War in Peace County

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The Independent Culture
A beautiful landscape.

A cuddly bloke with

a beard. It all looks

so wholesome,

so Canada. And that's

how it appeared to

Wiebo Ludwig when

he arrived with his

devoted family of

followers to praise the

Lord and lead the

good life. But that was

before the oil men

moved in. And before

the bombs started

going off...

Treading in the snow through the woods of poplar and aspen on Trickle Creek, Wiebo Ludwig's 300-acre farm, we reach a frozen mud road that marks its northern boundary. It had been built by the oil companies, he explains, and leads to a new gas well that is under development about half a mile away. "So this," I say, "must be where you plant your landmines."

Ludwig, who in spite of the frigid air has his shirt open across a barrel chest and a small crucifix, does not laugh. Instead, he looks surprised. "So you've heard about that?" he asks. He imagined I was referring to the crater that had been blown in the road, just beyond a corner I see in the distance, a few days earlier. The blast had crushed a culvert below and blocked the track to all traffic for the foreseeable future.

No, I reply, I didn't know about the broken culvert, which we would both go to inspect the next day in the company, as it happened, of a cameraman from Canada's CTV television. But I had heard, of course, about all the other incidents. They, indeed, were why I had come and why Ludwig, a former pastor and religious patriarch of a community of 36 living on the farm, is so often on the news these days.

This is Peace County, a region of forest and gently rolling agricultural land in the far northwest of Alberta, close to the border with British Columbia. It is a name that is meant to reflect the beauty and isolation of a region far removed from the bustle of modern society - qualities that attracted Ludwig 14 years ago when he first came here from Ontario in order to build his farm and live a life of worship and self-sufficiency.

Peace, however, no longer applies. In the last decade, this has become part of Canada's oil patch, an area overrun by an energy industry greedy for the oil and gas that lies far below. When Ludwig arrived, there were no wells near his new farm. Now he is encircled by 10 wells, some of them producing "sour gas", a rotten-egg vapour that will destroy the central nervous system of a human at the first whiff.

Where once there was tranquillity - for the first 10 years here, Ludwig and his disciples, who include no fewer than 11 of his own children, deliberately forswore all social contact with their neighbours - there is now division, strife and violence. Indeed there is war, waged by a determined and distraught minority against an all-powerful industry which they say is wilfully poisoning land, animals and humans.

Peace County has become a crucible of what the novelist Edward Abbey 20 years ago termed monkey-wrenching - a silent campaign of illegal and covert sabotage aimed at those who would destroy the balance of the environment. It is civil disobedience with explosives. In two and a half years, there have been at least 160 different attacks against oil and gas installations. Sheds at well sites have been dynamited and wrecked, bullets have been fired into them from sniper rifles, roads have been barricaded and energy company executives have been intimidated. Nobody has been killed or injured - or at least not so far.

"Did anyone come in with you?" Ludwig, 57, asks on our walk. "Were you tailed?" The question is serious. He says he is regularly tailed, either by police or by security hired by the oil companies. Some nights, he says, he has stepped outside of his log house and listened to planes overhead with their navigation lights turned off - all part of an effort to keep him and his boys under surveillance.

With an estimated $1.5m in damage wrought against the installations of one company alone - the Alberta Energy Corporation - it is no surprise that the authorities and the industry should be on high alert. In October, the Alberta Premier, Ralph Klein, pledged pounds 2m to catch the perpetrators. "I want to see these people brought to justice and punished to the full extent of the law," he declared, warning that the province was faced with a "carefully orchestrated" campaign of ecological terrorism. AEC environment director Ed McGillivray is more blunt. "It's a siege of terror, and it's escalating," he says. That the Ludwigs and Trickle Creek Farm are at the epicentre of this battle is obvious, even as you approach the farm down a forest-lined stretch of lonely, gravel road. At the property line, a skull-and-crossbones flag flutters over a large, painted sign. "Beware of the Mounting Anger of the local Residents," it begins. "Abandon any Thought of further Gas and Oil Exploration in this Area. Laissez- Faire."

A potato gun rests outside the front door, presumably reserved for any visiting oil executive. As Ludwig and his friend Richard Boonstra, who came with him from Ontario, later demonstrate, it is a serious weapon. A potato is driven on to one end of a long pipe, which itself is attached to a canister. One twist of a metal key with a flint to ignite propellant inside the canister - a squirt from an aerosol hairspray - and the spud will hurtle at high speed for half a mile. It would knock a grown man off his feet, and worse.

Inside the home, however, there are no indicators of violence. On the contrary, the Ludwig household appears to be a model of self-reliance and nurture. On my arrival, Ludwig's wife, 51-year-old Mamie Lou who, like all the women in the community, wears a long skirt and headscarf to denote modesty and submission to her man, is busy preparing a dinner of meat and vegetables, all produce reared or grown on the farm. Crowds of blond and blue-eyed mini-Ludwigs, mostly grandchildren, crowd around this stranger, happy for a break from the home-schooling conducted every day at the family dining table.

