Déjà vu: from Famatina via Orissa and Dakota to Groningen
Whenever I see pictures of the people in the Dutch province of Groningen whose houses are collapsing because of gas extraction and who, even if they wanted to move somewhere else, would never be able to sell them, I can’t help but think of all the people worldwide who have been experiencing the same problems, sometimes for decades. Every time I see the anger and powerlessness of the people of Groningen, the comparison to the many people we have been working with for many years in many parts of the world comes to my mind.
Not only in Groningen, but in the whole world, normal people are resisting oil and gas extraction, mining, dam construction and other large-scale projects that are being carried out ‘in the common interest’. While the Netherlands is often directly involved in the development of large-scale projects throughout the world, there is little attention or understanding for the struggles these people are engaged in. We like to see ourselves as the country that brings development and can easily close our eyes to reality in far-off lands, as we ourselves are not often confronted with the consequences of such economic activities.
It is difficult for us to really feel anything when we see images of indigenous people in brightly-coloured clothes resisting the Dakota Access Pipeline or the Belo Monte Dam. Or to really understand why women and men risk their lives to ensure that a hydraulic power plant is not built in their territory. Or why thousands of people in India and Indonesia, in Argentina and El Salvador, protest against the arrival of large mining companies if they will provide so many jobs?
But now, what people have to deal with on a daily basis in the rest of the world is suddenly happening here, in our own country. In Groningen, people are protesting against the injustice they have had to put up with for so many years. What is going on now in Groningen around gas extraction has many similarities with the struggle of indigenous groups in the US or Brazil, the women’s resistance in Honduras and the anti-mining protests in Indonesia.
Groningen shows us in close up how normal, patient and reasonable people are first ignored, then palmed off with formalities, forced to resort to the courts where one ruling after the other is in their favour, but any real action is simply put on the back burner. It shows us how they ultimately have no other choice than to express their displeasure in public, in the hope that this will increase the pressure on politicians.
Now that the public debate has erupted with full force and they finally have a podium, the duped people of Groningen are understandably no longer as patient and reasonable. As a consequence of the complete lack of respect they have endured, they now express their anger on public television, directing it for example at the Prime Minister, who has become a symbol of what they have been put through. And the ruling class in the Netherlands responds promptly, just as everywhere else in the world where people desperately fight to save their livelihoods, by declaring that it is ‘most indecent’ to rant and rave against their democratically elected leaders.
Groningen also shows that the suffering of people who fight against large-scale developments goes much further than material losses alone. It is about much more than earthquakes and subsiding houses. People are frustrated; for many years, they have not been taken seriously, their problems have trivialised and every solution is brushed aside or discouraged.
Fortunately, there is hope for the people of Groningen. Thanks to their persistence, they now have the support of the whole country. And thanks to the way our country is organised, they can conduct their campaign without fear of their lives, and there is a lot of solidarity with their cause. They are not a minority of indigenous people or women, who can easily be ignored. They are not intimidated or murdered if they stand up for their rights. Their protests are finally heard and there is a good chance that they will receive compensation for their material losses. And this is of course the way it should be.
This, however, is not the case in many other countries. Including countries in which the Netherlands invests and does business, but looks the other way when people – with good reason – oppose mining, dam projects and paper production plants. It is high time that we took not only the people of Groningen seriously, but also all those people in the world who – often due to the activities of the Netherlands – are in the same situation, and made sure that Dutch involvement abroad leads to a better life for everyone, both here and there.