Mr. Yousfi (pictured right) politely declines the protestors’ calls for questions as he enters HSBC building. © Guy Bell. All rights reserved.
It was during an informal discussion in London, organised by Algeria Solidarity Campaign (ASC) on the topic of the dangers of shale gas exploitation in Algeria, that some participants, learning of the imminent official visit of the Algerian Minister of Energy and Mining to London, felt compelled to take action.
The information presented during the discussion left participants extremely concerned with the potentially deleterious consequences of shale gas extraction in Algeria, through hydraulic fracturing “fracking”. A shale gas well requires the high-pressured injection of colossal quantities of water (20 000 m3), mixed with a concoction of over 750 chemical substances (29 of which are known or suspected carcinogens, presenting health and environmental risks), together with sand, in order to fracture highly impermeable rock, leading to the release of shale gas. This technique has raised major concerns for its substantial use of water (particularly worrying for the Sahara) and for the potential leaking of these chemical substances into groundwater. It was, therefore, rejected by many communities across the world, including France. Indeed, the latter banned it on its soil, but has been invited to experiment with it in Algeria.
The participants then learnt that on March 9, 2013, the Algerian authorities had passed amendments to the Hydrocarbon Law, which opened the way to the exploitation of shale gas in Algeria. This law was approved in a climate of total opacity, without an open national and public debate, which would have involved the country’s wide range of competencies, necessary for the appraisal of such a potentially highly destructive and economically unproven project. Economists, environmental specialists, technical experts, local communities and civil society were not consulted prior to the introduction of this law in parliament.
The protest thus began to take shape; the organisers; members of ASC, ACC (Algerian Cultural Collective), and concerned Algerian citizens, started seeking the backing of other Algerian organisations concerned about the issue. These included Algerian civil society organisations some of the organisers had met two weeks earlier, during the World Social Forum in Tunis. The organisers also reached out to British activists opposing fracking in the UK.
A week later, on Monday, April 15, the Algerian Minister for Energy and Mines, Mr. Youcef Yousfi, arrived at HSBC Private Bank for a meeting to present and discuss investment opportunities in Algeria, with the representatives of 80 British companies. The protestors awaited him with various placards bearing anti-fracking messages, demands for transparency, and calls for a national debate on the subject. Mr. Yousfi politely declined the protestors’ calls for questions and entered the building.
Inside, introduced by Lord Risby (the British Prime Minister’s Trade Envoy for Algeria), Mr. Yousfi painted a picture of an idyllic Algeria, an attendee recalled. Meanwhile, protestors’ chants could be heard fairly loudly and, at times, seemed to slightly unsettle the minister: “Youcef Yousfi, what’ya doing, youcef Yousfi, where’s Algeria going?” Some chants; creative adaptations of popular Algerian songs (including an original anti-fracking version of Khaled’s Aicha); proved particularly effective at catching participants’ attention.
Come question time, an Algerian participant and supporter of the protest going on outside, was first to take the opportunity to ask a couple of hard-line questions to set the tone.
“Stop Fracking, Start Debating” & “Yes to transparency and democracy, No to corruption & dictatorship”. © Guy Bell. All rights reserved.
He started by telling the minister and the audience that he agreed with the protesters outside and that hydraulic fracking technology is highly controversial, with potentially serious environmental, economic and health consequences. He added that the interests of Algeria should be those of the majority, not the minority. He went on to talk about the discontent of Algerians and the recent protests in the south; “these people will ask: why are you having a dialogue with your counterparts in foreign capitals but never with us? How is it possible that you have been pumping oil and gas under our feet for 50 years, while we, people of the South, have been largely ignored and alienated from this wealth that is ours? Moreover, now you want to poison our land by passing a law, in complete opacity, without a public national debate, one that should involve, without any restriction, national and international experts, Algerian civil society (trade unions, various associations), political parties, public and private media outlets and parliamentary committees”.
The participant concluded by saying to the minister: “when are we going to have a genuine debate in Algeria on shale gas? What do you have to say to the thousands of youth in the South, but also throughout Algeria who are angry right now? Is it more important to talk to foreign diplomats, or to have a dialogue with us, the people, as this means democracy?”
The minister’s answer was predictable on the issue of debate. He advised us that he had himself pushed for the law to be passed and that a debate did indeed take place with experts, as well as in parliament. At this moment, our participant retorted by: "But Algerians do not believe at all in the current parliament. It has no value in their eyes”. The Minister did not react to this and proceeded to downplay the dangers of fracking and dismissing all current controversies surrounding this technology: “it is an old technique that is well-known to international hydrocarbons experts”, emphasising that “a large number of fracking operations had taken place around the world”. He then proceeded, to the participant’s great surprise and disapproval, to compare and equate the dangers of this technology to those of gold mining in Algeria. On the question of youth anger and current protests in the south, the minister advised that the people of southern Algeria were among those who benefited the most from the hydrocarbon industry, notably in terms of employment; adding that those who were protesting were only seeking work with SONATRACH (state-owned oil company).
At the end of the discussion, the minister refused to shake the hand of the participant, who, for good measure, was also directly criticised by the British ambassador to Algeria for having embarrassed their guest. The participant, both bemused and surprised by such a reaction from a senior diplomat, retorted: “the United Kingdom is a democracy and it is my right to ask important and relevant questions that concern the Algerian people. Your reaction is outrageous”.
Meanwhile, chanting continued in earnest outside until the delegation left the building. Joined by the brave participant, the protestors were now convinced more than ever that this was not just a fracking issue, but also a matter of democracy first and foremost. Moreover, they have directly witnessed the collusion of western powers with corrupt and undemocratic regimes; as long as the latter serve and maintain the interests of the former (as we’ve already seen happen with Ben Ali’s Tunisia and Mubarak’s Egypt).
This may have been a small contribution to Algeria’s current democratic struggles, but it is only a first step. The protestors feel positive and uplifted that their action, supported by other sister-organisations, has rattled a few cages. It’s one of many small steps that will pave the way to the long road of transparency and democracy in Algeria.