The city of Ain Salah lies about 750 miles south of Algiers in the Sahara Desert. Its location as a desert oasis relies on a sensitive aquifer system that stretches from Southern Algeria to Tunesia and Libya, and overlaps with at least four intensive shale gas fields. Fracking commenced in the area in 2013, and a mass movement against the practice has rapidly unfolded. This new turn against resource extraction and exploitation has emerged elsewhere in recent months, such as Burkina Faso, as the global push to extract resources ranging from gold to agricultural commodities to fossil fuels has led to widespread dispossession in Africa since the onset of the financial crisis in 2008. It carries with it the revolutionary sentiment the drove Algeria to independence from France, leading a tidal wave of liberation movements throughout Africa. Since New Years Eve, four days after fracking operations were announced near the city, Ain Salah has effectively stopped functioning in a conventional way. Commerce and administration has moved between business as usual and an extensive occupation/sit-in of the main square, along with several rallies. Video and photographic evidence has been released exposing harmful pollution and contaminated water supplies, causing an uproar and sense that fracking must be stopped. The companies primarily involved in exploiting shale gas in Algeria include Halliburton and France’s major oil company, Total. After settling a major bribery case in Nigeria in 2010, Halliburton, the leading oilfield services company in the world, began looking to Africa for increased gas exploitation in 2012. As fracking began to slow in the US, they made a major play for Algeria, which has the second highest proven gas reserves in Africa. For its part, Total grabbed oil lands in Libya after the NATO invasion that toppled the government of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, but the collapse of national infrastructure that ensued has significantly hindered the once-strong oil industry. In December 2013, the National Oil Corporation announced its intensions to bolster the economy by allowing oversees corporations like Total to commence fracking operations. The outbreak of violence in Libya had severe repercussions in Mali to the south, as armed militants swept into the country and added a surge to the Tuareg separatist uprising the next year. With hundreds of thousands displaced in the ensuing calamity, increased unrest combined with severe drought and the recent Ebola outbreak to create difficult economic conditions. In an ironic turn, Halliburton was forced to cut 1,000 employees last December, it claimed, due to the turmoil in West Africa caused in no small part by French intervention on behalf of Total’s access to natural resources. Now the two companies are making plays for Algeria’s gas reserves. The combined total assets of Halliburton and Total comes close to 40 percent of Algeria’s GDP, and the President of Algeria, the aging Abdelaziz Bouteflika, has not put up any opposition to their extraction efforts. In his fourth term, Bouteflika, the longest-serving president in Algeria’s history, has weathered substantial protests in 2010 and 2012 calling for his ouster, and today he meets with a movement that extends from Ain Salah to Algiers calling for another way of looking at public control over natural resources. Back to Liberation This different approach was manifested on February 24, when nearly the entire city of Ain Salah, some 40,000 people, took to the square, which has been renamed Place Somoud, or Resistance Square, to celebrate the 44th Anniversary of the nationalization of hydrocarbons by former-President Boumediene. But the new approach is not simply in favor of extraction by a state-owned oil company; the people of Ain Salah seem most concerned with pollution of their delicate aquifer, which imperils the very existence of that place. The struggle is not simply about Ain Salah, as February 24 saw mass demonstrations touch off from the town of Ouragla to Algiers. These protests challenged Algiers’s ban against protests that has been in place since the end of the terrible Civil War that claimed upwards of 150,000 lives between 1991 and 2002. Bouteflika is seen by many as a hero who helped put a stop to the war, but now his regime is challenged by the progression of popular opposition to industrial extraction. There is concern that unrest might cause an opening for another civil war (one that Halliburton and Total could attempt to exploit), prompting harsh police reactions. As police officers pre-empted the protest in Algeria on February 24, arresting some 50 demonstrators while national festivities were held to commemorate the day, Bouteflika’s advisor, M. Boughazi took to national TV to read a 20-minute declaration that included the admonition, “Shale gas is a gift from God, and it is our duty to exploit it.” In the midst of the tensions that loomed over the rest of the week, protests turned violent. When a group of activists arrived at the Halliburton base in Ain Salah to protest, they were met with racist provocations by the police, who continued retaliation measures by conducting forceful arrests. Protestors reacted to the oppressive measures by rallying at the Gendarme station, and police responded with large quantities of tear gas and rubber bullets. The police violence persisted into Resistance Square, where the rally site was destroyed and tents burned, and over the next few days, hundreds of people were arrested and numerous injuries incurred among the mostly-peaceful protestors. Finally, as police attempted to seal off the city and lay siege to the city, protestors began throwing stones. Police retreated, and an uprising was in effect; a police barracks, a residence of the mayor, and several police vehicles were set ablaze. The army was called in, and a tense order once again held. This is the second time serious unrest has been caused in Ain Salah over gas companies—the first having occurred in 2002, due to widespread unemployment and the stringent demands of foreign gas companies. The economic issue stands side-by-side with the environmental one, as civil society searches for better ways of living sustainably outside of the control of corrupt foreign multinationals and a distant government. Fracking and resistance against an effective gas grab in Algeria has become an issue for the opposition to utilize in its attempt to develop another kind of politics in the country. However, the opposition, itself, remains fractured and disorganized. The real issues confronting Algeria are tied to the low petrodollar and the increasing inaccessibility of oil and gas reserves without unconventional practices like fracking, but the gas companies are notoriously unable to carry the weight of unemployment in places like Ain Salah. So, like many places in the world confronted with the curse of extractive industries, Algeria must find a unique way out of the global land grab, and the anti-fracking movement has brought some momentum to thinking broader, long-term solutions in keeping with the revolutionary tradition of decolonization and autogestion. Alexander Reid Ross is a contributing moderator of the Earth First! Newswire. He is the editor of Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab (AK Press 2014) and a contributor to Life During Wartime (AK Press 2013). His most recent book Against the Fascist Creep is forthcoming through AK Press.
March 13, 2015