Energy and climate campaigner for Re:Common, a non-profit, public campaign membership-based organization based in Rome, Italy.
What are the most environmentally impacting structures in the world right now? Who runs them? What can you do to stop them?
Elena Gerebizza, from Italian organization Re:Common, tells us about the activist movements organized around stopping some of the most environmentally damaging structures taking place at this very moment, and how power and financial monopolies can end up destroying the fragile ecosystems of small town communities across Europe.
With a focus on the social consequences of big companies taking their toll on local European economy, Elena remarks on the importance of sticking together through strategic organization in order to help and improve the lives of many others affected by the finance oriented, and often corrupted, decision making that we see in our countries, our governments, and our everyday life.
Individuals reaching out to one another to secure a sustainable future is the way forward to a society in which everyone’s interests are safe, and Elena tells us how we can achieve that through awareness and collaboration.
Elena Gerebizza: My name is Elena Gerebizza. I work for an Italian organization called Re:Common. I’m a researcher and campaigner.
Nerina Finetto: Thank you, Elena, for joining me. Could you tell me a little bit about Re:Common?
Elena: Re:Common is a collective based in Rome, in Italy, and we do public campaigning and investigation on megaprojects, in particular, mega infrastructures that receive public financing in different forms, from loans, from public financial institutions to guarantees, and we look into dodgy aspects related to mega infrastructure, including corruption and misuse of public funding in every different form, and we do it in solidarity with the communities who are on the frontline opposing megaprojects.
Nerina Finetto: One of the biggest projects you are involved in is the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline. Could you tell me more about it?
Elena: We’ve been working on it since 2012, 2013, so from the very early days. The Trans Adriatic Pipeline is a gas pipeline which Europe included in the list of so-called Projects of Common Interest, for the European Commission. Since then, the project received a massive support from the European Institutions, as well as from the Italian Government; this is the main reason why we started to look at it. The Trans Adriatic Pipeline is a section of a longer gas corridor, which is called the Southern Gas Corridor; it is a pipeline which starts in Azerbaijan and goes across six different countries, so Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, Greece, Albania and finally, Italy. It is about 3500km long, and as we see, it’s basically crossing the life of hundreds of communities with massive environmental and human rights implications.
Nerina Finetto: One of the aspects you have been researching on is the political one, right?
Elena: The Trans Adriatic Pipeline was portrayed from the very early days as a project that should help Europe to build an independence from Russia. So really, a project that should help the energy security of Europe; this is how the Commission was talking about it, and it should help diversification. In fact, we realized from the very beginning that the very strong political connotation that the project was given, in fact was probably the lead motivation for it, because we couldn’t find any economic and financial sustainably in the project, and we couldn’t also see how this energy diversification and energy security would actually materialize. In fact, through the different years of campaigning, we realized this is not coming only from Civic Societies organizations, but it’s coming from economic and financial analysts and experts in energy matters. We realized that the resources of Azerbaijan are much smaller than what the country declared, and finally last year, it came out that a part of the supply gas that would transit through the Southern Gas Corridor will actually come from Russia, so the point of spending about 45billion euros to build this massive infrastructure, portraying it as something that will help Europe to diversify, is a scam for European tax payers, at the end, and it’s also providing a massive political support to governments like Azerbaijan and Turkey, which, today, it’s clear that are authoritarian regimes.
So, we seek the incredibly problematic, from the political to those from an economic and financial point of view. Part of our campaigning was about exposing how much public resources were drained by such a project, which instead could have been used in many other different ways, even more now after the Paris agreement was signed and so the project is just nonsense from the climate point of view, and it’s really not matching with the commitments that Europe and the different governments involved in the construction have taken in Paris. We really don’t see how and why Europe is still so much supportive of this project.
Nerina Finetto: What are the stakeholders here? Who is building the pipeline and who is paying for it?
Elena: So, the main proponents of the gas pipeline are SOCAR, the National Oil and Gas Company of Azerbaijan, together with BP, British Petroleum, one of the main oil corporations. Then, there are smaller shareholders, or let’s say other shareholders, that came in a later stage, including Snam, the Italian gas distribution company, Enagas, Fluxys, and the Swiss company Axpo, who had a key role in the very early days of the Trans Adriatic Pipeline, because it was actually the company that designed the project before it was then connected to the rest of the Southern Gas Corridor.
