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The pipe

The pipeline TAP will bring natural gas to the EU from Azerbaijan. It’s causing hundreds of farmers to worry about their own survival.

26. September 2019
Magazine > Feature > The pipe

It’s a Thursday morning in August, and the future of many a farmer is about to be decided. It’s only 9 a.m. but the sun is already pretty high in the sky. Around 40 farmers wait in the shade of a few large walnut trees. There is silent tension in the air, as if something is about to happen. Normally these farmers would be working in their fields, but today there are more important things to be done. Because 15 workers from the opposing side are across from them, leaning against an old tractor. Wearing yellow and red vests, their hard hats still on their heads, they are waiting with shovels in hand for the word to get back to work. The farmers had interrupted their work early in the morning, demanding to see their permit. A permit authorizing them to lay pipe under these farmers’ fields for the TAP. “We won’t allow it!” yells Themis Kalpakidis, head of the farmer’s union, who now stands in front of the entrance to the cornfield.

The farmers and workers are fighting over something that doesn’t even exist yet. The Trans Adriatic Pipeline, or TAP for short, is being built to transport natural gas to Europe from a gas field in Azerbaijan. It will diversify Europe’s energy sources starting from 2020, but today in Greece’s Kavala region, under the hot morning sun, it’s only one step away from causing a fistfight. The workers and farmers now lean over the hood of a white Jeep, their lips pressed tightly together. The farmers sceptically examine the documents that the workers have spread out there. Until one of the workers, exasperated, folds the land-use plan back up and heaves the plastic stools and measurement equipment back into the Jeeps. The farmers have won for today, but the fight over the pipeline is far from over.

Three days earlier, biogas farmer Themis Kalpakidis was sitting on his blue tractor, ploughing long tracks into a harvested field. Bright yellow rapeseed flowers were in bloom here a few weeks earlier; now dark-brown manure covers the ground. “I’ve been going out to help in the fields since I was a little boy. It was something I really liked,” says Kalpakidis. “We love our land, and we’re fighting the pipeline because we’re afraid it will destroy the region.” The windows in the tractor protect him from the acrid stench. He wipes beads of sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. The fingers wrapped around the steering wheel are worn, their skin rough. Kalpakidis, age 51, with a tan face, grey hair and stubble, opens a map on his smartphone. A pink line extends diagonally across the dark green screen, a line that Kalpakidis would love to remove. It’s the route for the TAP, a transnational infrastructure project co-sponsored by Britain’s BP, Norway’s government-owned Statoil and SOCAR, the national oil company of Azerbaijan. TAP is not just the name of the pipeline itself, but of the company that is responsible for building the pipeline. “This fight isn’t about personal gain; we’re doing this for our community, for our children,” says Kalpakidis. He has been in this unfair fight for five years now. But he has nothing against the pipeline, just its route. It crosses right through fields that are known for their fertile, swampy soil. Fields that secure the future livelihoods of the people who farm them. As the head of the farmer’s union, Kalpakidis feels personally responsible for these fields – even though his own land lies outside of the route to be taken by the pipeline. Giving up is out of the question for him.

“We love our land, and we’re fighting the pipeline because we’re afraid it will destroy the region.”

– Themis Kalpakidis, head of the farmer’s union in Kavala, Greece

517 kilometres west of Kavala, in a small village named Strum in western Albania, Festim Malka is crouched in his watermelon field. He notches a hole in the top of the melon and then cuts out a slice, revealing the fruit’s juicy, red flesh. “It’s real organic. Come try it!” he yells in a gravelly voice, his hand-rolled cigarette still between his teeth. With his leather sandals and beige Capri pants, Malka doesn’t look anything like what most people imagine when they think of a farmer. Unlike his Greek counterpart Themis Kalpakidis, Malka has already lost his fight against the pipeline. Its pipes have been in his soil for nearly a year already. They cross his property on the diagonal, two metres below the surface. When people from Abkons, the Albanian subsidiary of TAP, first came to him two and a half years ago, he refused to sign on the dotted line. But then, he says, they told him there are laws that would allow them to take away his land and convert it into government land. So he decided to sign after all. Since then he has been receiving €350 in rent for his land – per year. “If I had planted watermelons in this field during the summer, for just three months, I would have earned at least €2,800 a year,” says Malka. Now his watermelons and tomatoes are always at risk of drowning. Because every time it rains, the rainwater collects in his field and can no longer drain off. The drainage that was added when the pipeline was being built is to blame, because it changed the natural direction that the water had run off. The makeshift dams he built cannot support that amount of water. Malka says he complained to the workers at the site. A lawyer would have been too expensive and too far away. Tirana is a long way off; he doesn’t have the time. “Besides, when has a little fish ever been able to swallow a big one, especially in this country?” he adds with a stoic laugh.

