By Sarah Rifaat
Mohad Gasmi played a pivotal role in protests against shale gas extraction in the south of the Algerian desert in 2015.
Mohad is a resident of the Adrar province. He owns a blacksmithing workshop and is married. His activism began as an independent supporter of the Unemployed Movement (initiated by young people who could not find jobs in Algeria). When he heard about the introduction of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in Algeria, he joined many other activists in awareness-raising and mobilisation campaigns in various southern provinces in order to confront this immediate danger to their lives. Fracking is also connected to climate change, since shale gas is a fossil fuel that Algeria has started excavating to be consumed by European countries.
I first spoke to Mohad when we met in Tunisia in early 2015. It was his first time outside Algeria. I then met him again on the sidelines of the climate change conference in Morocco this year. There I had the opportunity to sit with him and hear about the struggle of the city of Ayn Saleh where the Algerian anti-fracking movement took off. Fracking is a technique that uses high-pressure water mixed with toxic chemicals to extract gas from the rocks in the ground, which has a deep impact on fragile desert environments, including groundwater.
We started in 2012. The situation exploded in 2015. The plan was very simple. In 2014, we had the first rally in Adrar. It was important for us to launch this simple action because a parliamentary decision on fracking was expected in two days. Later, on the 3rd of June 2014, a second, bigger movement started in Ouargla. From then on, the idea began to grow.
Nevertheless, the government officially announced that drilling would start in a location that lies 1,200 km from Ouargla, 500 km from Adrar, and 700 km from the hub of the province concerned. The location was Ayn Saleh, and the choice was based on the belief that it was a sparsely populated, isolated area. It was thought that actvists in such remote regions did not communicate. We had to lead Ayn Saleh to believe that they were in this alone, and make authorities think that everything was calm.
When we decided to act in Ayn Saleh, it was right after New Year’s (January 2015), so we exploited the presence of many university students in the area on holiday. They mobilised widely and made huge organisational efforts — within 3 or 4 days the sit-in was in full swing. To tell you the truth, we were not expecting that sudden uprising. I thought it was important for the sit-in to last for at least 15 days. It went on for 5 months. The work we did marked the beginning of action in Ayn Saleh. They had thought they were alone and even had their own local committee. The authorities have always differentiated between provinces and smaller districts: as if Ayn Saleh was not part of Algeria; as if being from Adrar, I would not communicate with other provinces. That was an obstacle we managed to overcome, presenting one of the most important gains of the struggle so far.
Support from other provinces came 10 days into the sit-in, especially from Ouargla and a national coalition. All the provinces near Ayn Saleh started organising protests, and so the protestors in Ayn Saleh felt the weight of the responsibility and could not retreat, or even contemplate retreating. Protests and sit-ins continued until June 2015. Fracking operations have been suspended until now which in my opinion is a major success, even if only symbolic.
What happened after those protests was that activists working in the field — who were until then seen as fragmented voices and their simple social demands ignored — now started to be taken seriously by the authorities. The authorities realised that the existence of these divergent groups and their small activities will lead to stronger action in future. A month after the sit-in ended and life went back to normal in the region, every subsequent protest action drew security crackdowns and judicial trials that resulted in (mostly suspended) prison sentences, some measures of judicial surveillance or, in a few cases, actual imprisonment. Activists have been feeling the security grip tighten compared to how things were prior to Ayn Saleh, especially with the threat of suspended prison sentences hanging over their heads. On the other hand, we too have our strategies and we have time on our side. God willing, we will get through this.
