Every opportunity that comes up is used by mega-project promoters and their allies to stigmatise resistance movements. A network of European groups are fighting back against mega-projects, building bridges between movements despite facing repression and the criminalisation of activism from authorities.
As many authors who analyse urbanisation and urban conflicts have identified, one of the main limitations encountered by local resistance groups is to take their struggle beyond the local scale. However, the network against “Useless and Imposed Mega-Projects” (UIMP) is one of the current movements attempting to build bridges across national boundaries in a quest to transcend the local dimension.
UIMP was established in 2010 after a meeting of several platforms from different European countries opposing high speed railway projects, which resulted in a joint declaration – the Charter of Hendaye – which could be referred to as the foundational act of this alliance. In 2011, the network started organising annual forums gathering groups and organisations from across Europe and beyond, starting to build a transnational network aiming at supporting each group’s struggles against mega-projects.
So far, four forums have been held:
- 2011 – Susa Valley (Italy), organised by the No TAV (Treno ad Alta Velocità, High Speed Train in Italian) Movement. They have been organising the resistance against the high speed railway line between Turin and Lyon.
- 2012 – Notre-Dame-des-Landes (Brittany, France), organised by the groups taking a stand against the construction of a new airport for the city of Nantes.
- 2013 – Stuttgart (Germany), organised by the platform against the construction of a new railway station in the city.
- 2014 – Rosia Montana (Romania), organised by the movement in opposition to a massive mining project in the area.
Each forum was accompanied by a final declaration, which, adding up to the aforementioned Charter of Hendaye and the Charter of Tunis (2013), constitute the basis of the network principles, shared by all the groups and platforms involved. These documents basically denounce the social and environmental harm that could potentially be caused by the opposed mega-projects, the lack of transparency and public participation in the decision-making processes and the repression and criminalisation suffered by the social movements which oppose mega-projects.
This year, the forum is back in Italy, this time in Bagnaria Arsa (north-east), where the local committee against high speed rail will be in charge of the organisation.
This article will focus on one of the major issues related to the history of the movement: the criminalisation and repression of activism, specifically highlighted in the Charter of Tunis (2013) “criminalisation of the opposition.”
The state’s repression has been most severe when activists were demonstrating against high speed rail in the Basque Country and the Susa Valley. The two situations I go on to describe illustrate how the state apparatus in Spain and Italy is committed to ensure that their planned mega-projects are developed, regardless of community resistance and the dubious social interest of these large infrastructures.
One of the most original actions against high speed rail in the Basque Country was the pie thrown at the president of the Navarre region (historically part of the Basque Country) Yolanda Barcina while she was participating in a public meeting in Tolouse in 2011. While it may appear as a “funny” action of protest, the Spanish Court “Audiencia Nacional” (a special court that has its roots in Franco’s regime) didn’t feel like laughing against the activists: out of the four individuals involved, three were given a two-year jail sentence while the fourth was sentenced to one year, as the court considered that the activists committed a “violent corporal action”. According to the activists’ opinion such sentence reflects the fact that the Spanish authorities saw such a humiliation as intolerable and did not want to let it go without an exemplary punishment. The only consolation for the activists is that they did not have to serve any time since they had no criminal record.
Every opportunity that comes up is used by mega-project promoters and their allies to stigmatise resistance movements.
In the case of the long battle – nearly 25 years – against high speed rail in the Susa Valley, accusations of terrorism were already issued in the late nineties when three activists were jailed; two of them did not even get to know the sentence because they took their lives while in preventive detention; the third activist was sentenced to three years even though the accusations of terrorism against him were dismissed.
More than a decade later, a macro trial against No TAV activists has had the outcome of a total of 140 years of prison sentence for 47 activists and a payment of over €100,000 in compensation claims in connection with clashes with the police in 2011.
Criminalisation of street protest
Every opportunity that comes up is used by mega-project promoters and their allies to stigmatise the resistance movements. This was the case, for instance, of the protest carried out in February 2014 in Nantes (Brittany, France) against the new airport after some clashes between the police and a group of protestors.