The watermelons are drowning. Every time it rains, the rainwater can no longer drain off.

According to the NGO Bankwatch, which has studied the impact that the construction of the TAP has had, the pipeline has affected around 80 communities in Albania that are largely dependent on agriculture. TAP the company says that of the 10,585 homesteads that lie on the pipeline’s route through Albania, 22 percent, or 2,374, were dispossessed so it could be built. According to TAP, this is a last resort and one that is mainly for when landowners and users cannot provide the necessary documents. Like Malka, many Albanians don’t have official records to certify their ownership of land. “It all belonged to my family, not me. I’ve been farming this land for 20 years, and this was the first time I ever had to get the papers together to prove that it’s mine,” he says. The other 78 percent leased or sold their land to TAP. Like Festim Malka ultimately did.

More than two thirds of the pipe for the TAP is already in the ground, and its construction is drawing to a close. Starting in 2020, it will bring natural gas from a gas field in Azerbaijan to Italy, where the gas will then be sent on to other European countries via existing pipelines. For Europe, the new pipeline through Greece, Albania and Italy means, first and foremost, greater independence from Russian gas, which currently satisfies around 40 percent of European demand (548 billion cubic metres). Never before has Russia commanded such a large percentage of European gas imports. Demand for natural gas is expected to continue to rise in the EU in coming years, with gas functioning as an interim solution to coal and nuclear power while Europe moves to renewable energy. The EU is taking big steps to reduce Russia’s share in that mix. The TAP is currently the largest and most expensive of such infrastructure projects in the EU, with total planned costs of €4.5 billion. Those are the figures from the project managers. The TAP crosses 19,060 parcels of land and affects 45,000 landowners on its way from east to west. It’s clearly a huge energy project, and one that urges us to think of Europeans as a whole while accepting that some farmers will have to suffer. As such, this pipeline’s construction raises the difficult question of how far the interests of a majority can prevail over those of a minority. It brings up related questions as well, such as: How much collateral damage should a project be allowed to cause, how should the parties responsible deal with that damage, and who should ultimately get to decide?

Photo: © Ilir Tsouko
On its 870-kilometer journey from east to west, the TAP passes through more than 19,000 properties. Photo: © Ilir Tsouko

Like a subterranean snake, the TAP winds its way across 870 km, under remote Albanian mountain villages, thick forests and past archaeological digs. Shortly before Philippi, the ancient Roman city that UNESCO declared a World Heritage Site in 2016, it comes to a halt at the foot of the Lekanis hills. An old SUV driven by Lefteris Kotaidis struggles up the steep incline, past orange barrier tape. He peers out the left window into a fissure some four metres deep. At the top of the hill, Kotaidis stops the vehicle. Once the mayor of this town, he knows the region well. Along the ridge of the hill, the pipeline has left a light brown scar in the dark green forest. If the farmers here had their way, the pipeline would never leave the mountains to come down into the valley; it would stay up high, far away from their fields. Kotaidis crouches down and uses a stone to draw two lines in the sandy soil – it’s one of the routes that was proposed to the TAP operating company. “TAP has an obligation to examine both routes and find the best one. But they didn’t do that. They stayed with the one they had been proposing from the beginning,” says Kotaidis. Greece’s geotechnical chamber investigated the route too. It highlighted the agricultural damage that the current route would cause. Yet Lisa Givert from TAP writes that investigations were performed for both routes and a decision was made for the one that would have the least impact on the natural and human environment.

The TAP is currently the largest and most expensive of such infrastructure projects in the EU.

At the foot of the hill, where the pipeline is supposed to leave the slope, Spyros Prousaef, a farmer, sits on his light green tractor and forcefully shouts his grievances. “They will never get through here! We’ll die before we let them!” Prousaef’s field is the first on an 11-km tract of resistance. Seventy percent of the landowners here are refusing to sign an agreement to lease or sell their land to TAP. A brawny man in his early 40s wearing a green polo shirt, Prousaef was one of the first. It’s not just because TAP’s heavy machinery would destroy the soil structure and change the conditions for farming; Prousaef is also reacting against the way that TAP is behaving towards farmers. He says TAP tried to divide them and bribe individual farmers with money. “They could have sat down with all of us to find a solution that would meet the needs of both sides.”

