Earlier this year, Willy Schuster found mysterious plastic ribbons attached to trees and bushes on his 15-acre farm in Mosna, a small village in Romania's Transylvanian heartland. 'I didn't know what they were, but I had a bad feeling. It meant that some stranger wanted to interfere with my land. So I gathered them up and threw them away because they looked so intrusive. That was the first episode.'
Two months later, a network of orange cables appeared in his fields and orchards. 'They were plugged into the ground every 35m, with discs of some ceramic material pushed into the earth about 20cm deep. My family wanted to weed the fields but the horse couldn't walk, the weeding machine didn't work, because of the cables everywhere. Then my daughter went out riding and her horse stumbled on a cable, she almost had an accident and fell.
'By this time I was very angry. I thought that anyone who trespasses on my land trespasses on other people's land. So I pulled up the cables and took them to my barn. It was difficult work, and I had some cuts on my arms and shoulders, blood was flowing. Later I thought to myself, “I have already shed my blood for this.”'
As Willy soon learned, the cables were laid by Prospectiuni SA, a domestic energy prospecting company whose clients include Chevron Corporation. The ceramic discs contained explosives for seismic data acquisition, a method of surveying the land for shale gas. The threat of hydraulic fracking – the process of fracturing rock by highly-pressurised chemical injection to release the gas trapped inside – has come to Transylvania, a region sometimes referred to as 'Europe's last medieval landscape'.
Willy is a Saxon peasant farmer, a descendent of Germanic settlers who arrived in the Middle Ages. For hundreds of years Transylvania's Saxons cultivated this land, defending their fortified villages against invading Mongols and Tartars, but were almost wiped out by the greater terrors of the 20th century. The Soviets deported men of working age to labour camps after the Second World War, and after decades of persecution under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaușescu – who planned to bulldoze Saxon villages as part of his 'systematisation' programme – they were offered German citizenship when Communism fell in 1989. Tens of thousands packed their bags and left.
Today, Transylvania's small-scale farmers – whether Saxon, Romanian or Hungarian – face an even greater threat to their livelihoods. Romania's accession to the EU in 2007, while bringing the country economic benefits, also threw the borders open to acquisitive foreign corporations. Land purchases by multinationals have accelerated in recent years – tracts of land near Willy's village bear the logo of DuPont Pioneer, a major GM seed producer and competitor of Monsanto – encouraged by a government many accuse of putting big business above the needs of the country's 4 million subsistence and semi-subsistence farmers.
Willy is well known locally as a spokesman for peasants' rights. In 2009 he helped establish Eco Ruralis, an organic farming association linked to the international peasants' movement La Via Campesina, and has travelled to the European Parliament to argue that Romanian small farms are being destroyed by aggressive competition from multinationals. 'Land-grabbing by agricultural companies has been going on a long time. Now it's happening with resources too. The government claims that shale gas is good for the Romanian people, to provide cheaper energy and reduce our dependence on Russia. But we're not so naïve. Just look at Rosia Montana.'
The controversy over Rosia Montana – the proposed site of an open-cast goldmine operated by Gabriel Resources Ltd., a Canadian mining company, plans for which involve a cyanide lake and the removal of four mountaintops – has exposed, if exposure were needed, the vested interests and corruption of Romania's political class. Despite sustained street protests in Bucharest and other major cities – and claims that the mine will impoverish, rather than enrich, Romania's economy – the government is attempting to bulldoze the bill through parliament, even drafting new laws that would grant the company extraordinary powers to expropriate private land. Prime Minister Victor Ponta, whose Social Democratic Party opposed the mine while in opposition, is now an outspoken supporter of the company's plans.
Similarly, Ponta proposed a total ban on fracking in 2011, only to perform a u-turn after gaining power, hailing 'the start of exploring for shale gas reserves.' An astonishing 2.2 million acres has been granted to Chevron for explorative drilling, despite local referendums like the one at Costinesti, on Romania's Black Sea coast, where 94% of the population voted against shale gas exploitation. The picture that emerges from both environmental controversies is of a corrupt, hypocritical government in thrall to foreign corporations, increasingly at odds with – and seemingly contemptuous of – Romanian public opinion.
Such lack of faith in politicians is what convinces people like Willy to take matters into their own hands. After dragging the cables from his land, he witnessed Prospectiuni company vehicles arrive to lay down more. 'So I went back and pulled them up again. They were shouting at me, threatening me. I ignored them as if they were air. Then the local police arrived, they ordered me to give the cables back. I refused – I was determined to block the process. Eventually I did give them back, but only after the company signed a document admitting they trespassed on my land, so I have proof in court.
'Now they don't put cables on my land anymore. But they put them around my land, on my neighbours' property. That's just as bad. I'm surrounded.'
Since his stand-off with the prospectors, Willy has helped organise weekly anti-fracking protests in the nearby city of Sibiu. These local demonstrations of farmers and students, which quickly grew from dozens to hundreds of participants, make common cause with the campaign against the Rosia Montana goldmine that has galvanised Romania's youth over the past year. For Willy, the anger on the streets is a sign of hope. 'Protest is still a new phenomenon here. Communism had a big effect, and people are only just learning to stop being afraid of the government, to understand they have a voice. Since coming out against fracking I have been harassed by the police, threatened with arrest. They stop me in the street and say “Why are you behaving like this? Why do you have to cause trouble? You should keep quiet.”
'But if people like me keep quiet, the peasants will have no voice. I have a responsibility to shout. The issue is not just about my land, it's about everybody's land. If they start fracking in Transylvania, they can frack everywhere.'