Immediately, the focus was put on the violent character of the protestors; diverting attention form the question whether a new airport for this French city is appropriate in terms of economic, social and environmental costs. For a few days, the so called “eco-terrorists” became public enemy number one. Government authorities and mass media also ignored the fact that six people were injured as a result of police intervention – three of them were hit in the eyes by rubber bullets– and peaceful protestors also suffered the effects of tear gas thrown at them by the security forces.
Furthermore, the remarks of the media and authorities made it seem like violence from the authorities was something unthinkable, even though in fact all the violence was initiated by the state, similarly to the ZAD (Zone À Défendre, “Zone to Defend”) eviction in 2012, named “Operation Caesar”.
One of the crucial aspects in the ideological battle being waged against mega-projects is probably that of the sacredness of growth.
No room for civil disobedience
Civil disobedience and non-violent actions constitute one of the main types of protest action endorsed by the resisting groups. Despite its non-violent character, state forces are not always keen on permitting this type of protest. This was true in the case of the opposition to the high speed rail in the Basque Country.
In 2009, after a rally, some activists tried to symbolically squat on an area of the building site where no harm could be done to people or material. The response from the police was a violent eviction with dozens of activists injured and the arrest of eight activists under accusations of terrorism. In 2012 a court sentenced one activist to a year in prison, four other activists to seven months because of public disorders, three of the latter and another activist were also fined for disobeying the authorities.
Similarly, in 2010, when intending to stop the cutting of trees in an urban park of Stuttgart, where a new train station was planned to be built, the police, despite the presence of children and elderly people, violently evicted about 400 protestors. The outcome of the operation was that 50 activists suffered bruises, bloody noses, or scrapes and about 300 ended up with irritated eyes after the police used tear gas, water cannons, pepper spray and batons. Protestors refer to this day as “Black Thursday”. Police violence was to be condemned by the state with minor fines for two police officers and a somewhat bigger fine of €15,600 to the former police chief who was accused of negligence causing bodily harm.
Constraining freedom of expression
Repression is also aimed at restricting freedom of expression. As an example, the renowned Neapolitan writer Erri de Luca was recently prosecuted for commenting that sabotaging the works of the Lyon-Turin high speed rail, in his view, was “legitimate”. After this comment the firm building the railway line pressed charges against him and prosecutors followed suit, the acclaimed writer is now facing up to five years in prison for “incitement to violence” after he called for the sabotage.
I have conveyed here some of the most relevant cases of repression and criminalisation of grass-roots groups opposing mega-projects in Europe. Nonetheless, there are many other cases where activists have suffered the intolerance of the state, for instance, in struggles against “extractivism” be it fracking, mining projects or dams.
From an historical perspective, as outlined by the academic expert Bent Flyvbjerg, mega-projects’ results are, overall, rather poor: cost overruns and underestimation of costs, delays in the delivery, underutilisation, exclusive decision-making processes and similar pitfalls are common features within the mega-project landscape. Nevertheless, mega-projects not only remain on the public agenda but also are being conceived in a more complex and larger scale, e.g. the new interoceanic canal planned for Nicaragua. One of the crucial aspects in the ideological battle being waged against mega-projects is probably that of the sacredness of growth. Hence, as long as the view that prosperity is achievable without growth is not endorsed by significant sectors of society and that another socioeconomic model is possible, mega-project development will always be one of the first options.
However, in certain cases mega-projects had to be cancelled or, worse, stopped after they had been constructed due to overwhelming evidence of lack of profitability or simply because they were undoubtedly ruinous. That is the case of Lisbon, where high speed rail has been discarded or the bridge on the Messina strait, a project cancelled twice in the last decade; the high speed line between Toledo and Albacete (Spain), which closed with a registered average of 9 passengers a day; and the airport of Ciudad Real (Spain) which ceased operating after subsidies for low-cost airlines ended and they all stopped operating from that city.
It is not an exaggeration to affirm that enough evidence exists to technically and ideologically back popular struggles against these new “white elephants”. The challenge is to demonstrate and convince that alternatives are feasible and applicable. In any case, the enormous work carried out by the groups compounding the network against UIMP goes in that direction. As a consequence, they must be supported against the repression and criminalisation induced by mass media and carried out by the states.