Regular People Blocking the Fossil Fuel Chain
by Daria Rivin, Alice Owen
As world leaders prepare to meet in Germany to negotiate climate action at COP23, activists are putting words into action by blockading a nearby coal mine. Their message is that leaders need to grasp the urgency of keeping fossil fuels in the ground, right here and right now. With an increasing frequency and intensity, such direct actions and the associated demands for climate justice are unfolding on every continent.
These interwoven spaces of resistances are Blockadia. Based on the new Blockadia Map of 70 cases, an international team of researchers has observed a significant increase in the frequency of these resistances; all conflicts with a known start date before 2006 amount to 16 cases, whereas there are 48 conflicts starting within the last ten years.
Blockadia is a term popularised in Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything describing it as the “roving transnational conflict zone [...] where ‘regular’ people are stepping in where our leaders are failing”. These struggles are happening along the whole fossil fuel chain, from extraction to transportation to combustion, and are not only against the local impacts of such projects, but also against their impacts on the climate.
As Emeritus Professor Joan Martínez-Alier at ICTA-Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona explains, "The fight against climate change requires that a large percentage of the recoverable fossil fuels remain in the ground. These are the so-called unburnable fuels”.
The Blockadia Map has been created by researchers from the Autonomous University of Barcelona, Lund University (Sweden) and Universidad del Magdalena (Colombia), using cases from the Environmental Justice Atlas where local people and activists have intervened with destructive fossil fuel projects through protests, occupations or blockades. The earliest of the Blockadia-style resistances documented on the map is the resistance in Nigeria against Shell in the 1990s. Following the destruction of the land of the Ogoni peoples through oil spills and gas flaring, there was a peaceful uprising of 300,000. This culminated in the killing of nine Ogoni leaders, which sparked international outrage against oil companies’ violations of environmental regulations and human rights.
Martínez-Alier continues, “Since the 1990s, communities and organisations from Ecuador to Nigeria and the Philippines and many other countries, oppose coal, oil or gas extraction and burning, not only because of local health and livelihood reasons but also because of the need to keep the "unburnable fuels" in the ground to prevent climate change. Some of the militants have paid with their lives". This struggle is clearly intensifying. As the Earth Defenders database from Global Witness illustrates: the number of environmental activists killed has gone up from 1 to 4 a week over just ten years. 2017 has already been “the deadliest year on record” for environmental activists.
The cases from the Blockadia Map show that Indigenous Peoples are often at the forefront of resistances against fossil fuel projects as they continue to be dispossessed of their homelands. In North America and Australasia this has made Indigenous Peoples and environmental activists allies in protesting fossil fuel projects such as pipelines, combining climate with local concerns.
Elsewhere, the local struggle may be long-drawn before climate enters the conflict. Brototi Roy, PhD Scholar at ICTA-UAB explains, "In most cases from the Indian subcontinent, the two primary motivations for protesting against fossil fuels remain land and forest rights, often involving indigenous communities, and against land, water and air pollution.” She gives the example of the proposed thermal power plant in Phulbari, Bangladesh, where “the climate justice narrative only entered when climate justice activists joined the protest during the stockholders' meeting in London, 16 years after the mobilisations began”.
Meanwhile, “Climate Justice” is the primary demand of the thousands of activists braving the unpredictable weather the day before COP23 starts. They want to block Europe’s biggest source of CO2 emissions, only 50km away from the Climate Summit. The movement is called Ende Gelände – approximately “Here and No Further” - and this summer, for the third year in a row, 6000 activists from across Europe united in Germany to participate in an act of mass civil disobedience at one of the world’s most polluting lignite coalfields.
Ende Gelände questions Germany’s reputation as a “green” country, and makes clear that to meet the Paris Agreement –the implementation of which is being discussed in Bonn– we need to stop our addiction to fossil fuels and create “system change not climate change”. The Paris Agreement has been called a “fraud” by former NASA scientist James Hansen; country commitments are voluntary and nonbinding, and do not even come close to the target of keeping global warming at 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
The Blockadia Map serves as a tool for activists to unite their struggles and build a stronger movement against the multitude of injustices presented by fossil fuel projects. Each small resistance is part of the bigger picture, which is sending a clear message to our leaders to put people before polluters and take meaningful actions to transition to a fossil free future. Despite the power of fossil fuel corporations and the lack of political leadership on climate change, 16 of the 70 Blockadia cases have been successful in stopping fossil fuel projects.
When we - as students and first-time activists - joined the Ende Gelände action of mass civil disobedience this summer, we arrived in despair and fear; despairing of the injustices the fossil fuel industry and our leaders are causing, fearing the police and for the future of our planet. But we left in hope. When we come together in acts of defiance, our struggles become part of a bigger movement. Just as these resistances are real spaces where people and causes are connected, the Blockadia Map is a space for movement-building and international solidarity.
Originally published on CommonDreams.org | Photo Credit: Shutterstock