Supporting activists facing court sentences
We believe that support starts locally. It is futile to respond to someone’s arrest and trial with slogans which promote the view that the regime is repressive, illiberal, undemocratic, etc. What matters is eliciting grassroots solidarity within the local community as its the only way to be truly safe. We do not rely on promoting the idea of a repressive regime. We rely on staying calm so that ideas continue to mature. If what the community sees is court sentences and journalists talking about an undemocratic regime, people might panic and retreat. But if we persevere and perhaps gloss over some of those practices, we would manage to normalise our activities within the community, create an atmosphere where we support each other, stay our course, and use the street as a space to defend our rights. That is what’s needed. Even if some of those court rulings were questionable, we are now trying to maintain our calm until this phase passes. When we do take action, we will ensure it follows the best available course, on the widest possible scale, with due consideration to relevant future variables. If you want to be able to count on the support of the street in the future, you must make people feel safe now, and reassure them that their security and the integrity of the state are not threatened.
The movement against shale gas: why now?
When we talk about oil policy in Algeria, it is important to note that it has been inherited from French colonialism. Drilling for oil and the exploitation of Algerian deserts started prior to independence. Following independence, the regime followed the same approach of the colonisers who did not care for our environment, our water, or our development. While oil fields were located in the desert, nobody cared for the development of those remote areas — a colonial way of thinking.
The accumulation of past experiences has helped us a lot. It’s not about maturity or the mobilisation of certain groups, such as women or children or the elderly. The old man who is present today was present as a young man in the sixties or seventies, so his legacy is here. We are not presenting falsehoods or deceiving anybody. These are facts on the ground, recognised even by the authorities. For years there have been environmental problems in Hassi Messaoud and Ayn Saleh, and problems faced by camel owners — these are just causes which we did not fabricate; they were created by the actions of the authorities. The issue of shale gas was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back: “You marginalise me, pollute my environment, provide me with lower quality education in the South than you do in the North, and then you go as far as to threaten my water — the most valuable resource not only in the region or the country, but in the entire world”. We still had ordinary oil and gas, but they just had to go ahead and contaminate the water. That was enough to bring out women, men, and children. We had the opportunity to mobilise all these sectors of society. Now we have the enduring images of women in the sit-in. It is a testimony to the presence of women at times of trouble. The participation of all these groups in public affairs is another major gain that cannot be easily bypassed in the future.
Present and Future
So far there is practically no information about digging in Ayn Saleh, and I do not believe that it’s happening. But in light of a regime that is weak in the face of corporations and willing to bend the rules, especially when it comes to desert areas, I would not rule out the possibility. We believe that even if there are two or three wells that have been dug without our knowledge, the truth will eventually come out. We have the mechanisms for action and the people who are willing to act. The moment a shale gas well appears, we will be there, protesting. This is simply the way to do it.
What is required of the global environmental and climate movements
The first thing we need is information about any deals that are announced, as well as scientific evidence from researchers, economists, etc. We are after any information which supports our cause or strengthens our position. Information is invaluable. When in discussion with the community or with politicians, you need to be armed with facts.
When the company exploiting the wells is a global corporation, protests are required in the company’s home country. There is precedent of this in France. We need protests and action in capitalist countries; European countries which host the funds and offices of these corporations; countries to whose laws these corporations are subject.
The Long Term Solution
It is possible to speak of local solutions with regard to sustainable development, traditional economic sectors such as agriculture and tourism, energy-saving policies, and other similar initiatives. In truth, however, you cannot propose local solutions anywhere without linking them to the whole world and the entire planet, especially when the issue is water or the climate where everything is interconnected. Capitalism, which relies on energy and the movement of goods between countries, is the source of these problems. How much fuel and petroleum products are consumed by cargo planes and ships? It is terrible. The world used to be a better place, people coexisted in peace, faraway areas interacted in organic ways without need for excessive consumption and goods.
So when we talk about energy solutions or ways to resolve the shale gas issue, we need to ask, what is behind this savagery and this feverish lust for profit? Let us put a stop to the sectors that over-consume energy. Let us first change our behaviours of energy consumption, rely on solar energy, teach corporations that it is unacceptable and idiotic to let the planet go to waste in order to fill the banks with money. In order to achieve such changes, we must change prevalent ways of thinking, and push for change on the vertical and horizontal planes.