Balcombe, United Kingdom – It is a good day to test the defences of the protest camp that has sprung up on the outskirts of this southern English village, or the flood defences at least.Rain lashes down on the small cluster of tents gathered around a police-guarded entrance in the Sussex countryside that has become the unlikely frontline in Britain’s battle over fracking.
Protesters and police have confronted each other daily since last Thursday after energy company Cuadrilla was granted a licence to conduct exploratory drilling for oil, with activists attempting to block the road to stop lorries getting through the gates.
While numbers have ebbed and flowed, by Tuesday the camp had the feel of something established for the long haul with a few dozen dedicated protesters sheltering under awnings, plastic ponchos and bin liners, boiling kettles on gas cylinders, or poking the flickering embers of camp fires.
The protest at Balcombe has brought together a strange alliance of well-heeled residents of a village that lies in the political heartland of prime minister David Cameron’s right-wing Conservative Party, environmental campaigners and remnants of the Occupy movement that set up camp in London in 2011.
Located in a designated area of outstanding natural beauty amid forested rolling hills, campaigners are concerned that drilling could lead to a subsequent application by Cuadrilla to use fracking, the controversial process of injecting high pressure chemicals into shale rock to release natural gas.
Locally, there are fears that a nearby reservoir could be polluted, with a poll of residents suggesting 82 per cent oppose fracking on the site.
‘Exciting new resource’
But for many, Balcombe is part of a bigger struggle. A report last month by the British Geological Survey indicated the UK could be sitting on far greater shale gas reserves than previously estimated, with a survey of northern England alone indicating deposits totalling 1,300 trillion cubic feet.
At a time when the UK is acutely dependent on imported gas, Michael Fallon, the energy minister, hailed shale gas as”an exciting new potential energy resource”, with the government unveiling a package of measures intended to promote drilling and issuing 176 licences nationwide.
But Frances Leader, a 61-year-old grandmother, said the government should be encouraging investment in renewable sources of energy.
“This isn’t about one place, it’s about the whole country, and the future of the planet,” she told Al Jazeera. “We have the technology now to use renewable energy. We shouldn’t be developing new industries to pollute the planet. We should be developing new industries to unpollute the planet.”
Others expressed concern about the dual role of Lord Browne, the former head of BP, who now serves as both chairman of Cuadrilla and as a senior government advisor, and who said the company would spend “whatever it takes” to develop a UK fracking industry.
“That’s a conflict of interest right there,” said Tammy Samede, one of the “direct action” team on duty to block vehicles arriving at the site.
Several lorries passed through the gates on Tuesday, escorted by a phalanx of a few dozen police officers, outnumbering and overwhelming the handful of protesters who attempted to stand in the way.
Twenty-three people have been arrested since the standoff began, although there were no arrests on Tuesday.
But Samede accused the police of using heavy-handed tactics and of deploying snatch squads to arrest key organisers.
“The police are not crime fighting, they are doing private security work. They are there to protect and serve the people and it disturbs me to see our police using taxpayers’ money to facilitate the actions of Cuadrilla,” she told Al Jazeera.
Images of earlier confrontations also appeared to show police using the so-called”mandibular angle” technique, which involves pressing a pressure point behind the ear to incapacitate someone by causing pain, prompting a letter of complaint from Keith Taylor, the Green Party’s regional member of the European parliament, to the chief constable of Sussex Police.
In a statement , Sussex Police defended its tactics.”Our priority is to support the legitimate right of people to protest peacefully as well as uphold the legal right of the company to operate,” said Superintendent Lawrence Hobbs, the officer leading the operation.
“There has been some concern expressed about some of the tactics that officers have used. Some people have found the photographs dramatic but using pressure points is in fact one of the lowest levels of force. Officers are specifically trained to use this tactic to move people when necessary and it does not cause any lasting pain or injury.”
While many of those at the camp appeared to be experienced activists, several local residents were also on hand to lend their support.
Carl Lee, attending the protest with his young children, claimed to have discovered deeds to the land dating from 1893 forbidding any activities that caused excessive noise or noxious emissions.
He said he had complained to local planners and hoped protesters could use the document to obtain an injunction to halt the drilling.
“Everyone in Balcombe is totally like me for what is going on,” he told Al Jazeera. “They are bringing down food and stuff. We’ve got quite a few elderly people so it’s quite hard for them to get down, but it is a lovely village and we love our countryside. We can’t believe what is happening.”
Changes in the village
A spokesperson for Cuadrilla told Al Jazeera the company had followed all legal and regulatory procedures and obtained all necessary approvals to commence drilling.
He said the protests had delayed preparations by a day or two, but the company remained committed to beginning drilling as soon as possible.
Up the road in Balcombe itself, some villagers still seemed to be struggling to adjust to the scale of events unfolding a few hundred metres from their doorsteps.
In the village store, national newspapers splashed front page images of a female protester being dragged away by police, while the local parish magazine offered reports on the activities of the flower club, the gardener’s association and a bizarre editorial by the local rector about how his dog was “bombed out on Diazepam” after a hernia operation.
“This is a very busy village. There is always something happening,” said the woman on the counter. “Last week we had cricket week down at the pavilion. There was a hog roast and fireworks in the evening.”
Many locals had gone along to the camp in the evenings, she said, although the activities of the protesters had divided the village. But she said there were real concerns about the threat of pollution to the water supply and the flow of industrial traffic through the narrow streets.
Back at the camp, Frances Leader evoked the spirit of the Greenham Common women’s camp, a permanent protest site throughout the 1980s against the presence of US nuclear weapons on British soil, and said a core of protesters were prepared to stay in Balcombe as long as necessary.
“I care so much about the environment, and I want my grandchildren and my future great grandchildren to be able to see the things that I see,” she told Al Jazeera. “And I want my ancestors to be proud of me that I protected the things that they valued. If I sit at home and knit I will not achieve a thing.”
This article was originally published on Al Jazeera on 1 August, 2013.