Italy erupts over plans for high-speed rail link

Locals plan a general strike over decision to construct an Alpine tunnel through to France, that they say will cause huge environmental damage

An activist set fire to tyres during a protest last week against the rail tunnel in northern Italy
An activist set fire to tyres during a protest last week against the rail tunnel in northern Italy

The fight goes on. For more than 20 years, the people of Val di Susa, a spectacular Alpine valley on the Italian border with France, have been campaigning to prevent the construction of a high-speed train track under their mountains to France which they claim would cause vast environmental damage.

The French end of the 57km-long tunnel, the longest through the Alps, is well under way. But on the Italian side, despite the agreement of all the main Italian political parties and the European Union, not one lorry-load of cement has yet been poured, not one metre of Alpine soil drilled out. And hours after Italy's Prime Minister, Mario Monti, reaffirmed his country's commitment to the project on Friday evening, protesters met in this valley town to reaffirm their commitment to thwart him.

Alberto Peroni, a veteran leader of the "No TAV" movement (TAV is the Italian acronym for high-speed train) who suffered a broken elbow from a policeman's truncheon in clashes last week, chose a tone of mockery for his defiance. "Dear Monti," he told the 1,000-plus campaigners crammed into the hall and more listening outside, "you are in Rome and you want to build the TAV. We are in the Susa Valley and we don't want it. We are people who don't give in."

If there was a touch of arrogance here, the movement has earned the right to it. Despite the dissent of some valley communities (bought off with money, the protesters claim), the majority has been behind the resistance for years: a week ago, 70,000 people turned out for a protest march, and now they are planning a general strike.

After years simmering away on the back burner, No TAV is suddenly front-page news nationwide. Last week one protester, chased by police, was electrocuted after climbing a pylon in a planned construction site and taken to hospital in a coma. This, as well as fierce clashes between police and protesters blocking major roads, triggered a wave of No TAV sympathy around the country, with small but disruptive demonstrations in more than 40 towns and cities. Against this, Mr Monti argues: "Do we want to let our peninsula sweetly drift, cut off from Europe, making it very difficult for the Italian economy to be competitive and create new jobs?"

The objections of the protesters are above all environmental: the mountains contain significant quantities of uranium and asbestos, and people fear the health consequences of a huge building site in the middle of the valley for at least 10 years that would unleash these poisons on them. They fear the drying up of the streams and springs that water the valley, as has happened, they claim, to towns with motorways built nearby, and the destruction of the valley's natural beauty. With the closing of local factories, Susa is more and more dependent on tourists drawn by the awesome splendour of the mountains. The valley's beauty, they fear, would vanish for ever.

In a bar in Bussoleno, a local engineer called Corrado explained the reason for the mood of angry defiance. "On the French side they took the locals into their confidence. They held a public inquiry and listened to their doubts and misgivings, so when the project got under way the community was behind it. Here there was no consultation, even though a public inquiry is a statutory obligation. They merely descended from on high and ordered work to get under way. No wonder people were alienated."

The same bullying approach was in evidence at Giaglione, a hamlet deep in the mountains that is a centre of the struggle. It is reached by a winding track through a wood that has sprung up on steep terraced slopes, formerly a vineyard. Walking down the track towards her allotment and cottage were Fatima Ipenza, from Peru, and a group of fellow protesters. Turning a corner, the path ahead was blocked by a steel-encased cement barricade draped in razor wire, installed last week. Ms Ipenza requested permission to visit her allotment: permission denied. Why, she pursued, had she not been notified that her land would be sequestered?

"It's for reasons of national strategic necessity," a policeman, who refused to identify himself, said from the other side of the barricade, "so there is no requirement to inform."

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