Photo: © Ilir Tsouko
Themis Kalpakidis is farmer in Kavala and the leader of the protests against the current route of TAP. Photo: © Ilir Tsouko

Dried by the August sun, Prousaef’s sunflowers hang their heads. In 25 days this field will be harvested, and these sunflowers, stalks and all, will be turned into biodiesel. Prousaef fears that when the field lies fallow it will be a sitting duck for TAP’s bulldozers. Like two years earlier, on 6 October 2016, when he got a call from a friend who said he saw strangers in yellow vests in his field. Not long after, Prousaef stood face-to-face with 15 construction workers. Before he knew it, 70 farmers had joined him in the field. The workers had already levelled part of the surface and placed yellow markers around it. They tell Prousaef they’re lost. Five years earlier, he found a map on the Internet. It was the first time he’d heard about the pipeline. “But I never heard anything about the company.” Prousaef claims that TAP never approached him and never presented him with an offer to buy or lease his land. He says they had no right to enter his field without his permission, so he reported them. In the two years since then, he has been waiting for the law to do something. Prousaef considers TAP to be a thief, except that, instead of breaking into his house, they broke into his field. And they got away without any legal consequences. This has led him to take matters into his own hands. He now goes to his field at least twice a day to check whether anyone has been there without his permission.

He goes to his field at least twice a day to check whether anyone has been there without his permission.

TAP claims that it has conducted multiple meetings with farmers and the public since 2013 to inform people affected by the pipeline of their rights and the pipeline’s intended course. It says that it only availed itself of its right to enter a person’s property without their consent in cases when no agreement could be reached. A practice called “forced process” provides the legal basis for this course of action, and the practice is established in Greek law. Unlike dispossession, the owner does not lose their property rights, because the land is returned to the legal owner and user when construction is complete. The dispossession is only temporary. Our farmer Spyros Prousaef says he’s never heard anything about a law like that.

But should the interests of one hundred people even matter when the energy independence of all of Europe is on the table? When do group rights take precedence over individual rights? The law has a clear answer to this second question: When the public welfare is at stake (in this case energy security through natural gas), limitations can be placed on basic rights such as the right to property or nature. Such a process begins by weighing the competing legal interests. What is more important: a farmer making a living or seeing the project through? This approach is common practice in Austria too. Like when a new stretch of highway is going down. Democracy has a solution for these types of conflicts. In a nutshell, the majority rules.

Especially when the issue is bigger than a highway. The TAP will be the first pipeline to bring natural gas from the Caspian Sea to Europe, says Kirsten Westphal, an energy expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. “It will provide a link to an appealing region – to Turkmenistan, Iran and the Eastern Mediterranean, where there are major gas reserves. It has geopolitical significance.” Especially given that Europe’s own gas reserves are declining. Europe’s dependence on Russian gas has been coming into question since at least the 2014 crisis in Ukraine, which resulted in gas supply shortages. The EU’s third energy package was the first time it distanced itself from Russia. Among other things, the mechanism prohibits pipeline operators from simultaneously acting as gas suppliers. This regulation is unambiguously aimed at Gazprom, the Russian gas conglomerate that had been performing both functions. Still, it is important not to overestimate the importance of the TAP, says Westphal: “The TAP will bring ten billion cubic metres of natural gas to Europe each year. That’s only a small amount compared to Russia, which supplied 187 billion cubic metres last year. But it does contribute to diversification.” So the TAP is not going to change that much after all.

And yet the TAP is everywhere: in the strategy papers of EU officials, in Kavala, in the minds of Greek farmers and in the soil of Albanian farmer Festim Malka. But it’s not visible in many places. If you want to see it being built, you need to go to Skrapar, in the mountains of Southern Albania. Skrapar is one of the last regions in Albania where the pipeline has not been put in the ground yet. Workers are laying sections of black steel pipe about four metres long in a trench next to a residential building. With a diameter of around one and a half metres, they are almost big enough for an adult to walk through.

“The TAP will bring ten billion cubic metres of natural gas – Russia 187 billion.”

– Kirsten Westphal, an energy expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin

The Skrapar region is one of the poorest in Albania. A lack of good roads has kept it isolated and prevented it from developing at the same pace as other areas. Albania has had electricity since the 1970s, but most people in this region cook and heat their homes with gas bottles. “Life in our community has changed thanks to the TAP,” says Krenar Xhaferraj, head of tourism and foreign relations, as we sit in a café in the historic centre of Çorovoda, the main town in Skrapar. In the midst of all this poverty, our surroundings appear unexpectedly new and clean, with a freshly mowed lawn, new pavement and freshly planted trees along the newly asphalted street. Since they started building the pipeline here four years ago, the consortium has put a lot of money into new streets and other projects. Now they’re hoping the tourists will come – to raft in Osum canyon, for example. At least that’s the plan.

With a new day-care centre, new hospital equipment, €60 million in investment and over 1,000 jobs with TAP, the people you meet here in Skrapar and ask about the TAP are grateful. The pipeline has improved their quality of life. That’s how the locals see it. But what does the TAP actually give to Albania apart from transit fees? The country is a candidate for EU membership, so it can hardly deny Brussels’s interests. It’s still unclear whether the TAP will provide gas for the Albanian grid. The country currently gets one hundred percent of its electricity from water power, a source that is subject to variations in the weather. When Albania runs low on electricity, it has to buy what it needs from other countries at high prices. This is another reason why people in Tirana are hoping that, in addition to income from gas transit, there will be a successful outcome to the negotiations between the government and TAP. But that remains uncertain.

