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Italy. Sicilians are protesting powerful oil interests that seek to exploit the island’s southern coast. The region has not only a rich ecosystem but a treasure trove of undiscovered archaeological artifacts left over from the Roman Empire.

Obliterating history with an oil drill

The entire island of Sicily is screaming its dissent today in Licata against territorial raids by oil companies. But they’re also offering a real political proposal that goes beyond a simple “no” to drilling operations at the core of large street protests.

Across the Italian peninsula, drilling is actually included in the Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s development plan, the so-called Unlock Italy, while for Sicily the situation is different. The drilling projects in Sicily are part of previous lawmaking, related to the Development Decree designed in 2012 by the Mario Monti government.

The specific situation of Sicily is complicated further, if we think of the Offshore Ibleo project, that antecedes the Monti decree. This project affects an area that — fatally — embraces the southern coast of Sicily, from the Gela Gulf to the Graham Bank, in a space loaded with “hydrocarbonous” resources and raw materials, at least according to scientific research financed by those interested in its exploitation.

Following the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, in 2010, the then Environment Minister Stefania Prestigiacomo had studied some environmental restrictions for drilling along the coast, with legislation imposing a ban on research, exploration or exploitation of liquid and gaseous hydrocarbons within marine and coastal areas protected in any capacity for purposes of environmental protection, as well as outside of them, in marine areas placed within 12 miles of the protected areas. The joke was that the measure was stated in no uncertain terms: “The hydrocarbons concessions already in place on the date of entry into force of the so-called corrective environmental measures, are exempted of such restrictions.” The Offshore Ibleo project remained legal.

At Licata, a small city on the southern coast of Sicily, the effect would be dramatic. The town boasts a 1,000-year history, almost all cultures have passed by its shores, and for years archaeologists have studied the area for clues about ancient navigation and major events, such as the First Punic War, which occurred along this coast. In 2013, researchers began finding gems of history, most recently on Oct. 18, with the discovery of Roman and Byzantine anchors in perfect condition.

Faced with the real risk that Offshore Ibleo would drill on top of archaeological goods deep in the Sicilian Channel, the archaeologist Sebastian Tuna issued a public statement, saying he was opposed to the project. Both to preserve the countless wrecks protected by the sea, and, from an environmental perspective, to save the banks of the Canal, a paradise of the world’s biodiversity. The recoveries made so far are only a small part of what this area of sea contains: Consider that just one of the marine conflicts on these shores, the Battle of Cape Ecnomus during the First Punic War, was fought with over 700 ships and thousands and thousands of men.

The battle waged by the No Triv Licata Committee, born after Tusa’s public exposé, goes in this direction: protect the landscape, its historical and archaeological assets, and the entire community.

Marco Castrogiovanni, a Licata No Triv activist, tells what happened in recent years: “The experience of the Licata Committee has grown in the context of a widespread popular concern about the possible risks of pollution of the sea, and the negative effects caused by the presence of drilling rigs on the area’s economy, in particular on tourism and fishing. Specifically, the Offshore Ibleo project would have repercussions on the nursery of some fish species, and it would result in the banning of fishing boats throughout the area impacted by the oil rigs and related works. These are just a few of the elements not taken into account in the procedure of environmental impact assessment. The immediate objective is to achieve a moratorium that prevents the start of the works, pending the outcome of a possible referendum.”

The local committee also participates in the national No Triv coordination initiative. Within this network, there are many fights, especially because the Unlock Italy initiative affects most of the peninsula. In this regard, the news of the famous amendment on Article 6 paragraph 17 did not stop the civil battle to save the territories.

Augusto de Sanctis, No Ombrina activist, observes: “With the change of the rules, we will probably be able to block the main project on Italian sea, that is Ombrina Mare on the Adriatic Sea. But the oil companies are still strong, and the new laws do not block projects beyond the 12 mile marker. On the mainland, the regions will have a more significant role in the matter, but we have already seen that in some regions, local politicians are not allied with the citizens and the environment, but with lobbyists. We need to network, to network from the bottom up, inform and study a struggle between an entire territory and the government.”

For Licata, today’s protest will include not only No Triv, but it will also embrace the many wounds of a small town in southern Italy that has to deal with the closure of part of its hospital (the birthing unit), a water crisis, daily environmental emergencies, a crisis of the agricultural sector, and, on top of everything, the abandonment of its historical and archaeological heritage, since the city museum is closed for renovations — for the last seven years.