What does the region of Ardeche, known for its bucolic medieval villages in southern France, have to do with the Bolivian Amazon? Not the wine, that’s for sure. Not much, in fact, except that both places are mobilising against extractive industries. Since the French government decided to authorise drilling for natural gas, local communities are organising a new form of resistance. From the forests of the Amazon to the vineyards of France, people besieged by extractive industries are mobilising to protect their lands and livelihoods.
Exploring French vineyards
There are different ways of drilling for oil. There are large, deep drilling operations in the Amazon or Niger Delta and there are smaller operations to exploit gas locked into rock formations. This latter type of drilling consists in injecting high-pressured water with chemicals into the ground to extract oil through a process of hydraulic fracturing. “Fracking,” as it is called, is an extremely costly, inefficient technology. Yet as oil prices increase, it is becoming more profitable, causing public uproar as it spreads.
Phillipe Barth, a geologist who worked for the oil industry and is now engaged in the Ardeche Collective To Stop Gas Drilling, claims that major health and economic stress results from this type of mining activity. First, fracking implies the industrialisation of the landscape. Intensive exploitation requires the placement of one drilling platform every kilometre, thus destroying the rural character that gives Ardeche the charm to fuel a vibrant tourism-based economy. The region is home to unique underground landscapes, most notably the 30,000 year-old drawings of the Chauvet Cave, also threatened by fracking planned to occur just miles away.
Second, fracking requires an enormous consumption of water. Ardeche already suffers from water scarcity, with regular restrictions on public consumption. Yet fracking will require a good ten thousand cubic meters of water (or 20 pools) for each of the eight wells in every platform, placed only one kilometre apart.
Third, fracking utilises a large amount of toxic components, notably neurotoxic chemicals, and brings to the surface dangerous, radioactive organic matter- such as heavy metals and H2S. Josh Fox’s documentary “Gasland” shows nightmarish scenes of water catching fire in kitchen sinks in homes near where drilling occurs. In Ardeche, contamination will affect both the water used for agriculture and human consumption.
Then there is the risk of major, long-term damage. Wells have a short production life, with productivity dropping by half within a year and to one tenth of its initial capacity after five years. Not only is there no appropriate technology available to safely seal old wells, but once they are deactivated it is up to local governments (i.e. public money) to deal with the lasting pollution problems of well seepage.
Selling out democracy
French mining laws do not require prior consultation with local communities before drilling commences, as is now the case in many Latin American countries, which have been creating mechanisms to assure greater transparency. Consequently, there has been opacity surrounding the granting of mining permits in 2010 and the actual beginning of operations in 2011, despite the assurances of the French Minister of Ecology Kosciusko-Morizet that there would be no fracking during the initial research phase. With rhetoric reminiscent of the French Revolution, the mayor of Barjac accuses the central government of serving the interests of Total Oil Corporation. Many local officials are siding with the protesters, at times even using their authority to block trucks from entering their communities to start perforations. Oil corporations responded with intimidation practices seen elsewhere: the mayors of Villeneuve de Berg and Bonnevot are already being prosecuted for – get ready – “abuse of power.”
The real problem with industrial extractive practices lies in the disproportionate amount of power oil companies enjoy in the world economy. There have been in-depth reports regarding the politics behind the BP oil spill in the US Gulf of Mexico as well as the Chevron pollution case in the Ecuadorian Amazon. The Devil’s Operation won the Cinema for Peace Human Rights Award in Berlin for exposing the persecution of Peruvian eco-activists and indigenous farmers who fought the US-owned Yanacocha mine. In his acceptance speech, Marco Arana called on the International Criminal Court in the Hague to prosecute environmental crimes committed by multinational corporations.
Not just weak states in poor countries but also powerful states in wealthy countries are increasingly prone to bend to these dangerous corporate practices. What is increasingly clear is that governments will not respect their own laws without pressure from popular mobilisations from below, and that rural communities in countries like France, just like indigenous peoples in the Amazon, are amongst the people who most fiercely rise to defend their land.
A global force of mobilisation?
People around the world are mobilising to resist and denounce the practices of extractive industries. Fracking projects in southern France have generated unequivocal mobilisation that echo the wave of protests taking place across Latin America. Young people as well as the elderly, hunters and organic farmers, the right and the left have all come together to organise – over 16,000 people protested together in the village of Villeneuve de Berg. The realities of oil extraction ceased to be hidden in far-away lands to become suddenly tangible for everyone.
The multiplication of such protests around the world still remains fragmented and limited to specific regions. Yet all recent mobilisations have one common goal: to force extractive industries to operate in a more transparent fashion and to be subject to democratic monitoring by local communities and governments. In this process, primarily environmental discourses have been superseded by a praxis of political mobilisation that foreshadows the emergence of a new global movement focused on anti-extractivism.
As resistance against extractive industries is emerging as a new source of mobilisation, it necessarily challenges certain political assumptions. First, anti-extractivism cuts across traditional political and ideological divides, bringing together diverse groups in unexpected alliances that open opportunities for political realignments.
Second, anti-extractivism mobilises people in rich and poor countries alike, blurring conceptual divides of the world between north and south. The “global south,” the latest politically-correct language used to refer to less-developed countries, has a complicated geography, or as an Ardeche mayor puts it, “we are always somebody else’s south.”
Finally, if anti-extractivism is to become a strong force for global mobilisation, the extraction of natural resources might finally cease to be perceived as problem “there.” Extractive industries certainly enjoy greater impunity in poorer areas, and indigenous areas are often prone to violent practices, but the problems engendered by extractive practices are not restricted to only poorer societies. On the contrary. The problems associated with extractive industries confront all societies whose cultures and peoples depend on their land. In other words, it should concern every one of us.
Anti-extractivism might become the next politics of mobilisation of the 21st century. This common struggle for accountability vis-a-vis extractive industries reminds us of the many political battles we all share. In addition to developing common strategies and a shared knowledge of how best to regulate extractive industries, we face the common challenge to find realistic alternatives to our ever-growing demands for energy.
Manuela Picq has just completed her time as a visiting professor and research fellow at Amherst College. She is returning to the Amazon this autumn to continue her research on indigenous peoples’ rights.