which in turn allow oil or gas underground to be detected — growled into the muddy tracks of villages, accompanied by cohorts of security guards and busloads of workers.
Residents here told me that they awoke to ribbons being laid out across their lands and even attached to their garden fences. The simple strips of fabric belied a sinister intent: They were markers for the companies to lay cables and plant the explosives for seismic tests.
'We Live From This Land'
Driving into the remote communities where the seismic tests are taking place feels like entering an occupied territory. 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. Up on the street above, private security jeeps can be seen parked at the crossroads, black-uniformed men following and filming our every move.
Community activist Hans Hedrich, my guide for the day, and I follow the ribbons out of the village toward the intermittent booming sounds of controlled explosions echoing around the valleys. Away from the security guards, a lady 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 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 the exploration company Prospectiuni, which has been subcontracted for $55 million to carry out tests in the region.
He condemns the protests against his work, calling opponents of gas exploration “neo-fascists” and insisting that the company has permission to be on every parcel of land where the tests are taking place. He says his claim can be backed up with paperwork before he orders us to leave the area.
I head to the nearby village of Mosna, where farmer Willy Schuster and his wife Lavinia have invited me to stay at their home while I cover a protest planned against the exploration activities.
Chickens cluck, the fire roars and cheese is made in the kitchen as a dozen activists begin to arrive from across the country, updating Facebook accounts and charging their cameras for the following day. This would 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.
Bundled into a rusty van under cover of darkness, I find myself sitting among a dozen men and women in balaclavas. The driver turns to greet me. “Don’t worry about our getaway vehicle — it’s super quick. Only 350,000 kilometers [217,500 miles] on the clock!” She laughs out loud as the rusty door slams shut and we trundle away into the frosty darkness.
Minutes later, I am escorted out onto the roadside, scurrying into the undergrowth with half a dozen activists armed with pliers and wire cutters. As soon as the headlights fade round the bend, the team begins working, snipping the orange seismic wires and disfiguring every electrical converter and generator box they come across.
Every so often a shout goes up, and the team dives for cover as the sweeping headlights of suspected security vehicles appear from the nearby road. Part army, part anarchy, the group spends the evening in a whirlwind of adrenaline-fueled scrambling and clawing through scratchy thorn bushes, woodland clearings and boggy streams. Needless to say, a lot of equipment gets busted.
‘I Am Terrified For My Children’
At 7 o’clock the next morning I am sitting 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 the door chasing 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 out across his snowy fields. Willy screams them 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 says, 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. Many more are beginning to follow the example of this accidental hero who is rapidly becoming a thorn in the side of the country’s energy ambitions.
Southern Transylvania’s rolling hills are one of several new fronts opening up in Romania’s search for homegrown deposits of natural gas and oil. Victor Ponta, the Romanian prime minister, made a bold argument for energy extraction 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.”
His stance opened the door for fossil fuel companies to expand across the hills of Europe’s second-poorest nation. But Ponta’s government is facing an unexpectedly difficult battle in realizing its domestic resource ambitions. In recent months the controversial Canadian-owned gold mine in Rosia Montana was put on hold, following a series of protests that have brought tens of thousands of Romanians into the streets. And in one of the latest — and continuing — public showdowns, Chevron’s gas exploration in the remote village of Pungesti was temporarily halted by residents deeply fearful of the damage that they believe fracking may bring.
With almost 4 million peasant farmers in Romania reliant on clean air, water and soil for their livelihood, support for natural resource protection campaigns is growing in the most unlikely of places, among the conservative communities in the country’s rural heartland.
Faced with an increasingly galvanized opposition, the government is preparing to fight back. A “Law of Expropriation” will potentially allow multinational companies to take over privately-owned land if it is felt the developments are “in the national interest.” It failed to pass the lower house of the Romanian Parliament in December, but the government is trying to amend it. At present, the law is focused primarily on mining, but observers say it is widely expected to be extended to energy development projects in the near future.
Community activists claim that half a dozen laws are being breached by Prospectiuni’s gas exploration, including permit requirements, regulations regarding testing near homes and trespassing laws. “The real problem here is that village people simply don’t know their rights,” says Hedrich.
Prospectiuni and Romgaz both turned down an opportunity to comment on claims of illegality, but in a statement on Prospectiuni’s website the CEO states: “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, under the lee of a 600-year-old medieval church, volunteers are dishing out potato soup, cakes and hot tea. Elderly ladies in headscarves and traditional dress are rubbing shoulders with pierced activists and men in balaclavas. It’s an intriguing mix. The crowd marches out to rip out more seismic wires in full view of the policemen who stand watching from the side of the road. Residents too scared to talk the day before now stand outside their houses, cheering and applauding the protesters in delight.
“Honestly, I feel sorry for them,” one of the police officers tells me, as they stand aside 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’s just wrong.” Then he moves his head closer to mine. “Actually, it’s illegal,” he whispers.
Jim Wickens is an investigative journalist covering environmental issues around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @Jim_Wickens. An earlier version of this article appeared in The Ecologist.