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Over the past six years, the inhabitants of a remote corner of Ireland have been fightingone of the world's largest companies. They have forged links with other communities in similar struggles around the world and, despite post-colonialism, are fighting once morefor their land and way of life. Camilla Cancantata reflects on the fossil fuel industry and communities in crisis.

Reflections on Rossport

Last year myself and filmmaker Mayyasa Al-Malazi spent several weeks interviewing and filming people involved in the Shell to Sea campaign, including the Rossport Solidarity Camp, in the region of Erris, county Mayo, south-west Ireland. We got to know and love the area and had the privilege of being welcomed by a warm and open-hearted local community, who until recently led quite settled and tranquil lives. (“We used to be so boring...” they laugh,”Now the telephone hardly stops ringing.”)

History is repeating itself with a twist. It was here that Michael Davitt founded the Land League and began the campaign against rack rents and forced evictions, which ultimately won the right of Irish tenant farmers to own their own land. And now again, the people of Erris find themselves caught up in a struggle for their land rights. But in this case it is not the forces of a colonialist British state that are ranged against them, but their very own government and police.

Why? Because the Irish government is acting on behalf of Shell--think Nigeria, think Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others murdered, think trashed and polluted landscape, burning villages ... and think also bribery and corruption.

Compromising local health

Shell are the major players in a consortium that has found gas off the west coast. They want to bring it in at very high pressure to be refined in a terminal inland. The pipeline would cross an estuary where whales and dolphins come to feed, where there is also a local fishing industry, and would pass over farmland and very close to people's homes. It would also be built on bog-land which is inherently unstable. The terminal would release greenhouse gases and other toxic wastes into the surrounding air , as well as contaminating local groundwater.

When, in 2005, Shell began digging out the peat from the terminal site, aluminium was exposed in the next layer of soil. Water running off from the site goes straight into Carrowmore Lake, which provides the local drinking water. Despite numerous bland assurances, it took months for Shell to begin to sort out the water filtration system,and it is not certain that this is really working. But there is no other water to drink, so the local population's health is already compromised. For all these reasons, local people are alarmed, and are trying to stop the development.

Preferential treatment

What really hurts is that most of the gas is going to Norway and Britain, and virtually no profits will accrue either to the local community or to the Irish state.

Back in the 70s, Ireland had agreed good terms for any oil exploration, with significant profits to go to the state. But that all changed when, in 1987, Ray Burke exempted oil and gas production from royalty payments. In 1992 the current prime minister, Bertie Aherne, then Minister of Finance,reduced corporation tax to 25%.

In 2002 the government changed the law so that the Minister for Communications,Marine and Natural Resources (Noel Dempsey) could make compulsory acquisition orders (ie compulsory purchase orders) for the benefit of private companies.

Within weeks, landowners along the pipeline route were told they would be served with CAOs unless they accepted compensation and allowed the pipeline to go across their land. The department was also given power to grant permission for an upstream pipeline, carrying untreated gas,without being subject to normal planning procedures.

Local resistance

In 2005 five men went to jail for 94 days for refusing to comply with the CAOs. The day their imprisonment began, the Ross -port Solidarity camp was found ed. At the same time local people kept up a permanent picket of the terminal site. In October last year , 170 police from all over Ireland descended on Rossport and broke up locals who were trying to stop construction lorries from entering the terminal site. Protesters have been hit, baton charged, thrown into ditches one on top of the other ... and the police smell of drink at 7am.

They are staying in local bed and breakfasts and eating at hotels. Nothing to do except try to terrorise the locals. No arrests are being made -- as then the whole operation would have to be justified in court, which could be difficult.

Eve Campbell from the Ross -port Solidarity Camp states baldly, “You're fighting for your lives and your community and your history--I can't really visualise this not being victorious, because people are fighting for everything here”.

At a time when countries such as Venezuela are insisting on getting fairer deals from oil and gas companies, the Irish government is prepared to give money away to the corporations and leave its own people uncompensated and unprotected. Apart from a few independent Tds (members of the Irish parliament), the local campaign against the proposal has little mainstream political support. Though Sinn Fein is supportive, that is a mixed blessing, as it becomes easy for critics to dis miss the campaign as a republican conspiracy.

A question of survival

Instead of supporting the local community and sustainable living, the government is actively assisting in its destruction. At a time when the threat from climate change is ever more pressing, a corporation is still intent on pursuing its own profits,regardless of the long-term cost to the planet and the rest of life. Ireland is surrounded by sea, and yet hardly any money is going into developing renewable wave and tidal energy. It seems almost certain that there is oil and gas to be found all down the west coast, and with such favourable terms as currently offered by the Irish government, companies will be anxious to get in there.

Micheal O' Seighin, at 65 the oldest of the Rossport Five, speaks of the power of imagination, that enables people to survive “where there was no possibility of survivability. When we think of how few suicides there were during the famine ...Why the blazes didn't we all kill ourselves when the hunger ensured that half of us would die anyway? But we don't do that. ... That is the triumph of imagination over reality — that is what survivability is...”Rossport is a microcosm of what is happening to the entire planet.

If Shell and the Irish government get their way , another community — or communities — and a whole way of life will become extinct. Forever. And then the story will be repeated somewhere else. But if imagination triumphs, we can create the real and lasting changes that are needed to keep us from destroying ourselves — and the rest of the earth.

Shell to Sea http://www.shelltosea.com
Rossport Solidarity camp: : http://www.struggle.ws/rsc

Camilla Cancantata is a Londonbased composer and improviser whose works include Trident, a British War Crime (anoratorio) and Soya Susie and the Gene Dictators (an opera).