Who’s going to pay for it? The project is being portrayed as a private sector project. However we have seen that, for instance, Albania, Greece and also Turkey had to sign host government agreements with the consortium that is building the pipeline – TANAP in Turkey and the Trans Adriatic Pipeline AG in Italy, Albania and Greece -, and in the host government agreement it clearly said that the governments are ready to give a public guarantee for the financing of the project. So that means that if the consortium is, for instance, getting some loans from private banks and from public financial institutions the hosting governments the hosting government will provide a public guarantee, and that is a mechanism that translates a debt from a private to private into a public one, so it means that if anything goes wrong, it’s going to be the citizens of Albania, Greece and Turkey who are going to pay.
The other element is that it was declared in a number of public occasions that the consortium is aiming to get about one third of the funding from public financial institutions; that means the European Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, but also the World Bank or the Asian Development Bank, the Asian Investment Bank, all the variety of public financial intuitions. So one third of 45 billion is a huge lot of money and again, even the public part of the funding should come with a public guarantee from the government or from the commission. The rest of the money may come from equity or from loans from private banks, but again, also the private banks are looking for a coverage of risk, so at the end of the day, the majority of it will be covered by public money in different forms.
Nerina Finetto: And the consortium also received huge loans from the European Investment Bank, right?
Elena: Yeah, actually, the European Investment Bank provided the biggest loan ever in the history of the bank, so since it was set up as the financial institution of Europe, and also quite extraordinary is that it was given to a company registered in Switzerland, so outside the European Union, formally, which of course is interesting form the tax angle of the story. Why the consortium is registered in Switzerland? Also from the transparency point of view, because as we know, Switzerland is not in the black list of tax havens, formally, but it’s still a country where access to information concerning companies registered in Switzerland is quite limited. So, actually a 1.5billion loan was given to the Trans Adriatic Pipeline and now the loan by the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development is being discussed. The loan is 500million, but it will be combined with another 700million coming from several private banks, which, again, are matching with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in order to get the coverage of the risk connected to the loans.
It’s a massive amount of public money and the question mark is on how these banks will be actually able to the do the due diligence and to make so that the consortium will respect the environmental and social standards, but also the transparency and, eventually, the corruption angle is quite relevant considering, for instance, the massive scandal that was everywhere on the media last year, called the Azerbaijani Laundromat, so we know that the players involved are players of this kind, and we are really questioning if the European institutions are actually able to monitor how the money will be spent to avoid the human rights violations and environmental violations.
Nerina Finetto: Elena, could you please summarize shortly what this scandal is about?
Elena: So the Azerbaijani Laundromat was out on the media around October 2017. It was a leak, eventually, from one of the banks involved in a massive money laundering scheme where you had three different companies, or maybe even more, from Azerbaijan, who actually channeled across Europe about 2billion euros between 2012 and 2014; money which was then tracked by the authorities. There is an investigation, an internal investigation to Danske Bank, who was actually the bank involved in the money laundering factor; there is another investigation at the Council of Europe, and maybe the most important one is an anti-corruption and money laundering investigation by the public authorities in Italy. So the scheme was involving a number of politician, but also journalists and entrepreneurs in Europe who received huge amounts of money, mainly from Azerbaijan, and according to the public prosecutor in Italy, one of the beneficiaries was a former member of Parliament, Luca Volonté, who is still under trial in Milan, and the accusation for him is for international corruption and money laundering. Now the trial is still ongoing, the corruption accusation was appealed; we don’t know how it will conclude, but the key element is if people are asking themselves why this money was given.
Actually between 2012 and 2014, Azerbaijan was moving a massive political and communicational machine inside Europe to get recognition as a democratic country, which could become a key economic partner of Europe, mainly in the sector of energy. So there was a report on human rights violations in Azerbaijan, who was discussed at the Council of Europe, and Luca Volonté was the head of the European People’s Party at the time, so the accusation is that he was actually receiving the money in order to convince the entire political patty across Europe to vote against the report, and this is what actually happened. The report didn’t pass through the Council of Europe, and Azerbaijan was recognized as a democracy a couple of months after the Southern Gas Corridor became project of common interest for Europe. So, we think that there is a lo that should be looked at about how the decision was taken by European institutions, and we also think that it’s quite tricky for Europe actually choose a new authoritarian regime as a key energy partner after we have seen how the situation became very complex with Russia, so we don’t see a lot of a difference between Azerbaijan and Russia in this specific context.
