The Guardian (London)
August 15, 1998

SECTION: The Guardian Foreign Page; Pg. 14

Villagers dig deep to block mine plan


ALL THE way up the winding road that leads to Vingrau, the slogans gleam white under the hot southern sun. "Non a Omya" they say, dozens of them, some scoured by the weather and the traffic, others freshly painted: No to Omya.

If the name sounds like that of some powerful and mythical force, to the 460 inhabitants of this picturesque village in south-west France it may as well be. They have been battling Omya for the best part of a decade now, in nearly 100 court cases, in sit-ins, occupations, fist fights and even hunger strikes. Omya is a Swiss mining multinational. It wants to dig at Vingrau, but the village's traditional prosperity comes from its vineyards, which it believes a mine would wreck. There are other reasons - the beauty of the hills above the village and the rarity of their wildlife. - but principally this is a fight between political and industrial imperatives and the desire of a small but determined village to decide its own future.

"As long as there are people living here, we'll keep fighting," said Nicole Roblet, one of six village women who staged a 21-day hunger strike earlier this year to draw attention to their struggle.

"Sometimes you feel desperate, sometimes you're plain scared. But there's always something to give you hope. No one has given up yet; only died."

There is new hope in Vingrau, but no one is counting on anything much. "There's a glimmer at the end of the tunnel, but it certainly isn't sunshine yet," said the village mayor, Claude Bazinet, elected on an anti-Omya platform three years ago with 85 per cent of the vote.

The company has powerful backers. So far, every time the villagers thought they had won, it has come back. Court rulings have been mysteriously overturned, support promised from Paris has been withdrawn. At times, the villagers have felt the entire machinery of French local and national government has been ranged against them.

A world leader in its field, Omya operates the three largest chalk quarries in France. In 1989, it applied to dig a 245-acre quarry across the vine-filled valley from Vingrau, an extension of a far larger site at nearby Tautavel which Omya claimed was exhausted.

If it was not allowed to start digging, the company added, it could be forced to withdraw from the Pyrenees-Orientales region altogether. Some 200 jobs would go, in an area where unemployment is more than 17 per cent.

Almost everyone in Vingrau objected to the scheme. Wine experts and meteorologists were happy to point out that the prevailing winds would ruin the village's 150 small vineyards, which produce an up-and-coming appellation controlee, by covering them with quarry dust.

Ecologists, too, came to the villagers' aid. The circle of hills above the village contains two endangered species of plants, buffonia perennis and tulipia silvestris, and is home to some of the last 25 nesting pairs of Bonelli's eagle in France.

The village defence committee was formed in 1990. Its legal bills, upwards of pounds 150,000, have been met mainly with the proceeds of village raffles, fetes and fund-raising meals. "We've seen things here we wouldn't have believed," said Renaud Chastagnol, its vice-president.

"Five coach loads of riot police surrounding the village, 24-hour curfews, pensioners hospitalised, the mayor and three councillors on hunger strike. We've camped out for months, in relays, to block access to the site. We face fines of pounds 500,000 for obstruction. Oh, and once we had an anthropologist come to examine us, paid for by Omya, to find out why we were acting this way."

Three times the courts have refused Omya its construction permits, and three times the regional prefect has overruled the verdict. In Paris, the two rare plants were removed from France's endangered species list. The green environment minister, Dominique Voynet, who made Vingrau one of her five priorities when she was elected last year, has been unable to help.

"We've fired all the cartridges we have," said Roland Castagny, a committee member. "We've tried all we can. French justice and the government have done everything in their power to make sure Omya comes here."

For everyone, the long-running battle has been an eye-opener. For Mr Chastagnol, it shows the shortcomings of the French system in which a regional prefect, with the support of national government, has the powers of a colonial governor. "It's our naivety that's gone, I suppose," said Laura Napoli, another villager. "We just couldn't imagine that the system could be so dishonest."

The village's glimmer of hope emerged last week, from two quarters: the regional council, which in elections earlier this year swung to the left, and the European Commission. The council ordered a survey of Omya's Tautavel site by a leading geologist before renewing the company's lease. It showed that there was enough calcium carbonate left at Tautavel for anohter eight to 11 years of production.

And in a prized letter to the defence committee, the Commission said it had decided to take the French government to the European Court of Justice for failing to meet directives on the conservation of wild birds, natural habitats, flora and fauna. The verdict, expected in 18 months' time, could leave Paris facing fines of up to pounds 15,000 a day if Omya's permits are not withdrawn.

"We're not there yet," said Mr Chastagnol. "The French government has to admit it has made mistakes, and it is not very good at doing that. But there's hope. It's about time."