When Chevron arrived in Żurawlów, a small village in Poland’s rural Grabowiec county, it was like a UFO landing in the open wheat fields. In June last year a high-tech surveillance caravan appeared in the village to stake the firm’s claim to the shale gas below: it is equipped with satellite antennas and halogen lights, and staffed by a private security company hired to keep an eye on the locals.
What Chevron didn’t realise, however, was that they had just brought the battle onto the villagers’ home turf. Local farmers used hay-bales to build a barricade on the only accessible road to Chevron’s field. They set up headquarters in a tent on the field next door, and as the summer protest extended into the winter months it was turned into a full-scale barracks. In the wet season the farmers widened the drainage ditch along the road that surrounds Chevron’s field, making it inaccessible for heavy-duty fracking equipment. Then they parked their tractors and trailers in a blockade beside the field, leaving Chevron stuck in the mud.
This is not the farmers’ only strategy. They have also been taking Chevron’s claims to the field apart, one permit at a time. This has been quite effective thanks to the firm’s lack of attention to detail – Chevron has not even been able to conduct preliminary seismic tests because its every move is challenged with appeals to the county and regional authorities. At this point it appears that Chevron has hardly any of the necessary permits to legally drill in Żurawlów.
Chevron corporation, one of the world’s biggest oil and has companies, had revenue of over $220 billion in 2013. Grabowiec County, meanwhile, is situated in south-eastern Poland and part of the poorest region in the country. The median income per month is 2,700zł, or $896. Żurawlów itself is a 106-person community of wheat, rapeseed, corn and sugar beet farmers.
Yet the Grabowiec County farmers’ meagre means haven’t held them back in the battle against the goliath that is Chevron. Word about the county’s resistance to fracking first began to spread two years ago, when the neighbouring village of Rogów succeeded in beating the company back.
Chevron, like other companies experimenting with fracking in Poland, had just bought a batch of concessions to underground resources put up for sale by the government. It took four adjacent concessions in south-eastern Poland, one of them in Grabowiec. Rogów was its first stop.
The villagers signed agreements with Chevron’s subcontractor to allow seismic testing on their land. The big machines drove onto the fields and caused mini-earthquakes that made walls crack and the turned well water black. Furious, the villagers blocked any further work.
News of their protest spread quickly, despite heavy pressure from local and state government to keep this sort of thing quiet, especially where fracking is concerned. Rogów attracted the attention of a French television station and soon foreign journalists were asking difficult questions in the Polish countryside. A Polish investigative special followed suit, and soon the villagers of Rogów were speaking out about shale gas at conferences around the country.
Donald Tusk, the prime minister himself, came in to smooth things over with Chevron, which agreed to leave Rogów alone and move over to neighbouring Żurawlów. That was mid-2011.
Soon after that, Chevron representatives showed up in Żurawlów in expensive SUVs with big city registration plates. This time they were better prepared. The company hired Grażyna Bukowska, a former television talk-show host as its PR representative and immediately invited the villagers to a town-hall meeting to lay out its drilling plans. But Chevron’s slick show-and-tell presentation still left locals utterly unconvinced, and the meeting ended with Chevron walking out – and the people starting to organise against them.
Żurawlów is quite remote by Polish standards. It is flat and surrounded by endless wheat fields. The nearest city, Zamość, population 65,000, is 20 miles away. Yet today, the barricade is an international protest centre.
The farmers have a live webcam streaming from the occupied field round-the-clock, which they also use for internet conferences with the press and other grassroots groups fighting corporations around the world (occupychevron.tumblr.com). Walls inside the barracks are covered with posters, stickers and solidarity gear; there are crocheted caps made by the Knitting Nannas Against Gas from Australia, stickers from the reclaimed airport ‘La ZAD’ near Nantes in France, posters from Balcombe in Sussex and solidarity banners with the people of Ecuador.
Despite the geographical distance, Żurawlów feels very close to Ecuador. The farmers fear that they too will be left facing the same ecological devastation and economic strife that Texaco, which merged with Chevron in 2001, sowed in the Ecuadorian Amazon from 1964 to 1990. The company dumped more than 18 billion gallons of toxic wastewater, spilled roughly 17 million gallons of crude oil, and left hazardous waste in hundreds of open pits dug out of the forest floor.
What more, people in Żurawlów are taking notes on Chevron’s mudslinging legal methods. 36 of the villagers already stand accused of various petty charges, ranging from the vague ‘use of generator’ to the vaguer ‘use of building materials’. It is clear to everyone is that such tactics aim to hit protesters financially, an approach that resembles Chevron’s response to the Ecuadorian campaign for justice, which the company sued under the RICO Act, a law designed to deal with mafia intimidation.
Walking through Żurawlów, tension hangs in the air with the fog. The private security cars drive around the small town day and night, stopping in front of houses to write down registration plates and get a glimpse of who’s inside. A cameraman shows up from time to time to record close-up takes of people’s faces and profiles. He follows the ones who seem most involved, most outspoken.
But the Żurawlów farmers know that their campaign, Occupy Chevron, has allies throughout Poland. When the farmers put out calls for support, people come from the cities. It is these alliances that could offer a way out of the region’s grinding poverty – an alternative to selling off the fields for fracking. Thanks to the ups and downs of the market, the farmers are often forced to sell crops for less than the production costs. This past August, rapeseed prices were as low as 1,140zł ($345) per ton. The wheat, corn and sugar beet markets have not been any kinder to the producers.
What looks like a real possibility for Żurawlów come the harvest is an autonomous food co-operative, based on direct links between producers and consumers, building on the support they have gained over the issue of fracking. Relying on a solidarity network rather than the free market can guard against the unfair disparities in prices that have left farmers in the region so economically downtrodden. For places like Żurawlów, Rogów and countless others where communities are forced to ‘choose’ between an already bad situation and a devastating investment, autonomous grassroots structures offer another way.
Nine months into the barricade, the farmers’ organized approach has got Chevron cornered. Its subcontractor has started to withdraw equipment and it looks like the protest camp is heading for victory. Discontent is also growing in surrounding villages, where the company paid impoverished farmers 20zł ($6) to drive heavy seismic testing equipment onto their fields. After a few rounds of this the fields were destroyed – but so, a few nights later, were some of Chevron’s gadgets. The resistance is growing, along with its toolkit of strategies.
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