Libya And Italy: Colonial Past, Future Business At Stake With Gaddafi’s Regime On The Brink

Libya And Italy: Colonial Past, Future Business At Stake With Gaddafi’s Regime On The Brink

Gaddafi and Berlusconi's "Special Relationship" helped close wounds of colonial past and expand economic ties. Some Italian businessmen are no doubt rooting for the regime to survive.

Berlusconi and Gaddafi in Rome in 2009 (Derek Visser)

The world is watching Cyrenaica, the Libyan region where the city of Benghazi is located. For Italian business interests, this is both a blessing and curse.

Italian companies have stayed mum during the current political upheaval that has its epicenter in Benghazi, but it is obvious that they support the stability offered by Col. Muammar Gaddafi's regime. It is just the latest example of just how economically entangled Europe and the West have been with the autocratic rulers in the Arab world now under assault from their own people.

Italy is Libya's top economic partner. Tripoli is Italy's primary supplier of oil, and number three provider of natural gas. Hydrocarbons account for 99 percent of Italian imports from the North African country. Italy exports to Libya include refined oil products and machinery. In 2009, trade between the nations totaled 11 billion euros, a steep drop from more than 20.3 billion euros in 2008.

But it was in Benghazi, in August 2008, that the two countries were supposed to have turned a page on the past, and pointed to ever deeper business ties in the future: Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Gaddafi met in the eastern coastal city to sign a "Friendship Treaty."

Now, the destiny of this treaty could become part of the collateral damage of the popular uprising in North Africa. Two years ago, in his Bedouin tent, the Colonel forgave Italy for its colonial past, having conquered and reigned over the Mediterranean nation in the first decades of the 20th century. In a far-reaching deal for both sides, Italy committed to pay $5 billion over 25 years to Libya as a compensation for its former military occupation. For its part, Libya vowed to take measures to curb the illegal immigration that set off from its shores across the Strait of Sicily; gave Italy access to its natural resources; and guaranteed to Italian companies $5 billion worth of contracts to build infrastructure over the next 20 years.

Theoretically, it was a great deal for Italian business. At the time, nearly 100 companies were already doing business in Libya: in oil, infrastructure, mechanics, capital goods, construction, and plant design. Eni Spa, the Italian national oil and gas conglomerate, has been in Libya since the 1950s with its subsidiary companies, Saipem and Snap Progetti. In 2007, the Libyan regime extended Eni's concessions for another 25 years and $25 billion worth of new investments.

There is also the Italian national energy provider Enel, with its subsidiary company Enel Power, as well as, Tecnimont, Finmeccanica, Iveco and others. In practice, thanks to the controversial friendship between Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Gaddafi, Italian companies were set to expand their business presence in Libya in sectors beyond energy. But many businesses were just getting started when the regional unrest began. Italian companies have plans to invest $3 billion in a 1,700 km motorway, stretching from the country's western border with Egypt to its eastern border with Tunisia. The first contracts for this deal were granted to Saipem. There is also a major project underway for Italian companies to help increase tourism along Libya's coastline.

So far, the protests in Libya have not directly affected Italian companies there. "There are no problems, all our installations are outside the big cities," an Eni spokesman said. (Families of Italian employees, however, began to leave the country Monday) The revolt, if successful, could spell the end of the "special friendship" between Rome and Tripoli. Finmeccanica, Italy's second largest industrial group, has one $1 billion worth of business deals scheduled in Libya. It has a $300 million electronics contract for the south, and two $750 million contracts to build a railroad with Ansaldo Sts. Meanwhile, Impregilo, Italy's leading General Contractor, has $260 million worth of deals planned.

Then, there are Libyan business interests in Italy, which are on the rise because of the close personal ties between Berlusconi and Gaddafi. The Colonel is the first shareholder in the banking group Unicredit, thanks to Libya's Central Bank holding 4.9 percent and the National Libyan Investment Authority (LIA) holding another 2.6 percent. Gaddafi's Lafico holding has 7.5 percent of the Turin-based Juventus soccer Club. LIA recently bought a one percent share of Eni Spa -- though it is was reportedly holding out to buy between 5 and 10 percent worth of shares -- as well as 2 percent of Finmeccanica.

The business interests of the two countries are so closely linked that the political upheaval underway in Libya -- particularly if there is an outcome like those seen in Tunisia and Egypt -- could have economic ramifications for both nations.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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