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A Pipeline Brings Gas and Revolt to Southern Italy

“We thought nothing like this could happen in Italy until we found ourselves right in the middle of it.”

Alessandra Bergamin

Demonstrators rally against the Trans Adriatic Pipeline in Rome on May 11, 2017. The gas pipeline would run about 845 miles from Kipoi, Greece, including about 65 miles through the Adriatic Sea. SIMONA GRANATI/CORBIS VIA GETTY IMAGES

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PUGLIA, ITALY—The mole arrived after dark — an almost 20-yard, 75-ton machine sent to bore a tunnel beneath the Adriatic Sea and into southern Italy. The tunnel would house the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP), a multinational fossil fuel project critics say would threaten Salento’s turquoise coast, upend local farms, and enrich a corporation at the expense of the local population.

The following evening, dozens of locals gathered in the streets to defend their territory against the pipeline’s incursion, and for the second time in two years, a rural swath of southern Italy’s Salento region was declared a red zone” in early 2019. Riot police in blue helmets, shields and batons at the ready, closed coastal highways and country roads, stood guard at major intersections, and restricted movement for the sake of a pipeline that no one seemed to want.

Mafioso! Merda!” the protesters yelled, cursing at the officers. What you are doing is dirty and you know it!”

Among those present was Gianluca Maggiore, an olive-skinned, bespectacled Salentino, who first heard rumors of an innocuous pipe” coming to southern Italy’s Puglia almost a decade ago, but soon learned better. In the years that followed, Maggiore became part of a movement to stop the pipeline, defending the region’s gnarled and wind-beaten olive trees from those who would unearth them; at one point, he even slept in a protest camp opposite the pipeline construction site.

At the protest against the mole in January 2019, Maggiore covered the lens of a police officer’s camera to prevent activists from being filmed. While photos and videos of activists struck by riot shields, bloodied by batons, or in one case, crushed by a gate, failed to hold the state accountable, police footage could — and would— be used as evidence against protesters. In the scuffle for the camera, Maggiore swore at the officer, something akin to motherfucker.” In doing so, the court summons reads, he offended the honor and prestige” of the police officer — an offense that comes with a sentence of six months to three years imprisonment.

Before the pipeline, Maggiore would not have expected to face trial for swearing or even joining a protest. But in the post-pipeline world, Maggiore began to suspect his human rights were only respected until they interfered with something more lucrative.

In the scuffle for the camera, Maggiore swore at the officer, something akin to “motherfucker.” In doing so, the court summons reads, he wounded the officer's "honor and prestige”—an offense that comes with a prison sentence of six months to three years.

Maggiore’s story is part of a broader trend. In 2021, Dunja Mijatović, the human rights commissioner of the Council of Europe, wrote that environmental activists were facing attacks on all fronts” as countries across Europe introduced policies eroding the right to protest and punishing protest movements— among them the Puglian fight against the TAP.

Owned by a Swiss multinational and funded by a loan for more than $1.6 billion from the European Investment Bank, the TAP is among the largest fossil fuel projects the European Union has supported in the past decade. The 545-mile pipeline, which begins in Greece, is slated to carry gas from Azerbaijan’s Shah Deniz gas field by cutting through Albania, dipping under the Adriatic Sea, and coming ashore in the heel of Italy’s boot. From there, it tunnels under Puglia’s aquamarine shores and through the olive groves of Melendugno, its route marked by yellow poles dotting local farms.

For six years, Maggiore and a group of concerned locals closely followed the political progress of the stop-and-go megaproject. Then, the pipeline was approved. Across Salento, college students, grandparents, politicians and mothers united under the banner of the No TAP Movement” and Maggiore — unintimidated by the cameras and reporters that arrived — became their spokesperson. More a citizens’ initiative than a formal organization, the movement drew in both the politically inclined and those who awoke one day to a pipeline on their doorstep.

People got involved for different reasons. Small business owners worried about the pipeline’s impact on local tourism, the lifeblood of the region, while farmers reliant on the olive oil industry were concerned about losing their trees, many of which had already been decimated by a fast-spreading disease. Others were angered that Italy and the EU would support Azerbaijan’s repressive government or further entrench the region in fossil fuel dependency. Together, they formed a protest movement. Few expected the repercussions that would come.

In 2019, Matteo Salvini, then the minister of the interior, introduced a security decree that increased penalties for common acts of protest such as resisting police or wearing garments that conceal one’s identity. Those laws have since been used against all sorts of protesters, whether they be operating migrant rescue ships in the Mediterranean or resisting a pipeline in Salento.

Everything is an excuse to attack,” says Elena Papadia, a lawyer in Melendugno.

In 2021, Dunja Mijatović, the human rights commissioner of the Council of Europe, wrote that environmental activists were “facing attacks on all fronts.”

Since 2020, Papadia has been representing No TAP activists as they navigate multiple trials for their alleged crimes of civil disobedience, such as insulting police officers, waving flags, blocking the passage of vehicles, and attending or organizing protests unauthorized by the police headquarters. Cases are ongoing, but if every activist is found guilty, the financial penalties will amount to more than $250,000. The idea behind the charges, fines and rushed court dates, Papadia says, is to make people think twice before protesting.

The idea seems to be “‘punishing one to educate 100,” she says.

As No TAP activists continue their fight through the court, a much different trial is taking place in Lecce, Italy — one that is testament to their efforts. On Dec. 18, 2019, the Court of Lecce’s public prosecutor issued a summons to 18 defendants, many of them managers at the corporation that owns the TAP, charging them with environmental crimes including the unsafe discharge of industrial wastewater and the uprooting of olive trees without the correct authorizations. 

The prosecutor also alleged that the project’s environmental impact assessment did not account for its cumulative impacts, meaning the pipeline itself was potentially built with invalid permits. Elena Gerebizza, a campaigner with the Italian watchdog organization ReCommon, says these charges show that activists’ concerns had been legitimate and well-founded.” These are violations that, if found guilty, are very serious,” she adds. 

Four years later, the case against TAP has only just begun, while activists’ much longer struggle continues. 

As Maggiore and I tour the pipeline in Melendugno in late 2022, he finds an old cloth banner. I suppose it is five years old,” he says with a smile. The cloth is torn and faded but still declares the movement’s slogan, Not Here, Not Elsewhere” — a rallying cry connecting the pipeline in Puglia to extractivism everywhere.

As Maggiore places the banner back on the ground and drives us away, a black car stops in front of the facility where he had just been parked. It is private security. We thought nothing like this could happen in Italy until we found ourselves right in the middle of it,” Maggiore says. Many of us, including myself, didn’t see the state or the police as an enemy.” 

Then we saw them defending a multinational.” 

Research for this article was made possible with the support of the Heinrich Boell Foundation, Washington, D.C.’s Transatlantic Media Fellowship.

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Alessandra Bergamin is an Australian freelance journalist based in Los Angeles. Her work focuses on environmental violence and human rights around the world.

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