Natasha Ceta has only seen bad things come from the pipeline. The heavy trucks that continue to wind their way through these country roads pass directly in front of her property and kick dust up on the roses in her garden. Ceta, a small, timid woman, sits on one of the old, worn-out brown sofas on her porch and clenches her hands. She is afraid that TAP will take what she holds most dear: her house. She worked in Greece for 20 years to be able to afford it. Now only 20 metres separate her sofa from the pipeline. That’s enough to be out of the safety zone, which, according to TAP, must remain free of any buildings in order to keep the pipeline safe from any external influences and prevent gas leaks. But that hasn’t given Ceta any peace of mind.

“The ground suddenly starts to shake, and an eight-metre-long crack opens up in front of my house. It swallows up the house at the end. I’ve been having that dream every night,” she says. For the past three years. TAP wouldn’t give her money to buy a house somewhere else. She says they told her she wouldn’t be entitled to that until the house actually suffers damage. Ceta brings a plastic bag out of the house, removes a stack of papers from it and places them on the table. “When they first came here, they said I should just go ahead and sign and not read the contract through because it would take me weeks.” So she signed. Behind the house, in the shadow of a mountain, Ceta stops in front of an empty field. “This was my land. I had olive trees here. They were at least six years old,” she says in an emotional voice. Although she received compensation of 170,000 lek (around €1,300), it doesn’t compare to what she lost. Because when TAP workers started uprooting the olive trees, her husband Michal left for Greece. He couldn’t bear to watch the trees that he had brought from Greece and planted with his own hands be destroyed in less than one day. She’s been living alone since then. Ceta doesn’t know why the pipeline that has made such a mess of her life is being built. But she knows who benefits from it. “It’s the Europeans. The problem stays here with us. We’re the losers. At least I am.”

The farmers protesting in Kavala would undoubtedly agree with Natasha Ceta. Themis Kalpakidis, the head of the farmer’s union, has gotten his share of scars in the fight against the TAP. But he’s still leading it. When he is led into the courtroom in Kavala on 27 June, he doesn’t look very steady on his feet. The day before, police arrested him and seven other men in a field, where they were obstructing TAP workers. Eight days before that, he went on a hunger strike to protest the empty promises of politicians and the idleness of the judicial system. He collapses in the courtroom, the trial is postponed until December, and he and his comrades are allowed to go. The children in the village have been hailing him as a hero since the hunger strike. The adults there are resisting too. They keep managing to halt the digging with their sit-ins. The fact that the construction firm’s permits have expired has aided them in their efforts, as has the workers’ discovery of the remains of an ancient street.

Kalpakidis sits at his desk in his office. He gets one call after another on his cell phone. He’s been complaining of stomach pain since his hunger strike. He has also started to smoke again. The fight against the pipeline has left his face with deep furrows. “I think that’s because of the people I keep having to deal with in this fight. They’re difficult, unfriendly people. They don’t have a heart, and it’s rubbing off on me.” His family says he’s become more anxious and afraid.

In the end, it’s usually the interests of the minority that are sacrificed for those of the majority.

What is the pipeline then, a blessing or a curse? There are two answers to this question, and they both have their justification. In the end, it’s usually the interests of the minority that are sacrificed for those of the majority. In this story, it’s the farmers who have become the collateral damage of European energy policy. Their fears and worries, as understandable as they may be, seem insignificant when compared to the size of the project. Is it even possible to carry out a project on this scale without jeopardizing the legitimate interests of a few people? If it is, the TAP has definitely not managed to do it.

The Trans-Adriatic Pipeline leaves Albania for Italy between a beach bar and people in deck chairs in the Albanian municipality of Fier. It is scheduled to be fed into the Adriatic this fall. A ferry from the nearby port of Vlora to the port city of Brindisi, Italy takes ten hours. The natural gas that will travel the same route along the ocean floor two years from now will only need half as long. Starting from 2020, gas cooled to 30° C will flow through here. Europe is happy; there will be a big party to christen the pipeline in one year. Politicians and the press will all celebrate the TAP as an important supply route for the EU on that day. The scars that the pipeline has left in the countries it passes through will presumably remain unnamed.

Original in German. First published in November 2018 in DATUM.
Translation into English by Douglas Fox.

This text is protected by copyright: © DATUM / Lena von Holt. If you are interested in republication, please contact the editorial team.
Copyright information on pictures, graphics and videos are noted directly at the illustrations. Cover picture: The gas pipeline in the Albanian Region Fier before entering the Adriatic Sea. Photo: © Ilir Tsouko