There was a roar in the darkness. A mechanical digger was lumbering towards them. Behind it were 2,000 police in riot gear. The few dozen protestors fled from their tents.
This was 3.30am on 6 December, the Susa Valley, a valley rising up into the French-Italian Alps, west of Turin. This is a story about the environment and how the powerful will try to crush us if they don’t like what democracy says. The peasants of the Susa Valley are revolting.
Three years ago the authorities unveiled plans for a new high-speed rail link (TAV) between Turin and Lyon in France. A year later the government passed a law authorising the TAV, meaning tunnels through the mountains.
All local councils voted it down. Dozens of dossiers were sent to the regional government, hundreds of objections arrived at the ministry of the environment.
Nimbyism? Hardly, this valley of about 60,000 people has got virtually no backyard left. Alberto Perino, a “grandfather-demonstrator”, said, “We’ve already got a fast rail link, a motorway and two A-roads.”
The first demonstration of 20,000 people in the valley was in May 2003. The authorities ignored it. People started petitioning the European Union in Brussels.
Protests grew. In June 30,000 people demonstrated in Venaus, which has a population of under 1,000. Many came from the engineering union FIOM. The right wing Berlusconi government moved the start date back to the end of October.
Over 1,000 police were sent up mountain roads to set up building sites but found huge tree trunks in front of them. Demonstrators outflanked them by using mountain paths. The police withdrew.
The police occupied the valley. Alberto explained, “To get home you have to get through a checkpoint. If you can’t prove you live somewhere you can’t go home.”
Local councils set up open meetings. Bussoleno, with of population of 6,000, had over 1,000 attending, many of them engineers, who demanded the valley went on strike.
On 16 November 70,000 hit the streets—everywhere was shut. Two weeks later a delegation of MEPs visited the area, including the left wing Vittorio Agnoletto, who was attacked by police on a picket line.
At one stage demonstrators imprisoned police behind barricades for 11 hours in sub-zero temperatures. About 10,000 gathered in Venaus. This time it was a spontaneous general strike—the authorities backed off again.
Police were not just facing “falling” tree trunks. One demoralised officer told a protestor, “With all these nails on the roads we’re losing four squad cars a day.”
This is what led to the massive police attack last week.
In response demonstrators immediately occupied the Italy-France rail link. A replacement bus service was started, so they occupied the motorway and the two trunk roads.
Local factories shut down and joined pickets, as did schools. There was a protest in Turin. The main city station was closed and dozens of factories walked out.
There were solidarity demonstrations in Rome, Genoa, Modena, Milan, and Brescia.
Thirty six hours later a demonstration formed up in the valley bottom at Susa marched up the valley to the building site at Venaus, skirmishing with the police. Numbers built up to 50,000—the building site was reconquered. The barricades were rebuilt.
Alberto said, “Some 94 percent of all goods transported between Italy and France already come through here.
“We also get 35 percent of all trans-Alpine traffic. If they dig such huge tunnels there will be massive hydrological problems. And our mountains contain asbestos and uranium.”
So far not one hole has been dug. Alberto said, “They haven’t even been able to set up any work huts yet, nothing’s going to happen until spring.”
Now people are digging in for winter. Demonstrators are camped out at 15 degrees below zero. A new Europe is trying to emerge from the Susa Valley.