Nerina Finetto: And it is also pretty interesting that Germany gave money to Turkey to build the pipeline in Turkey. How do you see it?
Elena: All of this was, of course, taking place at the same time as the war in Syria escalated. All the dynamic between Turkey and Russia and the EU, the refugee issue in Turkey, everything was happening at the same time and within that, the energy agreements and the Southern Gas Corridor as the biggest energy infrastructure that Europe is building at this moment, are overlapping with the other discussions, which is making it even more serious as a matter for European citizens, because we are actually bargaining human rights on one side, refugees and the new gas contracts, all on the same table.
Nerina Finetto: And from an energy point of view, does this pipeline make sense?
Elena: No, not in my opinion, and not in the opinion of many economic, financial and energy specialists. If you compare the cost of the pipeline and the quantity of gas that they’re claiming to transport, it doesn’t make any sense. It’s really too expensive. But at the end of the day, the real question is, do we need this gas? So the pipeline is expensive, it’s supporting authoritarian regimes, do we actually need the gas? The answer in ‘no, we don’t need ot’. We don’t need it because Europe has enough infrastructure in Europe already existing; we don’t need because the gas at the end of the day will very likely come from Russia, and we already have pipelines connecting Europe to Russia, and the energy path that Europe should follow for the future is rather a path where the consumption of gas should decrease. It has been decreasing in the last year, so if we really want to build an independence from controversial partners around Europe, then we should look into renewable sources and a completely different system where, eventually, communities may also be taking responsibility and control of the energy produced on their territories. So, it’s a completely different model what we should look at for the future if sustainability is the horizon that we are looking at, and also is the horizon is an horizon of democracy and participation of communities in the decision making. We don’t agree with those that portray gas as a bridge fuel for the future, simply because the time that we have to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels is quite limited. I mean, all the scientific studies are saying we are already consuming too much fossil fuels and we should rather reduce it and not build a new infrastructure.
If the Southern Gas Corridor is completed and is running at full capacity, we will all be consuming that gas for the next fifty years, and this is just completely unsustainable from a climate point of view, but also our main concern is rather on the democracy implications that this will have, as it will be basically supporting existing authoritarian regimes for the next fifty years, and this is, of course, very problematic, and if the pipeline starts to generate revenues, where will the money go at the end of the day? Will it go to the public coffers and will it be used also for the benefit of the people of Turkey, of Azerbaijan, and of the different countries involved, or will it go into the private pockets of the existing regimes and their entourage? This is a question that is not being addressed, and we think that the way that Europe is approaching it is not solid enough.
Nerina Finetto: And how about the environmental impact of the pipeline?
Elena: The pipeline you should imagine as not only a gas pipe underground, but you should imagine it as a corridor. So in Turkey, this is kilometers wide, and that means that not only a pipeline will be built, but we’re talking about 2,000km for something like 6 to 8km wide. It’s a huge section of the territory, so everyone who is living on that territory, its own interests and its own rights, are being put on a secondary level compared to the investment agreement that the government of Turkey signed. It’s very difficult, of course, to engage with communities who are opposing the pipeline in Turkey, and it’s very dangerous in Turkey today and in the last few years to be publicly against such a project, because the project is portrayed as a project of national interest, so it means being against the government.
The same thing is happening in Greece and in Albania; in Greece the pipeline is going across the most fertile area of northern Greece; farmers are on the frontline, in the region of Kavala and they are seeing the frontline today. So, since the construction started, they have been seen abuses and violations of their property by the companies, so they literally blocked the construction. There hasn’t been a proper assessment of their demands, neither from the government of Greece or from the European financial institutions involved, and we think that this really critical and, somehow, it’s a challenge to the European legislation on public participation and the environment, so the Orus Convention and every European law that should guarantee public participation are really at stake in this moment.
In Albania, the internal political situation is also very difficult. We talk about communities in the northernmost parts of the country which basically are about to lose everything. It’s farmers communities who live off farming and they may have some fruit trees and olive growths, and this is not for big business, it’s small land for basic sustainability of the family, so when this people are losing their land, you can compensate them for the actual value of the land, but the point is, what will those families survive from in the coming years? And this is not being addressed properly, we think.
