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.”
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.
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.
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.