Can Europe Make It?

Police blockade in the Alps

An environmentalist social movement in the heart of Europe pits its wits against the corrosive model of large-scale infrastructural megaprojects.

Paolo Rossi
14 December 2020
Susa Valley.
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Paolo Rossi. All rights reserved.

Early in the morning of Thursday, December 10, the residents of the small Italian Alpine town of Giaglione woke up to find that their town had been put under police blockade overnight, with checkpoints on every road, and military forces patrolling the forests. As the news broke in the morning and word spread across the rest of the Susa Valley, in the northwest of Italy, local residents reacted in anger and disbelief, and a demonstration outside one of the checkpoints was called for that very evening, which was promptly dispersed by several volleys of teargas fired directly at protesters.

The disproportionate use of military force against a civilian population is in itself always awful to witness, but that this should happen on International Human Rights Day of all days only added insult to injury. However, Giaglione, a very small town that numbers just over 600 residents, is sadly no stranger to a heavy police presence. Since 2011, a large wooded area nearby has been sacrificed for the construction of a new railway tunnel that should eventually connect Italy to France, and local opposition to the project has escalated to such an extent that the whole area surrounding the construction site – including vineyards, fields and the forest itself – has been placed under direct control of the state and the military, where it remains to this day.

The reason for the police blockade which lasted from Thursday morning until Saturday night was because the project promoters had planned an expansion of the construction site. By all accounts, this represents a fairly modest operation but one which nonetheless involved cutting down a portion of the forest that is also home to several endangered species. One species in particular that stands out is the Xerynthia Polyxena butterfly, recently the subject of a high-profile conservation effort spearheaded by the University of Turin in partnership with Tunnel Euralpin Lyon Turin, the company in charge of delivering the new Turin-Lyon railway line.

Activists of the local No TAV movement, a social movement against the new railway line, who have been monitoring the progress of the construction work, were expected to spread the news as soon as the operation began, and in order to avoid a possible demonstration on site, the police sealed off the entire town as a precautionary measure. In the past, similar precautionary measures have seen scores of activists either lose their driving licences, find themselves forbidden from entering certain municipalities, or even put under house arrest for months without a trial. Police repression that would be unacceptable anywhere else in Europe has somehow become the norm in the Susa Valley, in a never-ending saga that has been ongoing since 2005.

Police repression that would be unacceptable anywhere else in Europe has somehow become the norm in the Susa Valley, in a never-ending saga that has been ongoing since 2005.

"The citizens of Giaglione do not deserve this", wrote the mayor of Giaglione Marco Rey in a press release following the police's decision to blockade the town. "All they want is to be able to travel freely, from the town and also within the town." Instead, residents were forced to show identification to police officers any time they needed to leave Giaglione, in some cases reportedly being held at the police blockade for over an hour. To many, this situation was a bitter reminder of a similar case that took place in Mompantero, an equally small town in the Susa Valley which in October 2005 also had the bad fortune of being in the way of construction works related to the new infrastructure. In that particular case, following a long stand-off between No TAV activists and police forces, a decision was taken to set up checkpoints all around the town and require every resident to show identification in order to return home or leave the town.

For many people in the Susa Valley, these actions are very strongly felt as acts of occupation that must always be challenged. But beyond the harshness of these measures, activists have also criticised the substance of the railway project itself. Indeed, despite the fact that the new Turin-Lyon railway line has recently been reframed as an innovative investment within the European New Deal, there are dozens of environmental, technical, legal and public health concerns that No TAV activists argue have not been addressed by the project promoters.

To make up for these gaps, local researchers and professors from the nearby city of Turin have spent years documenting and communicating the many risks raised by this infrastructural megaproject, and the local population has become consequently extremely well-versed in the issues surrounding this controversial project.

In particular, the railway involves drilling for 57km (approximately 40 miles) under the Alpine ridge, which is seen as a danger to the valley for several reasons: the presence of uranium and asbestos in the mountains, the risk that construction work may destroy local ecosystems and biodiversity, or the danger of jeopardising the water supply of several towns in the valley (as has already happened in several towns on the French side of the border) among many other reasons. In a recent report written for the European Commission, the project promoters were furthermore criticised for overestimating benefits and underplaying costs, as is often the case with megaprojects of this kind.

The concerns are not only limited to the tunnel itself, but also to the broader consequences the project might have on the valley as a whole: alongside a new base tunnel, the project is also supposed to bring a new international train station to the town of Susa (population: 6000), as well as a range of auxiliary infrastructures: landfills, warehouses, processing factories, and even a new lorry park. All of this in a valley that is already steeped in cement, littered with the ruins of Turin's former industrial might, and known for decades to have been the playground for criminal organisations looking to launder money in construction work.

The No TAV movement began organising against the construction of the new infrastructure project from the early 1990s. Since then, it has become a social movement with a very strong environmentalist identity, within which many have attempted to propose an alternative to the corrosive model of large-scale infrastructural megaprojects: rather than drilling mountains and knocking down forests, activists profess a relationship to the land and the territory that is on a more human scale – one that puts issues of care, solidarity and conviviality front and center. In 2020, following a year that for Italy has been marked not only by a deadly pandemic but also a series of extreme weather events, many in the Susa Valley have only become more convinced of the urgency of these values.

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