If we arrive in Italy, the resistance is very strong. Since 2012, we have seen a popular opposition movement, really made of families, of mothers, of grandmothers, of youth and elderly, everyone together opposing the pipeline. The first thing is because of the environmental impacts, of course; we talk about an area of Italy which is having the most pristine beaches, and the sea is the main resource they have. All the economy is rooted on small scale tourism; it’s a community of farmers, they have olive growths and just basic agriculture, and for these communities, the pipeline is also representing an economic and industrial model, which is completely clashing from the economy they are living from today, and also from their idea of future, so it is really about the future, the future generations, and also protecting a healthy environment for them.
Beside the pipeline in Melendugno and actually in the middle of four different communities, the project is also about building gas pressurizing stations, which is like – you can imagine like a turbo gas power plant right in the middle of communities. It’s going to be polluting; the company can say whatever they want, but it’s really about burning gas right there, but also it will have a potential risk of explosion. We have seen, not long ago, a similar plant exploding in Austria. That one was in the middle of nowhere, luckily, so there were no humans hurt and no communities live next to it, but in Melendugno, the first houses are at less than 500m from the actual plant, so people are really afraid of their security on top of everything else, and this is just to give you the sense of why people are opposing the pipeline so fiercely. They are really putting themselves between the so called ‘construction site’, which is basically the land where they live, and the machines form the company.
So last year, we have seen a very strong resistance form the people, but also very strong repression the state, who sent hundreds of policemen and army on the spot to defend the interest of the company, and we have seen a massive democracy issue there, with local authorities taking the sides of the communities, and the state with the police taking the side of the Trans Adriatic Pipeline consortium.
Nerina Finetto: And the pipeline is going to be also underwater. Is this an issue?
Elena: The community of Melendugno, from the very early days, has set up a commission of experts, so they have screened rhe project from page one to page two thousand, and the way that the company’s portraying this undersea pipeline, from their point of view, is just impossible to do. They claim that there will be no damage on the beach, and that there will be no damage on the sea. They’re trying to do something really challenging in an area where the soil is very fragile; the coast is not made of hard rocks, it’s sand and a very fragile type of rock which is continually being eroded by the sea, so it’s a very peculiar area.
By the way, it’s also a protective area; there are several protective areas on land and in the sea. People simply don’t believe that there will be no damage and that they can continue to go on the beach just on top of the gas pipeline, which is what the company is saying. The community really informed itself through the years; there have been so many meetings with experts and with people really explaining the project to the residents, and now people feel empowered and they know simply that what the company is claiming they will do is just not going to help them, and so they are simply afraid that once the project starts, then they will have to live with a completely destroyed environment and with damages that will be irreversible forever, so it is really about the future of the community and protecting the environment as it is, but also deciding about the future. I mean, do we think that the community should have the right to decide about their future? They think they want to help that right, so they are reclaiming the right to decide about what should be done or what shouldn’t be done in their community. I think it’s really a strong cash of the democratic institutions of the state with the local authorities claiming the right to decide, and the central government basically giving everything in the hands of the company.
Nerina Finetto: And now we have also a new political situation in Italy, because the newly elected environmental minister is taking a new approach to the pipeline. Is it correct?
Elena: In Italy, we had elections in March. Finally. a new government is taking shape, and the first declaration of the environment minister is that the Trans Adriatic Pipeline is a pointless project, so it doesn’t make any sense for Italy. He’s looking into the environmental import assessment, and he claimed that they may reopen the process. So basically, the minister declared that something may have been wrong with the authorization of the pipeline; we, of course, now want to see the minister taking steps, so we want to see if the project is pointless, will the new government continue to support it or not? And this is a very strong political issue, so the communities and the popular movement have their demands, they are very clear, so we will see now in the coming weeks is the government will be consistent with the first declarations.
Nerina Finetto: What is your call to action?
