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Protests in Italy Save Hundreds of Ancient Trees on the Chopping Block for Gas Pipeline Construction

Century-old olive groves. Photo: Alessandra Tommasi

This article is based on a piece written by Rachel Hubbard for 350.org, an organisation building a global climate movement, and is republished here as part of a partnership with Global Voices.

Communities in Salento, in the southern ‘heel’ of Italy, recently won a small, but important victory in their campaign against the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP), which would carry gas from Azerbaijan to Italy.

Planned construction would have seen the removal of ancient olive trees to make way for the pipeline, but following fierce protests, the work was suspended in early April.

TAP and the Southern Gas Corridor are the largest fossil fuel projects that the European Union is pursuing. They are meant to bring billions of cubic metres of gas to Europe — making them incompatible with Europe’s climate commitments. According to a report by Oil Change International, existing fossil fuel operations already hold more carbon than can be released to keep global temperature rise to the limits that Europe and governments around the world agreed to under the Paris Climate Accord. That means that there is no space for any new fossil fuel projects, and certainly not for infrastructure of this scale, which aims to massively expand the gas market in Europe.

The pipeline would come onshore in the beautiful seaside town of San Foca. Some fear the construction of the pipeline and a gas-receiving terminal would cause significant damage to the local landscape and coastline.

Despite the predicted climate impacts of the project and the objections of the local people and local politicians, the Italian government wants to push it through.

Public meeting next to the construction site in San Foca. Photo: Alessandra Tommasi

On 20 March, the stakes were raised when the pipeline company – without having permits for the work, as local mayors and the president of the Apulia region criticised – moved in to remove hundreds of ancient olive trees near the rural town of Melendugno. These trees are essential to many people's livelihoods. Not only that, but they are beloved by the local people and are centuries (some apparently more than a millennium) old.

Local organising stepped up a gear and each day since then, hundreds of people have gathered at the site to peacefully resist the construction. The local mayor managed to get the region's prefect to ask the company to stop the works for three days, whilst the permits were investigated.

People in Melendugno protecting olive trees from the Trans Adriatic Pipeline. Photo: Alessandra Tommasi

After the three-day break, the question of permits remained unresolved, and works continued. The national government sent in police to defend the interests of the pipeline company, pushing the crowds back with shields and batons to allow the company to continue to explant trees. A number of injuries to local people were reported.

Over the course of these few days, many trees were uprooted and removed from the area, a heartbreaking sight for many locals.

The trees in this picture have in the meantime all been removed. Photo: Alessandra Tommasi

But they didn’t give in. Public meetings were held regularly, drawing crowds of 500-1,000 people. The campaign has made the headlines in the Italian press, and solidarity actions and messages have been sent by groups in Milan, Bologna and Rome.

The protests started to hit national and international news, daily gatherings at the site got bigger and bigger, and one night, people built stone barricades to stop vehicles from accessing the site.

Local residents built barricades to block the pipeline works. Photo: Alessandra Tommasi

In early April, the removal of the trees was suspended because of the barricades and sheer size of the protests. There is just a small window now for the remaining trees to be removed. In a few weeks the growing season starts and the trees must remain for the summer.

Daily gatherings and public meetings continue. No one knows what will happen next, but the local No TAP Committee is determined to stop the pipeline altogether. They maintain it is an unnecessary project, especially since demand for gas is dropping in Europe, and that it is undemocratic and being imposed by the government against the will of local people. They also argue that it will cause vast economic and irreparable environmental damage to the area.

Their message is “né qui né altrove” – “No TAP, not here or anywhere”.

You can follow their campaign on Twitter under the hashtag #NoTAP. The local organising committee is on Twitter @no_tap and on Facebook @MovimentoNoTAP. To learn more about the TAP, which is also called the Euro-Caspian Mega Pipeline, take a look at the webdocumentary Walking the Line by campaigning groups Counter Balance, Platform London and Re:Common.

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