Over two days, Wiebo and Mamie Lou, with her infectious laugh, enjoy showing off the bounty of their agrarian labours - a cellar crammed with preserved vegetables and wines and shelves filled with home-grown herbs and spices, some for medical use, like the jar of "cramp bark" for "women's problems". One son is certified to butcher animals to supply the kitchen with meat; a daughter is training in dentistry in Grand Prairie, the nearest city, 40 miles away. Soon, even visits to an outside dentist won't be necessary.

When they first came here, they "didn't know beans from buckshit about oil", Ludwig explains. "But soon, we got smart." Their decision to begin fighting the industry came in 1993, when two-thirds of the lambs expected in the spring were aborted early by their mothers. Soon afterwards, they learned there had been a leak at one of the sour-gas wells that the operator had tried to keep secret. Since then, the miscarriages have extended into the family itself - four Ludwig grandchildren have been lost before birth.

Before dinner, Ludwig, whose Protestant faith is First Century Christian, steers me to the sole television in the home. He begins to play the most harrowing home video I ever hope to see. It is a record of the still-birth, this August, of Abel Ryan Ludwig, the child of Wiebo's son, Bo, and daughter- in-law, Renee. Sitting beside me, Bo begins quietly to weep as he sees, one more time, the awful deformations visited upon his son in the womb. The child, his eyes and mouth agape, has mush where there should be skull and the skin is peeling from his body. These are the same symptoms, says Ludwig, that appear in the aborted lambs. Abel Ryan was killed, he says, by test-flaring of the well that lies at the end of the road we visited earlier.

The science here is highly contentious. While the oil companies insist that their pollution controls are sufficient to protect all life from injury from the wells, a recent study for the provincial government showed unusually high rates of miscarriages for mothers in oilpatch northern Alberta. Researchers are also studying the possible carcinogenic impact of gases allowed to escape into the atmosphere. For the Ludwigs, however, there is no doubt about what has been ailing them.

If crimes are being committed against the oil companies, they are as nothing compared to their own collective guilt as polluters.

"I wish I could expose the terrorism committed by the industry," Ludwig rages, "how many people they are killing annually. This [sabotage campaign] is just a symbolic way of saying, `Look guys, you want to be tough, we can be tough too. And if you want to go beyond the symbolic, so will we.'" In his anger, this man of God is not afraid to address the possibility that those waging the war might even resort to murder.

"I can understand not only why they would want to do that, but I would see it also as justified in the circumstances we face now in Alberta," he says bluntly.

Are the Ludwigs themselves behind the attacks? With this visiting reporter, they are understandably coy, even playful. "I would like to clear a name by saying `No'," replies Ludwig, "but that would make it too easy for the police. It is better to leave it a mystery for them." When a site shed was blown up just after Abel Ryan's delivery, Ludwig, his wife and one of their boys were arrested by the local police and slung in jail. Lack of evidence to file charges meant they were soon released, however.

This summer, AEC offered the Ludwigs $800,000 to leave Trickle Creek. Wiebo, who left Holland aged 10, almost agreed - until he saw the conditions that were attached. Not only did he have to promise to travel at least 500 miles away from Grand Prairie and never return, he was also asked to sign a legal document stating that he had never had environmental problems on his land. He turned the company down.

That was too bad for the local community, which seems united in its disgust with the Ludwigs. "I don't call it eco-terrorism, I call it plain terrorism," spits Frank Webb, the Mayor of Hythe, the nearest town to Trickle Creek. "I will deal with Ludwig personally if I have to, if he harms one single person in this town."

Mayor Webb, enjoying a trim at the "Beauty and Barber Nook", draws applause from four ladies who are in for a styling. They have explanations for what is happening at Trickle Creek: the Ludwig and Boonstra families there are interbreeding, they say, so no wonder they have still-births. As for all the dead lambs, Ludwig goes out to buy them from other farms to pile them up on his own. Closer questioning of these women reveals that every one of them has a husband, son or son-in-law working for the energy companies.

Sergeant David MacKay, who is heading the investigation into the attacks at Royal Canadian Mounted Police headquarters in nearby Beaverlodge, admits to being worried that loss of life may be around the corner if the trouble escalates.

"Certainly, there is an ongoing concern that this could happen, whether deliberately or by misadventure," he says grimly. As to his views of the Ludwigs and their culpability, he keeps his counsel.

His best guess, however, is that the Ludwigs are, at the very least, being helped by saboteurs sympathetic to their cause, who are not locals but environmental activists coming across from British Columbia. He only wishes the Ludwigs would leave. "They must understand that nothing is going to change here, so why not move to a more reasonable environment?"

For Ludwig and his extended clan, it is much too late for that. With just a hint of the apocalyptic in his bearded demeanour and handsome brow, Ludwig declares that the war will go on. It has become a crusade, both moral and religious. "It is critical that people make a stand against pollution. It's that simple."

The next morning, as we tramp homewards from the culverts in the oil road, corrugated metal tubes smashed by the previous week's blast, he muses about the dangers ahead.

"If they shoot me, you can be sure my boys will respond good and heavy." Peace, it seems, will not return to Peace County any day soon.