Elena: We think that the Trans Adriatic Pipeline, and also the Southern Gas Corridor, is a project that everyone in Europe should be concerned about. It has to do with the future of Europe. We think that the communities in Italy, but also the communities in Turkey, or in Albania, in Greece, which have probably a political context that make it more difficult for them to respond, we’d like a popular resistance. These communities are in the frontline, but what they are defending is also our future, and I think that the support should be shown in a variety of ways. Support and solidarity from everyone across Europe. So one point is to understand who are all the different actors that are taking direct benefit form the construction of the pipeline, and to understand that what is being portrayed as our general interest, like energy security or independence from Russia, actually is just false. I mean, it’s really only political talks, but it is nothing to do with the reality that is behind this project.
I think if we all agree that we don’t need this gas, and if we all agree that the construction of the pipeline is hiding economic and financial interest that are rather personal and have nothing to do with the collective benefit of Europe, then we should just take a stand and decide on which side do we want to be.
Nerina Finetto: Where do you get you motivation from?
Elena: My motivation is really the motivation of someone who has the opportunity to be on the ground with the people who are on the frontline, so I do my investigation, but also I meet the people, I see the action impacts, I see the environmental and the social impacts, but also I talk with the people and I realize that what they want and the legislative framework that should protect them is actually somehow not working, like all the words about democracy and human rights, they just don’t match with what actually happenes on the ground.
When the interest is so high, the more we talk about projects of strategic interest for Europe, the more we realize that the voices or those on the ground are not being heard, and there is really a vacancy of democracy in Europe that has to do with that. So when the space is being restricted, when violence is being used, when the state is repressive towards the community and is not listening anymore, we think thet there is a problem, and when all of this is happening in the name of private interest, we realize that more and more it has to do with something that really is beyond what is the democratic structure of our country, and we think it should be exposed. So my motivation comes, I think, from the need of justice, and of seeing justice really being addressed, somehow.
I think we have to force the so called democratic institutions to take the stand of those that stand below, the normal people living everyday’s life, and I think also about questioning these new public-private combo that we see, where the public and private are basically all together, and so we see the State defending multinationals or big industrial and financial interests, but not in the name of the people. So, I think there is really the need to make clarity, and to take more and more concrete examples out there so that everyone can also have an informed opinion about what is going on, and whether this is really the place where we want to be. Are these are the rules that we think are the right rules, and is the State is still representing the interest of the communities when such things happen.
Nerina Finetto: What needs to be done?
Elena: I think that we need to be more and more responsible of our lives, and we need to take the responsibility of taking care of the place where we live and the people we live with. More and more we need to feel that we are part of a community, and that as a community we may be able to define what we want for our future. So it’s not the individual human being that decides, but it should be more and more the space of our community who decides and who is also able to take care of itself as the State is jut not able to do anymore. So in the places where people feel like they are forgotten by the state, I think that the challenge is to reorganize somehow and start to take the responsibility of taking care of each other, which includes the people, but also the environment, It includes also the type of economic activities that we think should take place in the place where we live if we want it to be sustainable in the longer future.
Nerina Finetto: What kind of society do you dream of?
Elena: I think this is the society that I dream of. It’s a society where people are able to take care of themselves and of each other, and where they feel that collaborating with each other is probably the best way to foresee a future. So I imagine a future where imagines are real communities of individuals that feel close one to the other and are able together to decide what they need and how to achieve it. I imagine that if we are able to be open and collaborative, we should be able to also redefine our future in a way that is sustainable for the planet and for ourselves.
Nerina Finetto: Do you have a dream, Elena?
Elena: A personal-? I think this is my dream, at the end. I mean, it’s a dream that I see. It’s not a fantasy, because I know people and I’m probably part of communities that are in the making, and I think that a lot of the resistance I’ve seen is also containing in themselves the seeds of the new ‘Other Worlds’, like the Latin-Americans like to call them. But our communities, by questioning an economic model, they also start to question how a society functions, and they are rediscovering a collective way of doing things, which is like aware of power as a big issue, and so they try to address it on one side, but they are also aware that being collaborative and able to do things together, including talking together to discuss and have different opinions, is a resource and not a problem. I think this is the way forward.
Nerina Finetto: Thank you so much for this conversation, Elena.
Elena: Thank you!
Nerina Finetto: And thank you for watching, thank you for listening, and thank you for sharing. Please feel free to reach out to me if you have any suggestion. Keep wondering, and see you next time again. Bye and ciao.